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Remembering legend Lusia Harris, the only woman to be officially drafted by the NBA

U.S.A. center Lusia Harris finishes a basket in a game against Bulgaria, during the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, in Montreal, on July 20, 1976.
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U.S.A. center Lusia Harris finishes a basket in a game against Bulgaria, during the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, in Montreal, on July 20, 1976.

Athletes and admirersare paying tribute to Lusia Harris, the women's basketball legend who died Tuesday at age 66.

Harris may not be a household name, but her credentials speak for themselves: She led her college team to three championships in the 1970s, scored the first points in the history of Olympic women's basketball and was the only woman to be officially drafted by the NBA.

"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," the family said in a statement shared by Delta State University, her alma mater. "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."

Harris grew up the daughter of sharecroppers in Minter City, Miss. She recalled, in a 2021 New York Times documentary, staying up past her bedtime to watch basketball, draping a quilt over herself and the TV to watch Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and her other heroes.

"I wanted to grow up and have my own family, and I wanted to shoot that ball just like they were shooting," she said.

Harris was the tallest in her class at 6 feet, 3 inches, and she remembered being teased for her height. But as soon as she started playing basketball, she began to see it as her asset.

She matriculated to Delta State because — thanks to the passage of Title IX — it had a basketball program. She was the only Black member of the team and quickly became one of its stars.

"One of the greatest centers ever to play women's basketball, Lusia Harris-Stewart was big, relentless, and dominated the painted area like no woman before her," says her entry on the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame website. "During her four-year career at Delta State University ... Harris-Stewart changed the face of women's basketball. Opponents called her unstoppable but even that barely described her approach to the game."

Harris averaged 25.9 points and 14.5 rebounds per game in her 115 collegiate games, according to Delta State, and shot "an astonishing 63.3 percent from the field." She was part of three AIAW national championship-winning teams, in 1975, 1976 and 1977.

And she remains the university's career record-holder in points (2,891) and rebounds (1,662).

Harris collected Kodak All-American honors in 1975, 1976 and 1977 and was the Mississippi Sportsperson of the Year in 1976.

She went on to represent the U.S. at the 1976 Olympics, the first Games to feature women's basketball. There she made the first basket of the first match, putting her team on the scoreboard and her name in the history books. The team took home a silver medal.

But when college ended, it looked like her days on the court would, too.

"I wanted to keep playing, but there was no place to go," she told filmmakers. "There was no WNBA when I came along. It didn't exist."

Harris got engaged to her high school sweetheart and set out to start a family. In 1977, however, she got a call from the New Orleans Jazz asking her to try out for the team.

Only one woman had ever been drafted by the NBA before: Denise Long was selected by the San Francisco Warriors in 1969, but the pick was vacated by the league. And Harris wasn't sure the opportunity was right for her.

"I just thought it was a publicity stunt, and I felt like I didn't think I was good enough," Harris said. "Competing against a woman, yes. It's a different story competing against a man. So I decided not to go."

In the short film, Harris described struggling with her mental health, returning home to take a coaching job at her old high school and raising her kids. But she didn't regret turning down the NBA.

"Not even a little bit," she said. When asked why, she pointed to the accomplishments of her children: One is a lawyer, one has a master's degree, two have their doctorates. All are athletes.

Harris cemented her place in basketball history long after her playing career ended.

She was inducted into the Delta State Sports Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1990, and she is also a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.

In 1992, she became the first female collegiate player and first Black woman inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and was escorted at the ceremony by Oscar Robertson, her childhood idol.

"If I was a man, there would have been options for me to go further and play," she told the filmmakers. "I would have had money, would have been able to do a lot of things that I would have wanted to do. Yeah, they're millionaires, famous. But I wanted to grow up and shoot that ball just like they would shoot it, and I did."

This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.