Lusia “Lucy” Harris-Stewart, the legendary, barrier-breaking hall of fame basketball player whose largely unknown life story was recently told in a new documentary already being mentioned as an Academy Award contender, has died at the age of 66.
Harris’ death was first reported by journalist Howard Megdal, who attributed the announcement to Ann Meyers Drysdale, the Vice President of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. Megdal, founder and editor of women’s basketball news website The Next Hoops, called Harris’ death “terribly sad news.”
Delta State University, Harris’ alma mater, confirmed the death and eulogized her in part as “One of the greatest women’s basketball players to ever grace the court.”
The cause of Harris’ death was not immediately reported. She was less than a month shy of her 67th birthday.
Harris was a natural winner in basketball
Not only did Harris win three straight national championships in the 1970s while starring for Delta University in Mississippi, but the dominating center also won a silver medal at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games and was even drafted into the NBA — the first and still only time that the world’s premier professional basketball league selected a woman.
She won three straight national titles at tiny Delta State University in the 1970s, earned a silver medal at the 1976 Olympic Games, and in 1977 became the first woman officially drafted by an NBA team—the New Orleans Jazz. But she made her mark in an era when women’s basketball, and women’s sports in general, didn’t draw much attention.
The best women’s basketball player ever?
While legendary women’s players like Cheryl Miller and Candace Parker have received an outsized amount of attention for their exploits on the hardwood, Harris — who predated both aforementioned stars — managed to fly under the radar despite her impressive statistics. It was a time well before the WNBA, but Harris’ numbers remain undeniable.
By high school, Harris stood at a towering 6-foot-three inches tall. As a high school basketball star, Harris once scored 46 points in a game, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.
In college, Harris scored a whopping 2,981 in a three-year career for an average of nearly 26 points per game, according to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, into which she has been inducted — the first Black woman to enjoy that distinction.
When she left Delta State, Harris was the owner of 15 separate statistical records and had only lost six games compared to the 109 she won. Delta State said Harris remains the school’s career record holder in points and rebounds.
Harris won a silver medal while competing in the 1977 Olympic Games and leading the team in scoring and rebounding. She scored the very first basket of the 1976 Olympics.
Harris displayed the sort of killer instinct on the basketball court that is associated with the game’s greatest players ever.
“When I got the ball, I knew my job was to score, and more than likely, I would score,” Harris once said.
In 1977, the Utah Jazz selected Harris with the 137th pick in the seventh round of the NBA Draft.
While Harris was known as the first woman to ever be officially drafted into the NBA, Denise Long was actually drafted straight out of high school by the then-San Francisco Warriors in 1969. However, because the NBA did not allow girls to play, she ended up playing in the all-women’s Warrior Girls Basketball League and Harris eventually — and technically — became the first woman to be drafted into the all-male NBA.
‘The Queen of Basketball’
More than a nickname, “The Queen of Basketball” is also the title of an independent documentary executive produced by Shaquille O’Neal that tells the previously untold story of Harris’ groundball prowess.
“My goal is to make Lucy a household name,” Shaq said in an interview published just last week. “This woman should be celebrated. It’s never too late to put up a statue or name an arena. Like I said, it’s way overdue for this young lady. I hope she gets her recognition.”
Ben Proudfoot, who directed “The Queen of Basketball” as part of the New York Time Op-docs series, called Harris “absolutely preeminent.” He said Harris’ willing participation was key to the documentary’s accuracy.
“You could zero in on a specific game and Lucy could tell you how it went with the narrative of the game and how she performed,” Proudfoot told Deadline. “Her memory was really at the highest level of recall that I have ever encountered.”
Watch “The Queen of Basketball” below.
Born on Feb. 10, 1955, Harris was raised in Minter City, Mississippi, and ended up living in the state until her death. She was the 10th of 11 children and described her upbringing as going “without” while also noting that she and her siblings “didn’t want for anything,” she said in “The Queen of Basketball” documentary.
Harris was able to join Delta State’s basketball team because of the then-recent decision to make collegiate athletics more inclusive to women. Basketball historian Joann Lanin wrote in her book, “A history of basketball for girls and women: from bloomers to big leagues,” that Harris actually wanted to attend Alcorn State University, a historically Black college. However, the HBCU did not have a women’s basketball team at the time, paving the way for Harris to star at Delta State.
After turning down the Utah Jazz following her historic selection in the NBA Draft, Harris ultimately stayed at Delta State working in the school’s administration as well as coaching basketball on her way to earning a master’s degree in education from her alma mater.
Following a two-year stint as the head basketball coach at Texas Southern University, an HBCU, Harris went back to Mississippi to teach and coach basketball at her high school.
Harris had two daughters and two sons with her husband, George E. Stewart, according to the book, “Basketball: A Biographical Dictionary.
This is a developing story that will be updated as additional information becomes available.