She may not be as familiar a name as other pioneers in women’s basketball, like former L.A. Sparks star Lisa Leslie or former WNBA star and University of South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley. But Lusia Harris helped paved the way for them and for the WNBA, which just recently signed a new collective bargaining agreement, guaranteeing its players much more money.
Harris was a 6’3 women’s basketball player at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi and was the first woman drafted to the NBA. Yes, the NBA. Born in Minter City, Louisiana on February 10, 1955, Harris was the 10th of 11 children born to a vegetable farmer and a homemaker. At Greenwood’s Amanda Elzy High School in Greenwood, Miss., Harris was a standout basketball player. She was a three-time MVP, the team’s captain and an All-Star in the state. She also set a school record by scoring 46 points in a game.
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After her high school graduation in 1973, she played for what was then predominantly white Delta State University, a Division III school in Cleveland, Miss. Harris led the team to two AIAW championships (what would become the NCAA) both over Pennsylvania’s then-powerhouse Immaculata University. The 1975 Delta State team went undefeated and their championship game was televised – the first time for a women’s basketball championship game. In 1977, Harris won her third consecutive NCAA championship by beating Louisiana State University 68-55. While at Delta State, Harris was named both an MVP and an All-American, averaging 25.9 points and 14.5 rebounds per game.
She left the school with a total of 2,981 points and 1,662 rebounds. While there, she also played for the U.S. women’s basketball team which won a gold at the Pan-Am Games and a silver in the 1976 Olympics, in the first women’s basketball competition in the Olympics. But her most notable achievements were still to come.
After Harris graduated from Delta State in 1977, she was surprised when the New Orleans Jazz (now the Utah Jazz) drafted her in that year’s NBA draft. At that time, there was no WNBA, but Harris never anticipated being drafted by the men’s league. She was drafted in the seventh round, but never played. She was not the first woman to hold the distinction – that belongs to Denise Long, who was drafted by the San Francisco Warriors as the 174th pick in the 1969 NBA draft. Long’s draft was viewed as a publicity stunt and ultimately vetoed by the league.
Harris’ draft was deemed official, though likely another publicity stunt, but the world will never know if she might have played in the NBA. She was pregnant and didn’t try out for the team.
After playing a season for the Houston Angels in the WBL, the precursor to the WNBA, Harris returned to Mississippi and earned her master’s degree at Delta State. She spent most of her years after basketball as an educator and basketball coach. In 1992, she and Nera White were inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, with Harris becoming its first African-American female inductee. She is also in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Harris, who goes by Harris Stewart, married her high school sweetheart, George Stewart, in 1977. She and her husband have four children and she resides in Mississippi where, as of 2010, she taught special education and reading at Greenwood High School.
PHOTO: Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame