Lusia Harris, first and only woman officially drafted by the NBA, dies at 66

Lusia Harris, first and only woman officially drafted by the NBA, dies at 66

Lusia Harris, a women’s basketball trailblazer, has died at the age of 66, her alma mater Delta State announced Tuesday. Harris was the first — and only — woman officially drafted by an NBA team and scored the first bucket in women’s Olympic basketball history.

“We are deeply saddened to share the news that our angel, matriarch, sister, mother, grandmother, Olympic medalist, The Queen of Basketball, Lusia Harris has passed away unexpectedly today in Mississippi,” Harris’ family said in a statement. “The recent months brought Ms. Harris great joy, including the news of the upcoming wedding of her youngest son and the outpouring of recognition received by a recent documentary that brought worldwide attention to her story.”

At center, Harris played basketball collegiately at Delta State, leading the team to three straight AIAW national titles from 1975-1977. She was named MVP in all three seasons and won the first-ever Honda Sports Award for basketball in her final year. Harris averaged 25.9 points and 14.4 rebounds per game in college, lifting Delta State to a 109-6 record during her tenure; she’s still the school’s record holder for career points (2,981) and rebounds (1,662).

Harris was named to the US women’s national team in 1975 and went on to play in the 1976 Olympics — the first year women’s basketball was included in the Games. She scored the first points of the first game of the tournament, with the US eventually taking the silver medal behind the Soviet Union squad.

The following year, she was selected by the New Orleans Jazz with the 137th pick of the 1977 NBA Draft, but declined to try out for the team — she was pregnant at the time. She was technically the second woman ever drafted by an NBA team after the San Francisco Warriors selected Denise Long in 1969, but that pick was voided.

Harris’ only professional games came in the 1980 Women’s Professional Basketball League playoffs for the Houston Angels, shortly after she had her first of four children. After her playing career, Harris held multiple collegiate coaching positions.

She was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, becoming one of the two first women to enter the hall alongside Nera White. In June 2021, a documentary short about Harris titled “The Queen of Basketball” debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival.

What was Harris’ impact on the game?

Shannon Ryan, women’s basketball managing editor: Immaculata College was the team to beat in the early 1970s, winning three straight national titles from 1972 to 1974. That was a motivation for Harris and Delta State, who eagerly wanted to knock off the Mighty Macs. The Lady Statesmen earned acclaim for dethroning the fields behind Harris’ 32 points and 16 rebounds in the 1975 title game.

Harris went on to win two more AIAW national titles, again over Immaculata in 1976 and over LSU in 1977, giving women’s basketball fans a new Goliath to help expand the sport.

Harris played with gusto. Her 47 points in a regular-season game at Madison Square Garden were hard to ignore, even in an era that was especially adept at tuning out women’s sports. She led the nation in scoring and averaged 31.2 points per game, including a 58-point performance against Tennessee Tech in the 1975-76 season.

At 6-foot-3, she could do it all. “I think she’s special because she can do about anything,” a former teammate says in the documentary. “She drives, she rebounds, she jumps, she blocks shots. She’s tough.”

In the Olympics, Harris’ solid play helped give credibility to the new sport’s deserved place in the Games. She took pride in being a footnote in history as the first player to score in an Olympic women’s basketball game. “Now that’s a record that will never be broken,” she said in the documentary.

What is Harris’ legacy?

Ryan: Like so many women pioneers, Harris’ legacy has remained mostly in the shadows.

Born to Mississippi sharecroppers, Harris dreamed of shooting like her idol Oscar Robertson. Neighborhood kids gathered at her home because she and her siblings had a makeshift hoop — more than anyone else had.

Like so many talented players who became stars, Harris didn’t set out to create history, gain fame or make money. She only achieved one of those things anyway. She simply loved the game and wanted an opportunity to play, and even that eventually became hard to find.

Who knows how many previous generations of players like Harris we missed out on because the opportunity was denied to women athletes? What more might Harris have achieved if there had been a WNBA then? While she couldn’t help but wonder that, too — she says in the documentary she had a “nervous breakdown” after she stopped playing in college — she didn’t regret having four successful children. But wouldn’t it have been nice for Harris and players like her to at least have had a choice?

Harris was an undisputed powerhouse player, who in subsequent decades would have been a household name. She may have been a star like those idols she watched on TV as a little girl long past her bedtime.

“If I was a man, then there would have been options for me to go further and play,” she said with a laugh in the documentary. “I certainly would have had money. I would have been able to do a lot of things I would have wanted to do.”

WNBA players walk onto a court now because of a door many didn’t even know Harris helped pry open but never got to walk through herself. The WNBA should honor Harris this season, and women’s college basketball should make special note of Harris throughout the NCAA Tournament.

Harris said she was happy she achieved what mattered most to her. “I wanted to grow up and shoot the ball just like they did,” she said. “And I did.

(Photo courtesy of Delta State press release)

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