When Felisha Legette-Jack ’89 saw her jersey hoisted to the rafters of the Syracuse University stadium in November, she was rendered speechless. “Stunned” was more like it. “I got emotional because all these memories came flooding back to me,” recalls No. 33, who is the first alumna to have her jersey retired by the University. “I don’t take it lightly because there are so many other people just as deserving.”
As the University marks 50 years of women’s athletics, almost any mention of women’s basketball includes Legette-Jack—the six-foot forward who, as a freshman, helped power the Orange to their first BIG EAST championship in 1985. Not even a devastating knee injury, which grounded Legette-Jack for most of the 1987-88 season, prevented her from owning the team’s scoring and rebounding records. “That injury was a God-wink because I started watching Head Coach Barb Jacobs from the sidelines. That’s when I became interested in coaching,” admits the Syracuse native, who earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology from the College of Arts and Sciences and human development and family science from the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics.
We recently caught up with Legette-Jack, who is in her 10th season as head coach of the University at Buffalo women’s basketball team. The winningest coach in that program’s history, she is equally at home at Syracuse, where she is a 2021 recipient of the Chancellor’s Citation for Excellence in Sports.
I hope that when people see my jersey number, they know what it stands for—servanthood, sisterhood, a love for family. No. 33 isn’t about me; it’s about us. As a student, I played for God, my family and myself. Syracuse University got the residuals of that. It’s made me who I am today.—Felisha Legette-Jack ’89
Congratulations on your jersey retirement, which coincides with your 33rd year of coaching. Has the honor sunk in yet?
I remind myself that I was just a kid from the projects who was raised by a single mom and wanted to go to Syracuse. I am proud that, years later, people think I’m worthy enough to have my jersey retired. I thank God as well as my family, coaches and teammates for this honor. It’s a lot to digest. It’s also humbling.
Title IX was passed in 1972 to afford men and women equitable opportunities in higher education, including sports. What does your jersey retirement say about our progress thus far?
We’re not there yet because Title IX is still evolving. Thankfully, we have people like Athletics Director John Wildhack ’80, who has personally apologized to me for the disparities between the men’s and women’s programs at Syracuse. He also is committed to doing something about it. The University is recognizing two other female student-athletes this year.
Do you think No. 33 will have the same significance as No. 44 at Syracuse?
I hope that when people see my jersey number, they know what it stands for—servanthood, sisterhood, a love for family. No. 33 isn’t about me; it’s about us.
As a student, I played for God, my family and myself. Syracuse University got the residuals of that. It’s made me who I am today.
Who inspires you?
My mom, without question. She raised five of us while working an hourly job at the VA hospital next to campus. She was very disciplined but handled everything with grace and a smile. She also was tough, someone who was small but carried a big stick. The only time I saw her cry was when her mom passed away.
Mom taught me that when people hurt you hard, you can do one of two things—come after them with a vengeance in your heart or pray for them. If there’s anybody I want to be like, it’s my mom: Thalia Legette. She’s living in the Loretto center in Syracuse, battling Alzheimer’s, but still thinks of me as her “baby.”
What do you remember about being a student?
The family atmosphere. Having lots of people in the stands cheering for us.
Manley Field House was a zoo, which gave us a home-court advantage. Second to playing to a packed house was being there when it was empty. The sound of the ball bouncing off the rim, the echo, was impossible to replicate.
Coach Jacobs, like my mom, understood the power of discipline and sisterhood. She was my safety net. Coach Jacobs didn’t bully us or make us act a certain way. She wanted us to succeed and have fun in the process.
What have your players taught you?
To make time for myself, to take a day off and smell a flower or two. They also remind me to laugh.
Many of my players follow the WNBA. It’s interesting to see how a growing number of NBA legends—and their daughters—are connecting more women to the game, increasing its credibility and fan base. Even if you don’t believe in gender equality, try thinking of us as your children, your own daughters. It’s one way to start leveling the playing field.