A true pioneer in the world of women’s basketball has passed on but leaves behind an indelible and trailblazing legacy that will not be forgotten.
Lusia “Lucy” Harris, a star in women’s college basketball in the 1970’s who became the first and only woman drafted into the NBA, died at the age of 66 on Tuesday.
The cause of death remains unknown.
To put it simply, Harris was The Queen of Basketball.
Born in 1955 in Minter City, Miss. at the height of racial segregation, Harris grew up in a family in which she along with all of her brothers and older sister Janie played basketball.
The game became a refuge for her and with it she achieved success early on that would carry her into adulthood.
At Amanda Elzy High School in Greenwood, Miss., Harris won the MVP three years in a row, led her team to the state tournament, was the team captain and scored a record 46 points in a game.
In 1973, Harris was recruited to Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. to play under legendary coach Margaret Wade and she arrived at a time when women’s participation in sports was skyrocketing due to the passage of Title IX in 1972.
It was in Cleveland that she helped lead Delta State to three consecutive national titles from 1975 to 1977 during the era in which the sport was governed by the Association of Intercollegiate Women Athletics (AIWA) before the NCAA began sponsoring the sport in 1982.
During her tenure, Harris essentially wrote the record book as she still remains Delta State’s career record-holder in points (2,891) and rebounds (1,662). She shot 63.3% percent from the field.
Harris played in 115 total games, averaging 25.9 points and 14.5 rebounds, and was a three-time All-American.
In 1976, women’s basketball made its Olympic debut at the 1976 Games in Montreal and Harris was an integral part of Team USA, which also included future hall-of-famers Ann Meyers Drysdale, Nancy Lieberman, and Pat Summitt.
Harris scored the first basket of the competition in a game against Japan and was the team’s leading scorer (15.2 points per game) and rebounder (7.0 boards per game) as the U.S. won the silver medal.
In 1977, Harris shattered the ultimate glass ceiling when the then New Orleans Jazz selected her in the seventh round of the NBA draft.
However, Harris turned down the offer, expressing intent on starting a family. It was later revealed that she was pregnant at the time and therefore wasn’t able to attend Jazz training camps.
She would never play a game in the NBA but would play in the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WPBL) during 1979–80 season for the Houston Angels. She helped open the door for women’s professional basketball and that impact is being felt today with the growth in popularity of the WNBA.
In her later years, Harris dedicated her life to coaching, teaching, and family.
She earned a master’s degree in education from her alma mater Delta State in 1984 and became an assistant coach. For two years, she was the head coach at Texas Southern University in Houston. Finally, she came home to Mississippi and worked as a high school teacher and coach at Amanda Elzy and Ruleville Central High School in Ruleville.
In 1992, Harris was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1999, she was among the 26 inaugural inductees into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn. and was the first Black woman to be inducted.
The inaugural class included her coach Margaret Wade and her Olympic teammates Nancy Lieberman, Ann Meyers Drysdale and Pat Summit.
In 2021, a short film documenting Harris’ life and career was released and entitled “The Queen of Basketball.” It was directed by award-winning director Ben Proudfoot and executive produced by Shaquille O’Neal.
The film sheds light on Harris’ triumphs and struggles to make it to the top and has generated glowing reviews. It has been nominated for an Oscar for best short documentary.
Harris’ impact goes beyond the hardwood, as explained by journalist Bria Felicien, founder of The Black Sportswoman, which highlights the histories and stories of black women in sports.
“Who could look at Lusia Harris’ 1976 Olympics performance, make the Team USA roster and not try to bring that same level of competition – or higher – in 1984,” she said. “She brought Delta State to the next level. She inspired future players in Mississippi. She inspired me to start an entire publication. Many people still aren’t fully aware of her story, so I don’t think the total impact of her contributions have been felt in full yet.”
Felicien went on to describe the context in which Harris played and how she has been largely overlooked by history.
“She was a true superstar, extremely dominant at a special time in women’s basketball history, when programs began relaunching women’s basketball at their schools or starting women’s teams for the first time” she said. “Before games were televised, before the NCAA decided to pick up women’s basketball. I think due to the time period in which she played, and the fact that she is a Black woman, she’s often overlooked for her impact on the game – despite dominating throughout her career at Delta State, and even at the Olympic level.”
Harris’ is one of tremendous grit, tenaciousness, determination, humanity, and humility.
While it is unfortunate that we just began learning about her in her final years, let this be a moment to finally appreciate and honor the struggle, sacrifice, and success of not just Black women in sports but Black women period.
From the Mississippi Delta to the Montreal Olympics. From the NBA to the coach’s box. And from the coach’s box to the classroom. Lusia “Lucy” Harris will forever be The Queen of Basketball.