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Women's basketball trailblazer inspires at DII keynote session

Gail Marquis speaks on importance of molding leaders

As a basketball player at Queens (New York) in 1975, Gail Marquis asked her coach why their team couldn’t play in the legendary arena located in their home city. It didn’t matter to her that women could hardly even be found hawking hot dogs in the aisles at Madison Square Garden, much less taking center stage. Marquis had visions of taking the court.

The Division II keynote session featured Gail Marquis, a two-time All-American from Queens College (New York), Olympian and successful businesswoman.

Before a crowd of Division II administrators and student-athletes Friday, Marquis explained how those visions became reality — in that same year of 1975, no less — when Queens was invited to play in the first women’s basketball game in the Garden. The historic game is just one of many notable firsts in Marquis’ life on and off the court. The two-time All-American, Olympian and successful businesswoman shared her stories at the Division II keynote session of the NCAA Convention, emphasizing the challenges of being a leader and the importance of raising one.

“My coach had no idea that I would come out like this,” Marquis said of her college coach, Lucille Kyvallos. “She just saw me as a kid who always wanted to play.”

But her coach helped Marquis develop skills that would serve her well — beyond the basketball court. Kyvallos encouraged her young pupil to work a basketball camp for girls in Pennsylvania. There, Marquis realized that by teaching and serving others, she learned just as much as the girls she was instructing. And in the seasons that followed, basketball continued to bolster Marquis’ confidence.

She went on to make the 1976 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team, the first year women’s basketball was played in the Olympics. Calling Kyvallos to tell her the news remains one of her proudest moments: “I’m not coming home,” Marquis told her coach. “I made the team.” When she eventually did come home, she brought an Olympic silver medal with her.

With no options to play professionally yet in the United States, Marquis moved to France to continue her basketball career. She later returned and joined the first women’s professional basketball team, the New York Stars, which called Madison Square Garden home. Marquis was later the first African-American woman inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame.

After basketball, Marquis shifted her focus to Wall Street, working in the financial services industry. She is currently the director of community relations for the New Jersey City University School of Business.

Marquis used to hate the term “trailblazer,” but has come to embrace the moniker. “As a trailblazer, I realize that you are the visionary,” she said. “When people ask me, ‘How did you know you wanted to be on the Olympic team? Who was your role model?’ There was no Lucy Harris out there for me to say I want to play after, or a Pat Head. That’s who I was playing against. They couldn’t be my role models.

“I realized, I am the visionary. I put the ideas out there.”

Marquis urged the administrators in the audience to ask themselves how they can challenge their athletes to be leaders.

“You have no idea,” she told them, “how successful your student-athletes can be.”