by Fiona Carmody, Special to On the Issues
Queens, New York, “From locker room to boardroom is a very real concept,” says legendary Queens College women’s basketball coach Lucille Kyvallos, who at 80 is now retired. “Those young women who participate in athletics, I think, have a better chance of doing things, doing better, in the business world and in their work professions.
Kyvallos (or Ms. K, as she has always been called by her students) and the women she once coached on the first Queens College women’s basketball team are proof of this. Recently, two of them stood on stage with Ms. K at their alma mater, a City University of New York senior college, as they were inducted into the school’s new Athletics Hall of Fame.
These women included Gail Marquis, who was on the first women’s Olympics basketball team in Montreal in 1976 and also played for the New York Stars in 1980, when they became the first women’s team to play in Madison Square Garden. Next to Marquis (and not too shabby herself) was Donna Orender, who played three seasons as an All-Star point guard in the Women’s Professional Basketball League. In her early days Orender was, according to Gail Marquis, “a rookie with a jumpshot.” Both Marquis and Orender are now successful businesswomen. Marquis is now an insurance and financial sales professional for the New York firm of Lee, Nolan and Koroghlian. Orender has had an impressive career in sports media.
Kyvallos says that playing sports early in their lives may have been the starting point of the professional successes of these former students of hers; she says that there is a “psychological confidence” required of any good sports player that undoubtedly helps them to succeed in the professional workplace.
“I feel that I can directly attribute the success, the confidence that I felt and achieved in my life to everything I learned here,” said Orender, who served for six years as president of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).
Coach Kyvallos was a groundbreaking administrator who, with limited resources, coached and transformed the college’s victorious women’s basketball team in 1968. The team chalked up an impressive national winning streak in 1972-73, and her coaching led them to become the first women’s team to play at Madison Square Garden. In 2004, the Queens Colleges Women’s Knights also became the first women’s team to be inducted into the NYC Basketball Hall of Fame.
But Marquis’ victories and the many others that came along with them (for example, being the first African-American woman inducted into the NYC Hall of Fame, as well as a two-time All-American) did not signal the end of Marquis’ winning streak. After leading the French Olympique d’Antibes team to various victories for three years, she finished school at Queens College and went on to Wall Street, where she challenged herself in finance, as she once had in basketball. Marquis used the resources she had to move with strength and determination from an entry-level administrative position to her current one.
Orender, for her part, went from playing ball to working in sports. She began her network TV sports career as a production assistant at ABC Sports, moving from there to the Sports Channel and then to an executive position at the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour. At the PGA she oversaw global television production and digital media for seventeen years. It was in 2005 that she became the President of the WNBA. She has been named one of Fox News’ “Top 10 Most Powerful Women in Sports”, and was one of Business Week’s “100 Most Influential People in Sports.” Today, she runs Orender Unlimited: her own marketing, media, and strategy company, based in Jacksonville, Florida.
Kyvallos herself learned to persevere and compete for what she wanted at a very young age, playing sports with the neighborhood boys on the streets of Astoria in the 1940s. Her own “psychological confidence” began to develop when she realized her physical abilities in this setting, when she was “nine, ten years old, playing stickball and…all the street games where [she] learned the fundamentals of movement.”
She was a bit older when she began to go down to her neighborhood playground to participate in basketball. Soon she understood what would define the course of her life: “Girls and women really needed to have competition in order to deal with the [life] issues that come with training for a sport,” she said. Issues like hard work and rising to the occasion, and being assertive and competing, basically. She would eventually impart this philosophy to the players on her team.
Indeed, both her Marquis and Orender seem have internalized this connection between physical ability and psychological confidence. Kyvallos says she had to emphasize this for their basketball team to become champions at a time when the concept of women in sports was so new and the skepticism surrounding their teams was so high.
What I loved about sports was the self-confidence that it gave me, said Marquis. She explained that her transformation from an awkwardly tall and insecure adolescent to a self-assured go-getter started when sports taught her there was a place for her, that she was valuable and important and deserved to win because that value was a static thing. Her value lay in her skills and capabilities and in who she was and what she brought to the team, not anything superficial like (as she puts it) hair and make-up, and [her general] appearance. Her self-confidence became an essential, permanent thing, like her value to a sports team, or to any team.
You learn you have a place, [and to] be yourself, she said, adding that as you move into the business world, often you’re by yourself. When I moved into the business world I might have been one African American moving up the ladder. I might have been one of just a couple of women. Either way, you know there’s a place for you. Nobody said it would be easy but if you want it, go for it.
Her teammate Donna Orender knows this too. From her own experience in sports, she agrees with Marquis that she can directly attribute the success, the confidence that [she has] felt and achieved in [her] life to everything [she has] learned, on the court. She observed, “There’s no doubt that building and learning to be part of a team and to work as a team, you learn playing team sports….[and] that is the success of corporate America today. It’s the way they build teams and drive results.”
And so, sports are, of course, something these women recommend for young women, girls, and for young men and boys, too. Orender says that she always advises “anyone I know to have their kids work in a team environment.”
To this, Kyvallos added: “One of the most valuable experiences a young woman can have is to participate in a well-run athletic program because it teaches them discipline, it teaches them hard work, it teaches them to rise to the occasion, it teaches them to come back when they’re losing or to stay focused, and it teaches them courage, really.”
On Athletics Hall of Fame night, as Kyvallos’ own courageous women athletes stood on stage as successful, powerful, confident professionals who never stopped rooting for themselves or each other, the real victory of their sports playing and Kyvallos’ coaching was clear.
And as they held their Hall of Fame plaques and smiled for the cameras, the crowd applauded with great sports-like enthusiasm.
Fiona Carmody works in social media at RH Reality Check and at On The Issues. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.