The name Lusia Harris is not a household one, but it should be. She was the first and only woman drafted to the NBA. Before her unexpected death was announced on social media on Jan. 18, only the most avid basketball fans knew who she was. That was set to change on Feb. 8 when the world would learn whether “The Queen of Basketball” would receive an Oscar nomination. Executive produced by Shaquille O’Neal, the short documentary highlights Harris and introduces her to a generation that is largely unaware of the pioneer that was ahead of her time.
Although they hadn’t met in person, the Lakers superstar spoke fondly of the 6’3 center in several interviews where he discussed the project and his desire to shed long overdue light on her career. Speaking with Deadline back in December, Shaq spoke of finally bringing the Delta State star into the limelight. “She’s a power center. I’m a power center. She was dominant. For a long time, she was denied the limelight, denied the sponsorships and denied the recognition she deserved.” It was the endearing portrayal of the 3-time national champion and trailblazer whose legacy was all but forgotten that shook O’Neal to the core. Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ben Proudfoot, the documentary drew tears from the four-time NBA champion. “It kind of made me cry,” he added. “I don’t usually cry at movies. But I said to myself, ‘I got to do whatever it takes to bring this story to the world.’” He signed on as executive producer and has been using his star power to bring awareness to the project ever since.
In her final interview, four days before her untimely death, Harris spoke with USA Today about meeting 15-time NBA All-Star in person. “I have read some of the comments that he’s said, and I am very honored and pleased and overwhelmed. I think his platform can do a lot to promote this documentary. I’m certainly looking forward to meeting Mr. O’Neal.” Unfortunately, this meeting of the basketball minds will never happen. The legend’s four children were planning their mother’s meeting with O’Neal as a surprise. Like it had so many times before in her life, time proved to be an adversary.
It’s a weird thing – time, that is. When you rattle off the endless list of accomplishments, it’s the element of time that makes it even more impressive. Born in Minter City, Mississippi, Harris was one of five daughters and the 10th of 11 children born to Ethel and Willie. After an All-Star career, plans to attend Alcorn State University fell a part as they did not have a women’s basketball team. Instead, she chose to take her talents to Delta State and the basketball team that was being restarted.
This was before the days of Title IX, which secured educational funding for women through athletic scholarships. Her tuition was taken care of by a combination of academic scholarships and work studies. She led the Lady Statesmen to three straight national championships in her final three years; they took down powerhouses such as Louisiana State University. Along the way, the 1975 team was the only undefeated college hoops team in the country that season – men or women. Her junior year, her 1,060 points led the nation in scoring and included a 58-point performance against Texas Tech. In her final season, Delta State played in one of the first women’s basketball games in Madison Square Garden. By the time she left college, Ethel and Willie’s daughter had encompassed a 109-6 record and held 15 of 18 of Delta State’s team, single game, and career records. Additionally, she was a first team All-American her final three years and was awarded the first ever Honda-Broderick Cup for her achievements. She did all of this as the team’s only African American player and playing in a home arena named after known White Nationalist Walter Sillers, Jr. The arena still bears the name to this day.
While still in college, Harris got a taste of international basketball when she was named to the United States national team that competed in the FIBA World Championship in Colombia and the Pan American Games in Mexico City in 1975. After finishing 8th in the FIBA Championships, she earned a gold medal in the Pan American Games. In the 1976 Summer Olympics, she scored the first ever points in women’s Olympic basketball tournament history against Japan. The U.S. went on to win the silver medal.
Although she never actually played in the NBA, Harris became the first – and only – woman drafted to the league when the New Orleans Jazz selected her with the 137th overall pick. However, she declined the tryout and later revealed that she was actually pregnant at the time. She later got a taste of the professional scene when she played with the Houston Angels of the Women’s Professional Basketball League for the 1979-1980 season. Following her playing career, the power center dabbled in coaching. After serving as assistant coach at Delta State, she became the head coach at Texas Southern University for two years before returning to Mississippi to teach and coach at her high school alma mater. Her highly decorated career also included induction into several halls of fame. In 1992, she became the first African American woman inducted in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and was a part of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1999.
With the WBL only lasting three seasons, and the WNBA merely a dream, Harris’ basketball career – and her legacy – all but faded into distant memories as time moved on. She had boatloads of talent, but no place to showcase it. Settled into married life and raising her four kids, she recognized the honor of being drafted to the NBA but says she had other plans. “I think I had other ideas at that time. I don’t think that I was really ready to play against a men’s team. I had my family in mind. I wanted to be with my family,” she once said.
Despite her dominance, basketball simply did not afford the standout much stability. It’s a dilemma that still plagues professional women’s basketball players. With a huge pay gap, many WNBA stars must count on playing overseas to supplement their salaries. That comes with long periods of absence from their families. However, she did acknowledge the blessings that her prowess on the hardwood afforded her as she fondly recalled the relationships she developed with teammates as well as the places she got to visit and play in. Although her name is forever etched in numerous record books, the Mississippi native said she feels that many aren’t familiar with her story due to the lack of national televising of women’s games. “Women’s basketball has come a long way, and I think it has a long way to go … For one thing, we get a chance to see women play on TV a whole lot more. That was unheard of when I was playing,” she told USA Today. “As far as having a long way to go, salaries could be better. Salary-wise, there is no comparison when it comes to WNBA and NBA players.”
However, O’Neal sees things a bit differently as it pertains to the Delta State legend’s story. His involvement with the documentary is to showcase how “women athletes, especially Black women athletes, have been historically short-changed and denied opportunities.” With no “next level” to exhibit her talents, Harris focused on education – namely when it came to her children who all went on to be athletes themselves. The Queen of Basketball also touches on another current hot topic – athletes and mental health – as the hall of famer discussed her bipolar diagnosis. All in all, she was pleased with the project – and the life choices that she made. Harris had no regrets.
“The NBA, I don’t have any regret not going, not even a little bit,” she told EBONY. “If I was a man, there would have been options for me to go further and play. I certainly would have had money, would have been able to do things, a lot of things that I would have wanted to do. I wanted to grow up and shoot that ball just like they shoot it, and I did.”
Even if you had no clue who Lusia Harris was before scrolling on Twitter on Jan. 18, you do now. It is because of pioneers like her that little girls can dream of hoisting up a jersey on Draft Night or being sprinkled with confetti as they win WNBA titles. Although taken too soon, the world is a better place because of her – hoop or not.