ATLANTA - Debbie Miller Palmore is a women’s basketball pioneer. With her recent nomination to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, her lifetime of accomplishments, on and off the court, are finally being recognized and acknowledged.
Growing up in the Bronx, she learned the game of basketball on the playground. Playing against the local boys in the neighborhood honed her skills and helped her develop into the player that she would ultimately become.
“I didn’t know that girls weren‘t supposed to grab the rim, or slap the backboard, or go between the legs”, said Palmore. “That’s what the guys were doing in the park that I was playing with.”
She didn’t play organized basketball until she reached high school, but it quickly became obvious that her style of play and skills were unique in the women’s game at the time. At a time when women’s college basketball scholarships were almost unheard of, she earned one to Boston University where she continued to standout. In four seasons with the Lady Terriers, she earned MVP honors each year. She scored 1,864 points during her B.U. career and had 1,198 rebounds. She averaged 20.0 points and 12.9 rebounds per game for her career and also had 477 assists, 428 steals and 260 blocked shots. She is in the B.U. Hall of Fame and is widely considered the greatest Lady Terriers basketball player in school history.
Those skills earned her a spot on the 1980 US Women’s Olympic team, a talented group that literally ran away with the pre-Olympic international competitions and was a favorite to win gold in the Moscow games. Then politics intervened.
In the midst of the Cold War, The Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan sparked international criticism. Then US President Jimmy Carter threatened to boycott the summer games if Russia didn’t withdraw its troops. They didn’t comply and he followed through with his threat, meaning all of the US Summer Olympians, including Miller, were not allowed to compete.
“Obviously we were salty about it”, said Miller. “We felt that the Olympics was supposed to be the one, ideal, apolitical event that goes on in the world for unity and here we were tampering with that balance. Needless to say we were disappointed.”
As a consolation, President Carter invited the athletes to a ceremony on the White House loan where they received Olympic medals.
Miller went on to play professionally overseas. She was a pioneer, serving as a general manager in the WNBA’s predecessor, the American Basketball Association. She has been a teacher and a coach, and she currently serves as the Program Director for two recreation leagues, Clairmont Presbyterian Church in Decatur, and Haygood United Methodist Church in Atlanta. Between the two programs she oversees 1,500 young basketball players playing on 158 teams.
In 1992, she started Top of the Key, to provide year-round support for basketball coaches, athletes, parents, schools, and organizations. Their stated purpose is to develop athletic, intellectual and spiritual dimensions of athletes and coaches through training camps, clinics, certification programs, motivational speaking and consulting. It’s a family business as both of her children Keenan and Kaci Palmore work with her. Her message is ‘Play with H.E.A.R.T’ (Humility. Excellence. Appreciation. Responsibility. Tenacity.). For more information go to https://www.topofthekey.com/.
Miller came up short on her first hall of fame ballot, but she feels it is an honor to be mentioned in the same group with the late Kobe Bryant and many other great players. The Class of 2020 will be unveiled during the NCAA Final Four in Atlanta, in April.
Meanwhile, congratulations to Miller and the entire 1980 Women’s Olympic Team, who received the Trailblazers Award and will be inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in Knoxville, TN, in June.