It’s time to talk about The Queen of Basketball

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I’m ashamed to admit this.

After more than 24 years of life — and nearly a decade in sportswriting — I just, last week, learned about one of basketball’s most iconic figures: Lusia “Lucy” Harris, otherwise known as The Queen of Basketball.

She was a three-time collegiate national champion, an Olympian with a silver medal, a Hall of Famer and, perhaps most notably of all, the first and only woman to ever be drafted into the NBA.

And, sadly, I learned about her through her death.

On Jan. 18, Delta State University, Harris’ alma mater, announced her unexpected passing. She was 66.

“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. “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.”

When I heard the news, I’ll admit that I was taken aback.

A sea of questions entered my mind, including, but not limited to:

• A woman was drafted by an NBA team?

• When was she drafted?

• Were the rules different back then?

• Did she ever play a minute in the league? Or score a point? Or even sit on the bench during a game?

But perhaps my most burning question: Why hadn’t I heard her name?

I imagine there’s a good chunk of people reading this that, like me, also hadn’t heard of her until now.

So allow me to enlighten you.

Harris was born in Minter City, Mississippi, in 1955.

By the time she reached high school, she was a 6-foot-3 phenom her teammates described as “long and tall, but that’s not all,” Harris said in a 2021 documentary directed by Ben Proudfoot for The New York Times called “The Queen of Basketball.”

She was described as being able to “do it all,” blocking shots, getting rebounds and scoring points as she owned the paint no matter who she was playing against.

She went on to play for Delta State in Cleveland, Mississippi, which was a member of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), an organization founded in 1971 to govern women’s college sports. At that time, the NCAA only governed men’s sports.

While at Delta State, Harris averaged 25.9 points and 14.4 rebounds per game as she led the Lady Statesmen to three AIAW titles (back-to-back-to-back) and propelled her team to the forefront of the women’s sports world.

“The Macs tried to double and triple team the Statesmen’s 6-3 center Luisa Harris, but towering over her opponents, there was no stopping her…” wrote Mary A. Blackwell, writer for The Daily News Leader (Virginia), of Harris after Delta State’s first national title in 1975.

Before Harris was drafted, she made international history during the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal — the first to let women compete — becoming the first woman to score a basket in Olympic history in a contest against Japan, which the U.S. ultimately lost.

“Now that’s a record that’ll never be broken,” she said with a smile in the NYT doc.

When she graduated from Delta State in 1977, she said she had planned to start a family after marrying her high school sweetheart, George Stewart, before getting the call that she’d been drafted by the New Orleans Jazz (now the Utah Jazz) with the 137th pick in the 7th round of the 1977 NBA Draft.

That selection made her the first woman to be drafted by an NBA team — Denise Long was selected by the San Francisco Warriors in 1969, but the league voided it — etching her name into yet another portion of the history books.

But in a surprising move, she opted not to attend the Jazz’s rookie camp, expressing uncertainty about her ability to play against male players, along with her speculation that the pick was just a publicity stunt by Jazz General Manager Lewis Schaffel.

“The NBA, I don’t regret not going,” Harris said in the documentary. “Not even a little bit.”

With the WNBA having not existed until nearly two decades later, in 1996, her playing career essentially ended when she rejected the Jazz’s offer.

“If I was a man, there would have been options for me to go further and play,” she said in the documentary. “I certainly would have had money.”

In 1992, Harris — alongside Tennessee native Nera White — became the first Black woman to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for her accomplishments.

Her presenting speaker was Oscar Robertson, the player she grew up idolizing as a child.

Over the course of her life, Harris earned the titles of pioneer, trailblazer and badass.

When I watched Proudfoot’s documentary — and read numerous articles about Harris’ story — I felt both inspired and joyful, but also a little disappointed.

It stinks that it took so long for me to learn Harris’ name, awe at the storybook life she lived and realize the impact she had on women’s sports as a whole, but especially women’s basketball.

And it got me thinking: sports are full of iconic women similar to Harris.

Let’s not wait until it’s too late to celebrate them.

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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