Lusia Harris, ‘Queen of Basketball’: First woman drafted into NBA

Jude Papillion, Sports Editor

In the 1977 NBA Draft, the New Orleans Jazz selected a 6-foot-3 center out of Delta State University with the 137th overall pick. The difference between this individual pick, and all others in NBA history, is that the Jazz selected a woman. Her name was Lusia Harris, and while she never appeared in an official NBA game, she was a force to be reckoned with on the court. 

Harris was born in 1955 in rural Mississippi and spent a lot of time picking cotton as a child. Her parents were both sharecroppers, and she was the 10th of 11 children including six brothers. 

On June 10, 1977, Delta State University’s Lusia Harris became the first and only woman to ever be selected in the NBA Draft. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer was selected 137th overall by the New Orleans Jazz. (Maggie Pasterz)

Harris also spent a lot of time playing basketball with her siblings and was recognized as a phenom as early as high school, where she was an all-state athlete, won most valuable player of her team three consecutive times and served as team captain. 

Harris modeled her game off of Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson, and her dominance on the floor only continued to strengthen as she moved onto college. She attended Delta State, and because Title IX did not exist at the time, she attended the university with a combination of work-study funds and academic scholarships.

In the 1973-74 season, her freshman year, Harris led Delta State to a 16-2 record. While the NCAA did not have a women’s basketball tournament until 1982, the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women did. The Lady Statesmen finished third in the regional tournament and did not make the national tournament her first year in college. 

The next year, however, Harris and Delta State made the national tournament and advanced all the way to the title game against Immaculata University, who was defending three straight titles. Harris’ finished her sophomore campaign by scoring 32 points and grabbing 18 rebounds to beat Immaculata for the AIAW national title and a perfect 28-0 record. Harris was named MVP of the tournament. 

In her junior season, Harris and Delta State again faced Immaculata in the title game. The result was the same and Delta State won the AIAW championship after Harris scored 27 points and collected 18 rebounds in the 69-64 victory. That year, Harris led all of collegiate women’s basketball in scoring, posting an average of 31.2 points per game and 1,060 points total. 

Her senior season included a 47-point game at Madison Square Garden and a third consecutive appearance in the national tournament title game, this time against LSU in 1977. Harris scored 23 points and compiled 16 boards to lead the Lady Statesmen to their third straight national championship, beating the Tigers 68-55. Harris was again named the tournament’s MVP. 

Harris’ college career was truly impressive. It was even more impressive considering the fact that she was the only Black player on her team, and that Delta State’s arena was and still is named after white nationalist Walter Sillers Jr

Despite the challenging times during which she played, both as a woman and as a person of color, Harris averaged 25.9 points and 14.4 rebounds over her college career, compiled a 109-6 record, was named first-team All-American three times and left Delta State with 15 of 18 of the team’s single game and career records. 

Harris’ basketball abilities did not detract from her educational experience, and she graduated from Delta State with a bachelor’s degree in health, physical education and recreation in 1977.

While still in college, Harris was selected to compete on the United States national team. She began competing in international tournaments in 1975 starting with the FIBA World Championship for Women in Colombia, where the United States finished in eighth place with a 4-3 record, and in the Pan American Games in Mexico City, where the United States finished undefeated to win their first gold medal since 1963. 

Harris represented the United States again in the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics. Wearing number seven, she scored the first ever points in Olympic women’s basketball in the United States’ opening game against Japan. Harris earned a silver medal after the United States went 3-2 behind her team-high average of 15.2 points and 7.0 rebounds across all five games. 

On June 10, 1977, the NBA held its annual draft at Madison Square Garden, where Harris once dropped 47 points in a game during her college days. In the seventh round with the 137th overall pick, the New Orleans Jazz selected Harris. There were 33 male players drafted after Harris’ selection. 

It should be noted that Harris was technically the second woman drafted into the NBA. The first was Denise Long, a phenom in her own right who in 1969 was drafted by the Golden State Warriors straight out of Iowa’s Union-Whitten High School when she was just 19 years old. 

A 5-foot-11 forward, Long consistently scored over 100 points in individual high school games and specialized at shooting the deep ball in an era where the 3-point line did not even exist yet. However, NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy vetoed Long’s selection because the NBA did not allow women or players straight from high school to be drafted. 

The NBA did not veto the Jazz’s selection of Harris, and she became the first and only woman to ever be drafted by an NBA franchise. Despite her remarkable basketball skillset and having the opportunity to compete on a professional team with the likes of “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Harris never played a game in the NBA. She declined to try out for the Jazz because she was pregnant at the time she was drafted and was unable to participate in the team’s training camp. 

Harris’ only experience at the professional level came as a member of the Houston Angels in the Women’s Professional Basketball League for the 1979-80 season. After she had given birth, she was the No. 1 free agent in the league’s inaugural season. 

Harris’ lack of playing time as a professional basketball player should not overshadow her achievements at Delta State and her selection in the NBA Draft. 

In 1992, she became the first Black woman and the first female college player to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Harris was later inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and in 1999 was inducted into the inaugural class of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame

After her playing days ended, Harris worked as an admissions counselor and assistant basketball coach at Delta State, and in 1984 she received her master’s degree in education from her alma mater. She then became the head coach of Texas Southern University’s women’s team before moving back to Mississippi to become a high school teacher and coach. 

Harris passed away at 66 on January 18, 2022 in Greenwood, Mississippi, but the legacy she left behind as both a person and a women’s basketball pioneer should not be forgotten and deserves more attention. 

Pat Summitt, Naismith Hall of Fame coach at the University of Tennessee and an Olympic teammate of Harris described her as “the first truly dominant player of modern women’s basketball, 6-foot-3 and 185 hard-muscled pounds of pivoting, to-the-rim force.” 

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