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Lusia Harris was ‘the GOAT you’ve never heard of’ and so much more

From college sports to the Olympics, Lusia Harris’s basketball accomplishments were many — and she was drafted by an NBA team. (Tony Krausz/The Delta Democrat-Times/AP)
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The word “pioneer” is being used to appreciate the athletic accomplishments of Lusia Harris, but that doesn’t capture the full scope of her life and achievements at a time when sports options for women were extremely limited.

Harris, who was known as Lucy and died Tuesday at the age of 66, was a member of the United States’ silver medal winning team at the 1976 Olympic Games, scoring the first points in Olympic women’s basketball history. She was the first Black woman inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. She was the first and, so far, only woman officially drafted by an NBA team, and “the GOAT you never heard of,” as Shaquille O’Neal described her last month.

“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,” her family said in a statement released by Mississippi’s Delta State University.

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A native of Minter City in northwestern Mississippi, Harris was the daughter of sharecroppers and led Delta State in nearby Cleveland, Miss., to three consecutive national championships in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women from 1975 to 1977. A 6-foot-3 center, she still holds the school’s career records for points (2,891) and rebounds (1,662) and was a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.

After Harris’s college career, the New Orleans Jazz, who had joined the NBA as an expansion franchise in 1974, selected her in the seventh round of the 1977 draft. Denise Long was drafted in 1969 by the San Francisco Warriors, but the pick was vacated by the league, so Harris remains the only woman officially drafted by a team.

But the NBA wasn’t for her.

“I just thought it was a publicity stunt and I felt like I didn’t think I was good enough,” she said in “The Queen of Basketball,” a short film about her life and career that was produced by O’Neal. “So I decided not to go. Yeah, I said no to the NBA.”

And that was that.

“The NBA, I don’t regret not going,” she said. “Not even a little bit.”

Her only games as a pro were with the Houston Angels in the Women’s Professional Basketball League playoffs in 1980, shortly after the birth of the first of her four children. Although she had no regrets about the NBA offer, she also expressed awareness that she was ahead of her time. Today, she would be a household name.

“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.”

After her playing career, Harris married her high school sweetheart, George Stewart, and raised her children. With no WNBA and no place to play, she had “a feeling of not wanting to be there,” she explained in the documentary, “not wanting to be where I am. I think it took its toll. I had a nervous breakdown and I had to return home.” She got a job at her alma mater, Amanda Elzy High, “and became the head coach there. I began to pick myself up.”

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She later learned she was bipolar and said of her past, “It seemed like all of that was a separate life.” Although she had clipped newspaper stories of her basketball fame, she never read them, she said, while she was playing. After her playing career ended, she opened her scrapbooks and even she had to admit it was “very impressive.”

Her children went on to become athletes and told her as they got older, “‘Mama, I didn’t know you was a star,’” she laughed. “I said, ‘Yeah, I had my days.’”

Ben Proudfoot, who made the short film, called Harris “one of the most important American athletes of the 20th century” and discovered a trove of film and images of Harris in her prime.

“I wondered how I had never heard of her, and where she was today,” Proudfoot said last spring (via Deadline). “And when I had the opportunity to visit with her at her home in Mississippi, it became clear that Lucy’s story was much more than just a basketball story, and Lucy far more than an elite athlete and pioneer, but a gifted and open storyteller with a clarion memory.”

In its statement, her family noted that “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.

“She will be remembered for her charity, for her achievements both on and off the court, and the light she brought to her community, the State of Mississippi, her country as the first woman ever to score a basket in the Olympics, and to women who play basketball around the world.”

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