As Title IX turns 50, Pitt’s 1st women’s basketball star celebrates its impact

Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits gender-based discrimination in schools, turns 50 on Thursday.

While the law was in its infancy, Debbie Lewis was experiencing equality – in a painful way – on the playgrounds of suburban Philadelphia.

And it didn’t bother her a bit.

Lewis, the first great women’s basketball player at Pitt, has three brothers, two who are older, and when she tagged along, it wasn’t to watch.

“They would rough me up,” she said Wednesday evening after a full day of seeing patients at her dentistry practice on Penn Avenue.

She remembers the boys saying, “You want to play? OK, c’mon. ”

“You got hurt, you got hurt,” she said. “There were a couple times I went home with a bloody nose or something and my mother said, ‘Well, if that’s what you want to do. What’s the big deal? ‘ ”

Lewis played basketball at Abington High School – in those days, the game was a bigger deal for girls in the eastern part of the state than it was in Western Pennsylvania – and she earned a scholarship from Pitt in 1977.

The school’s women’s team was only three years old.

Lewis was at Pitt with many of the school’s all-time great athletes. Among them were basketball’s Sam Clancy and football’s Dan Marino and Mark May. During the summer, when sides for campus pick-up games were chosen, Lewis played in the same games with the men.

“Those guys were gung-ho,” she said. “I played pick-up games with Sam and (former Pitt basketball player) Dwayne Wallace. They allowed me to play with them. They just treated me like another basketball player. ”

Did they ever take it easy on the only female on the court?

“Absolutely never,” Lewis said.

Then, during the season, football players came to Fitzgerald Field House to watch the women’s games. All of sudden, there was an air of acceptance surrounding women’s athletics.

“The fact that Sam and Dan and some of the other football players got behind us was awesome,” she said, “because they would come to the games. Then, people started coming. ”

To this day, she calls Clancy “my big brother.”

“She was the first trailblazer,” said Clancy, now director of Pitt’s Varsity Letter Club. “At 5-foot-6, she was fast as lightning, could shoot, could handle, could play and was tough as nails.”

Lewis played through the 1982 season and still holds two single-game Pitt records that have never been broken – by men or women. She recorded 18 assists in one game and 10 steals in another. The best Pitt men have done in those categories are 16 assists (Levance Fields in 2009 and Bob Shrewsbury in 1976) and eight steals (George Allen in 1983).

Lewis is also the Pitt women’s all-time career assists leader (638) and is second in steals (250) and fourth in points (1,941).

“I loved stealing the ball, and I learned tricks on the playground about stealing the ball,” she said. “Assists, I loved passing the ball. There’s nothing greater than finding someone that nobody expected you to find. Those were things that just brought joy to me in playing the game. ”

Because of Title IX, Lewis never experienced many of the hardships endured by women who played before the legislation was passed.

“It gave the women an opportunity to do some things that the men had already been doing,” she said. You only played regional games because the finances weren’t there.

“With Title IX, it gave us the opportunity to open up the chance to see talent everywhere, to recruit talent from everywhere and to get some of the benefits that the men were already receiving.

“It was past due. The major reason women felt that way is that we were working just as hard as anybody else. We were practicing as many hours as the guys were practicing. We had to travel by bus. They had training tables where they had special meals. We had to eat just the regular meals.

“When it came about, it was ‘Hurray,’ but it was also, ‘Hey, it’s about time.'”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at or via Twitter .

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