Meet Mississippi's Queen of Basketball, Lusia Harris: The Only Woman Drafted by the NBA

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LUSIA HARRIS (DUNKING)
LUSIA HARRIS (DUNKING)

ABC Photo Archives / Contributor/Getty Images

In the mid-70s, Lusia Harris transformed a new basketball team at Delta State University into three-time national champions. She scored the first points in Olympic women's basketball. She was the first Black woman inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. And she was the only woman drafted by the NBA.

If people don't recognize Harris's name, they'll recognize the arc of her story, which – for too long – bended toward anonymity. She was underestimated for being a Black, female athlete, and the talents she gave the world outnumbered the opportunities it gave back. Then, she was torn between a career she loved and the children she hoped to have. Today, half a century later, they're still familiar stories.

A new short documentary corrects the record, introducing the world to the athlete they should know. In The Queen of Basketball, directed by Ben Proudfoot, Harris shared her story in her own words. The documentary, now nominated for 2022 Academy Award, premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.

"It's way overdue," Proudfoot says. "People are reassessing history, especially here in America. We're looking back at our history and saying, 'Maybe there are some other narratives that I may not have been aware of or other perspectives that are the real context.' Lusia's story fills in a huge gap in basketball history."

What a story it was. Harris's parents were sharecroppers in Mississippi, and she and her ten siblings helped them pick cotton after school. Her love of basketball began early. Their yard had a homemade basketball hoop, and at night, she stayed up watching Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Oscar Robinson play on TV. Later, Harris progressed from her backyard hoop to the hoops at her high school, and then to the ones at Delta State. Harris was the college's only Black player (the school had a whites-only admission policy until 1967), and the team's camaraderie on the court didn't extend to her off the court.

Delta State University vs Louisiana State University, 1977 Lusia Harris
Delta State University vs Louisiana State University, 1977 Lusia Harris

John G. Zimmerman / Contributor/Getty Images

During her junior year, women's basketball became an Olympic sport. Harris not only made Team USA, but she came home from Montreal with the honor of the first points scored and a silver medal around her neck. The following year, NBA's New Orleans Jazz drafted her. Harris declined. She thought it might be a publicity stunt. She was also was ready to start a family. Without a WNBA, she had no other place to pursue basketball. Harris settled into life in Greenwood, Mississippi, where many of her friends didn't even know she was a basketball great. She wasn't the type to mention it. Harris talked more about her children, who carried on her work ethic and talent: All earned advanced degrees – there's a law degree, a master's degree, and two doctorates between them – and all four are athletes.

Still, it's hard to resist wondering how far Harris could've gotten.

"If I was a man there would've been options for me to go further and play," Harris says in the documentary. "They're millionaires, famous. But I wanted to grow up and shoot that ball just like they could shoot it. And I did."

Last June, Harris and her family attended the Tribeca premiere of Queen of Basketball. During the screening, word spread that Harris was in the audience. When the movie ended, the audience turned to give Harris a standing ovation. A long line formed of people who waited for the chance to meet her.

Just seven months later, Harris died unexpectedly at just 66 years old. But before her death on January 18, 2022, she got her time in the spotlight. People learned the name of Lusia Harris, one of history's most significant athletes.

Look at it one way, and Harris's story is about a woman who didn't get to show the world how great a player she could've been, had only a professional women's league existed. But Proudfoot believes there's another way to look at her story.

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"Hers is also a story of somebody who loved basketball and got to play it for thousands of people, who got to win again and again, who traveled to the Olympics, and who achieved both of her dreams: one to shoot like those basketball players she saw on TV, and the second to start her own family of extraordinarily successful kids," Proudfoot says. "Ms. Harris did everything that she wanted. And even though she left us way sooner than she should have, I don't think she was an unsatisfied person. I think she was very satisfied."