Lusia Harris, who laid the foundation for women’s USA Basketball dynasty, has died
Known as the ultimate game-changer for women in the sport of basketball, Lusia ‘Lucy’ Harris died on Tuesday at the age of 66.
In 1976, Harris scored the first points in Olympic women’s basketball history and guided the U.S. women to the silver medal. In 1992, Lucy became the first Black woman inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Seeds of basketball success were implanted in Lucy as she grew up watching and idolizing basketball legends Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Oscar Robertson. Her love for the game would help shape what women’s basketball has become today.
As a top scorer and rebounder, Harris is credited with starting the United States women’s basketball on a path to become one of the most dominant forces in Olympic history.
During the Bicentennial summer of 1976, 21-year-old Harris had just finished her junior season at Delta State in Mississippi. With 6-foot-3 Harris as an unstoppable force on the inside, the team had won three national titles. Harris shot 63.3% from the field in her college career and averaged 25.9 points and 14.5 rebounds in 115 career games, as a three-time All-American.
The silver medal won by Harris and the 1976 squad in the first Olympic women’s basketball competition is viewed as the spark that ultimately led to a gold medal for the women in the 1996 games and a streak of gold medals through the years. The American women won their seventh consecutive gold medal at the Tokyo Games in August behind coach Dawn Staley, who herself played on the infamous 1996 team.
A recent documentary “The Queen of Basketball” was done while Harris was still alive and documents her basketball life. Shaquille O’Neal, an executive producer, has championed it in interviews. A few days prior to her meeting with Shaquille, Harris passed away unexpectedly.
Upon her passing, her family released a statement through her alma mater which said the following: “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. 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.”
Former members of Harris’ Olympic team remembered Harris fondly and reflected on their shared journey with grief and gratitude.
Nancy Lieberman, the youngest player on the 1976 Olympic team, having just graduated from high school, first got to know Harris in 1975 on the U.S. team that won gold at the Pan American Games. “I was probably like a bat out of hell, zipping around everywhere in practice and in the dorms, annoying everyone to go play more,” Lieberman said. “Lucy was a country person, and I was a city kid. So, in that way, we were diametrically opposite of each other. But she cared. In our conversations, she would reach out. She would always give encouragement. Every time I was around her, no matter how old we got, I would always think of her as the star of the show. She got the ball in the lane, she went over her left shoulder and banked it in,” Lieberman said. “It was the classic Lucy basket.
Harris’ Olympic team Coach Billie Moore, who was coaching at Cal State Fullerton at the time said, “Basically, if Lucy got the ball in the paint, one of two things was going to happen. She was going to score, or she was going to score and go to the free-throw line.”
It was Moore who worked with Harris to change her game to fit the U.S. fast-paced style for the Olympics. The American team did not have much international experience, which led to their opener loss to Japan, with Harris getting 17 points.
Wins over Bulgaria and host Canada would follow, but the showdown with the Soviet Union was a blowout with the Soviets winning 112-77. Before facing Czechoslovakia for the silver medal, Coach Moore told the team how critical a victory was for their Olympic finish. Lieberman credits Moore with saying ‘What you do here today can help set the course for women’s basketball for the next 25 years.'” The Americans clinched the silver medal with an 83-67 win, led by Harris’ 17 points. She averaged 15.2 points and 7.0 rebounds in the Olympics, shooting 63% from the field.
Harris went back to Delta State in 1977 and helped her college win their third national championship. She briefly played in the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League in the United States in 1979-80, but essentially by age 25, her basketball career was overdue to limited to no opportunities to advance for women at that time. Harris leaves behind two sons and two daughters to tell her story that was nearly lost, along with a documentary of her life, The Queen of Basketball, that some believe is worthy of an Oscar nomination.