The year was 1972, and 10-year-old Olivia Jones was growing tall, strong and well coordinated. She’d watch the boys play basketball and think, “I really like that.”
But would she ever get the chance to play the game herself? Opportunities for girls in team sports were rare, especially in schools.
Fortunately for Jones — though less so for her older sisters — along came Title IX.
Jones, nicknamed “O.J.,” wasn’t among the very first Albuquerque girls to play high school basketball. But, as the city’s most accomplished player during her three years at Sandia (1976-79), she and Manzano track athlete Val Boyer were the first breakout stars to make headlines in the city’s newspapers and bring girls’ scholastic athletics into the sunlight.
Now back living in Albuquerque after a playing career at Arizona State and a coaching career that took her to Indianapolis, Jones said she’s grateful for the doors Title IX — not to mention her own abilities — helped to open.
“I feel very fortunate having come along right at that time,” she said in a phone interview.
Jones’ father was in the military, and, she said, “We lived everywhere. We lived here (in Albuquerque) and then we moved to Georgia and then moved to California, Monterey. Then my dad retired and we moved back here.”
Jones played intramural basketball at Grant Junior High, not knowing what her basketball future held. Post-Title IX, the girls prep game got off to a halting start in Albuquerque.
But it did get started.
The first New Mexico girls state tournament was staged in 1973, with just one classification and no Albuquerque schools involved. Coach Ed Lee’s San Jon team took the title.
The girls game began to take root in 1973-74, with coach Steve Silverberg’s Eldorado Eagles dominating play. But how far behind was Albuquerque? Amistad — that’s right, Amistad — beat EHS in the semifinals en route to the 1974 state title.
Eldorado, led by Taryn Bachis and Susie Schuster, would take state the following year, the first of the Eagles’ 14 state titles. Meanwhile, at Grant, Jones was following closely the success of Delta State University star Lusia Harris — the most dominant player the women’s college game had seen and like Jones an African-American. Most women’s college teams at the time, including the University of New Mexico’s, had no Black players.
“I remember watching (Harris) play,” Jones said, “and I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s my idol. That’s who I (want to be).'”
At the high school level, in Albuquerque, that’s who Jones was.
Over her three-year Sandia career, Jones, standing 5-foot-11½, averaged 19.1 points per game.
Her senior career was beyond brilliant: 26 points and 14.3 rebounds per game. Jones was selected by the Albuquerque Journal as the 1978-79 Class AAAA New Mexico Player of the Year.
That April, she was named a third-team Parade All-American.
From Sandia, Jones was recruited to Amarillo (Texas) Junior College by Julienne Simpson, a member of the 1976 U.S. silver medal Olympic team. Simpson then was hired away as the head coach at the University of Cincinnati. But by the time Jones’ two seasons in west Texas were done, Simpson had taken the Arizona State job.
Jones enrolled at ASU. In her two seasons with the Sun Devils, she averaged 16.7 points per game and was a second-team All-Pac-10 choice as a senior.
Life for a college women’s basketball player back then, Jones recalled, wasn’t always easy. In Amarillo, she said, “We were traveling (to road games) in a van and had to stay four in a room, those kinds of things.”
Conditions were better at ASU, but, she said, “there still were a lot of barriers (compared to the men) … it came down to uniforms and shoes and equipment. We’d get maybe one pair of shoes. If something happened (to that pair), it was, ‘OK, we’ll see if we can get you another.”
Still, athletic scholarships paid for her education and paved the way to international travel and a coaching career.
In 1983, Jones and other ASU teammates, including former Eldorado star Beckie Smatana, played for USA Basketball in a Jones Cup competition in Taiwan. Playing for the Athletes in Action touring team, Jones went to the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, Germany and Switzerland.
“The sport has taken me all over the world,” she said.
After her playing days, Jones served as women’s head coach at Scottsdale and Mesa community colleges in the Phoenix area, sandwiched around a stint as an ASU assistant, then became an assistant at Butler University in Indianapolis.
Now, 50 years into Title IX, Jones looks back at her high school career and sees that as the start of something — and not just for her.
“Even if you don’t play (beyond high school), you still learn skills and you can coach or you can teach,” she said. “… You were not limited to wanting to be a nurse or those typical female-based careers.”
As Lusia Harris was for her, Jones was proud to have been a role model for any Albuquerque girls who might have seen her play, or read about her in the newspaper, and decided to try the game themselves.
“Just having those possibilities,” she said, “(with) the other women to look up to, and saying, ‘Hey, this is a possibility.’
“Sure, you can do this.”
OTHER NEW MEXICO TITLE IX HEROES
TARYN BACHIS: A star on coach Steve Silverberg’s first Eldorado state championship girls basketball team, Bachis went on to play at UNM and Kansas State. She coached a state championship volleyball team at Moriarty High School before moving to Albuquerque Academy in 1987. She has spent 35 years at Academy as a coach and administrator.
VAL BOYER: Boyer won six events as a sprinter-long jumper at the 1976 and 1977 New Mexico state track meets, leading Manzano to Class AA state title in ‘77. Boyer went on to compete at Arizona State and for the U.S. internationally. She was inducted into the Albuquerque (now New Mexico) Sports Hall of Fame in 2003.
As Valerye Boyer-Wells, she recently retired as a Mesa, Arizona city magistrate.
ANNE GILLILAND: She was a versatile track athlete at Del Norte — hurdles, high jump, long jump — from 1976-78. Gilliland, an Olympic heptathlon prospect, was killed at age 19 by a lightning strike while water skiing. The Anne Gilliland Memorial Scholarship was established in her name.
ELLEN HART: An outstanding age-group track athlete, Hart won the 1974 girls mile run for Albuquerque Academy at the second-ever New Mexico state girls track meet. Hart also starred in basketball for the Chargers, then participated in three varsity sports — basketball, soccer and track and field — at Harvard.
After a long and successful career as a runner, Hart, a Boulder, Colorado resident, later transitioned to triathlon.
Hart was the subject of a 1996 TV movie, “Dying to Be Perfect,” dealing with her real-life struggles with eating disorders. She has served on the President’s Council on Fitness and Sports.
SALLY MARQUEZ: Marquez played basketball and volleyball and ran track at Manzano. She was the first recipient of the George J. Maloof Award, a $1,000 scholarship intended for a high school student, male or female, who excelled in the classroom as well as in athletics.
She played four years of basketball at UNM, then was an assistant girls basketball coach at Eldorado and the head coach at La Cueva, moved to Virginia to earn a master’s degree in education administration, then returned to Albuquerque to begin a career in that field.
She has worked at the New Mexico Activities Association since 2004, the last decade as the NMAA’s Executive Director.