May 21, 2022

Lusia Harris, ‘Queen of Basketball,’ Dies at 66

“The men’s team didn’t sell out as well as the women’s team,” Ms. Harris said in “The Queen of Basketball” (2021), a short documentary about her directed by Ben Proudfoot that premiered at the Tribeca Festival. “We began to travel on airplanes. As a matter of fact, the men didn’t fly. I guess the women were bringing in the money.”

A few months after her final game at Delta State, Ms. Harris was chosen in the seventh round of the N.B.A. draft by the New Orleans (now Utah) Jazz. Only one woman before her, Denise Long, then a high school senior, had been drafted — by the San Francisco (now Golden State) Warriors, in 1969 — but Walter Kennedy, the N.B.A. commissioner, disallowed the pick.

Ms. Harris declined to join a Jazz rookie camp; she was already married to her high school sweetheart, George Stewart, and pregnant. She also doubted that she could play successfully on a men’s team.

“I knew that I couldn’t compete on that level,” she told The Undefeated last year.

Born on Feb. 10, 1955, Lusia Mae Harris grew up in Minter City, Miss. Her parents, Willie and Ethel (Gilmore) Harris, were sharecroppers. Lusia picked cotton but also played basketball with her brothers in their backyard. She molded her game, especially her defensive skills, at Amanda Elzy High School, in Greenwood, before attending Delta State.

By the time she was chosen for the 1976 United States Olympic team, Ms. Harris was a star. In addition to Ms. Summitt, the squad included Nancy Lieberman and Ann Meyers, two future Basketball Hall of Famers, and Gail Marquis. Ms. Harris scored the first points in women’s Olympic history in the opening game against Japan, which the United States lost.

One of her biggest challenges was playing against Juliana Semenova, the Soviet’s 7-foot center.

“She is so much taller, so much bigger and she didn’t jump,” Ms. Harris told the Kentucky Women’s Basketball Oral History last year. “All she had to do was extend her arms. And I mean, I’m only 6-3. The thing I figured out is that I would beat her down the court because she wasn’t that fast.”

The Soviets routed the Americans, 112-77, with Ms. Semenova scoring 32 to Ms. Harris’s 18. The United States team nonetheless departed Montreal with a silver medal after defeating Czechoslovakia.

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