CLEVELAND, Miss. (WLBT) – Before Cynthia Cooper ever scored a 3-pointer on live TV and long before Lisa Leslie dunked her way to a championship, Lusia Harris created basketball history at Delta State University during the 1970s.
Lusia Harris, the only woman, officially drafted by the NBA and the first Black woman inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, suddenly died last month in Mound Bayou.
She was 66.
Most affectionately known as ‘Legendary Lucy,’ Harris averaged 25.9 points and 14.4 rebounds a game at DSU, almost 30 years before the Women’s National Basketball Association existed.
Standing 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, the powerful center led her university to three consecutive national championships.
“When she wanted to score, she could score,” her coach at the time said in a New York Times article.
Harris also scored the opening points when women’s basketball was first played at the Olympics in Montreal in 1976.
Her athletic ability soon opened a door that was sealed shut.
The New Orleans Jazz drafted her in 1977 to play on a men’s team – against men. Harris declined the offer. “I just thought it was a publicity stunt,” she said in the documentary. “And I felt like I didn’t think I was good enough.”
Instead, she started a family – having two sons and two daughters.
But more impressive than her stats was her sincere yet sparkly personality that shined in the free, Oscar-nominated short film by Ben Proudfoot, Queen of Basketball.
“What I know ’bout Lusia?” Harris asked during the intro of the 22-minute film. “Born in a small town in South Mississippi in 1955, became a great female basketball player, and at one time was the greatest in the United States… She’s retired now and living a happy life,” Harris said with an innocent, girlish giggle. “How would you know?” the reporter asked Lusia. “Because I’m Lusia,” she laughed.
Proudfoot, the director, began working with Harris on the film Summer of 2020.
He remembers first calling her Mississippi home to ask if he and his California film crew could feature her.
“I explained who I was and that I wanted to make a film that told her story,” Proudfoot said. “And she was very casual, you know, very soft-spoken in her way. And she just said, ‘Yeah, you know, come on over.’”
Soon after, the filming began.
“She was so warm and disarming and humble, you would never know that she’s one of the most dominant athletes of the 20th century – so I wanted to make sure in the edit of the film, that we not only captured the story, but her personality and those little looks, and the little giggles, and those little things that made Lusia Lusia,” Proudfoot said. “She wasn’t cocky. She didn’t toot our own horn; she wasn’t mean, she was the model of sportsmanship and grace, and class.”
NBA Legend Shaquille O’Neal, who signed on to be an executive producer of the documentary, has championed it in interviews – promoting a showing inside the newly-restored Capri Theater in Jackson.
“For me, it’s a triumph in resurrecting the career of one of the greatest American athletes of the 20th century,” said O’Neal, who recently spoke to For The Win about the film. “But it’s also tragic because it reminds us of what we had lost.”
“This project is about more than entertainment,” Proudfoot added. “This is about correcting a gross oversight that lasted almost 50 years. Not only was it Lucy, who lost out on what would have been an incredible, you know, enriching career, but America lost out on knowing her story and having her as a role model.”
The film and Harris’ untimely death has given birth to a new effort to rename the Coliseum on Delta State’s campus.
The campus’ coliseum bears the name of Walter Sillers, a White nationalist and former state lawmaker. Nothing at DSU, where Harris’ achievements garnered national fame, is named after Harris.
But an online petition could soon change Legendary Lucy’s legacy.
Hundreds of friends, family, DSU students, and even Mississippi lawmakers signed the petition and open letter asking for true recognition for the Queen of Basketball.
“Let the name Lusia Harris, not Walter Sillers, forever grace the facade of Delta State’s Coliseum, which she made historic,” the petition’s open letter to DSU reads. “Let the Coliseum be named for the quintessential Lady Statesman and internationally revered American of whom the country and the University can be forever proud. Let the students of Delta State, and all those to visit there, remember what is possible if only they continue to dream.”
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