By David Russell
Former Queens College women’s basketball coach Lucille Kyvallos was honored with the Joe Lapchick Character Award along with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on Friday at the Wyndham New Yorker Hotel. The hotel is minutes away from Madison Square Garden, where Queens College played Immaculata College in 1975 in the first women’s game at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
“It’s very thrilling to be honored with the Joe Lapchick Character Award and to have the history in Madison Square Garden,” Kyvallos said. “Interestingly enough when I was in high school one of the teams I played on won the city championship playing at the old Madison Square Garden which was on 50th street. Then the invitation to play in Madison Square Garden against Immaculata College was a major event and turning point. And now, here I am right across the street from that arena.”
When Kyvallos was in high school, Bryant didn’t have a girls’ basketball team, so she played in a recreation league. “In 1946, it wasn’t considered appropriate for a woman to walk through the streets of Astoria with a basketball under her arm,” said Cathy Andruzzi, who played for Kyvallos before becoming a coach. “So not to be denied the opportunity to play the game that she loved, young Lucille used her sewing machine to make a drawstring bag to put her basketball in, so when she walked through the neighborhoods of Astoria, Queens her basketball would be hidden.”
The game has come a long way since Kyvallos was playing and coaching. “Back then we were into breaking boundaries, moving the boundaries,” said Kyvallos, who amassed a record of 239-77 while coaching Queens College from 1968-79 and 1980-81. “I grew up in an era where there were assigned roles given to boys and girls. Girls played with dolls, boys played with trucks. I knew eventually, many, many years forward there might be a pro league or an intercollegiate basketball program for women but at the time I was so in the present, so busy solving problems, looking for opportunities bringing in talented teams from the other areas to compete with us.”
Queens College hosted a 16-team national tournament in 1973, which was one of the first times that the women’s game received national attention. Queens College lost to Immaculata in the title game.
“Having the national tournament come to this region was really exciting,” Kyvallos said. “No one knew, especially the men who were sportswriters, and coaches, and players, they didn’t know how women would react. They thought maybe if they scrape their knees they would cry and that wasn’t the case. Women were quite competent. They were in good physical shape, they had good shooting skills and passing skills. It’s taken a long time for the game to really mature and develop to the point it’s at right now.”
Kyvallos’ former players were on hand for the ceremony. “They were part of this whole movement,” Kyvallos said. “I was the coach and the leader. I was saying what we had to do but they were going through it. They had to learn how to work hard, they had to learn how to make a commitment to be responsible to the team.”