First woman drafted into the NBA • The Tulane Hullabaloo
In the 1977 NBA Draft, the New Orleans Jazz selected a 6-foot-3 center from Delta State University with the 137th overall pick. The difference between this individual choice and all others in NBA history is that the Jazz selected a woman. Her name was Lusia Harris, and although she had never played 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.
Harris also spent a lot of time play basketball with his siblings and was recognized as a phenomenon as early as high schoolwhere she was an all-state athlete, won her team’s most valuable player award three times in a row, and served as team captain.
Harris modeled his game on the Hall of Fame guard oscar robertson, and her dominance on the floor only grew stronger as she entered college. She attended Delta State, and because Title IX didn’t exist at the time, she attended college on a combination of work-study funds and college scholarships.
In the 1973-74 season, his freshman year, Harris led Delta State to a 16-2 record. While the NCAA did not have a women’s basketball tournament until 1982the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for women did. The State Ladies finished third in the regional tournament and did not make the national tournament his freshman year in college.
The following year, however, Harris and Delta State entered the national tournament and qualified for the title game against Immaculata University, which was defending three consecutive titles. Harris finished his second campaign scoring 32 points and grabbing 18 rebounds to beat Immaculata for the AIAW national title and a perfect 28-0 record. Harris was named the tournament’s MVP.
During his junior season, Harris and Delta State again faced Immaculata in the title match. The result was the same, and Delta State captured the AIAW Championship after Harris scored 27 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in the 69-64 victory. That year, Harris led all of college women’s basketball in scoring, averaging 31.2 points per game and 1,060 points in total.
His senior season included a 47-point game at Madison Square Garden and a third straight appearance in the national tournament title game, this time against LSU in 1977. Harris scored 23 points and had 16 boards to lead the Lady Statesmen to their third straight national championship, beating the Tigers 68-55. Harris was again named tournament MVP.
Harris’ college career was truly impressive. It was even more impressive considering that she was the only black player on her teamand that the Delta State Arena was and still is named after White Nationalists Walter Sillers Jr..
Despite the tough times she’s played, both as a woman and as a person of color, Harris on average 25.9 points and 14.4 rebounds during her college career, compiled a 109-6 record, was named a first-team All-American three times, and left Delta State with 15 out of 18 team match and career records.
Harris’ basketball abilities didn’t detract from her educational experience, and she delta state graduate graduated 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 participating in international tournaments in 1975 starting with the FIBA Women’s World Championship 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 its first gold medal since 1963.
Harris again represented the United States in the Montreal 1976 Summer Olympics. Wearing number seven, she scored the first points in Olympic women’s basketball history in the United States’ opener against Japan. Harris won a silver medal after the United States fell 3-2 behind her team average of 15.2 points and 7.0 rebounds over the five games.
At June 10, 1977, the NBA held its annual draft at Madison Square Garden, where Harris once dropped 47 points in a game during his college years. 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 Longa phenom in her own right who was drafted in 1969 by the Golden State Warriors straight out of Union-Whitten High School in Iowa when she was just 19 years old.
A 5-foot-11 forward, Long consistently scored over 100 points in singles games in high school and specialized in shooting deep in a time when the 3-point line didn’t even exist yet. However, NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy vetoed Long’s selection because the NBA did not allow drafting of women or players straight out of high school.
The NBA did not veto Harris’ selection by the Jazz, and she became the first and only woman to be drafted by an NBA franchise. Despite his outstanding basketball skills and the opportunity to compete on a professional team with the likes of “Pistol” Pete MaravichHarris has never played in the NBA. She refused to try Jazz because she was pregnant at the time she was drafted and was unable to attend the team’s training camp.
Harris’ only professional experience came as a member of the Houston Angels in the Women’s Professional Basketball League for the 1979-80 season. After giving birth, she was the No. 1 free agent in the league’s inaugural season.
Harris’ lack of playing time as a professional basketball player shouldn’t overshadow her accomplishments at Delta State and her NBA draft selection.
In 1992, she became the first black woman and the first 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 the Texas Southern University women’s team before returning to Mississippi to become a high school teacher and coach.
Harris died at 66 January 18, 2022 in Greenwood, Mississippi, but the legacy she left as a person and a pioneer in women’s basketball should not be forgotten and deserves more attention.
Pat Summitt, Naismith’s Hall of Fame coach at the University of Tennessee and Harris’ Olympic teammate, described her as “the first truly dominant player in modern women’s basketball, 6-foot-3, and a muscular 185 lbs. pivot, to the -force of the rim.