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Lusia Harris Scored The First Olympic Basket In 1976. The Sport Would Never Be The Same.

This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.

The U.S. women’s basketball team, hoping to win its seventh straight gold medal, hasn’t lost an Olympic game in 29 years. The squad has won eight of the 10 Olympic tournaments it has entered, and it plays Australia on Wednesday in Tokyo for a spot in this year’s semifinals.

Though the program has dominated the last three decades, it owes much of its success to the players who brought the sport to national prominence 45 years ago. Center Lusia “Lucy” Harris was one of those pioneers. In 1976, the year women’s basketball was introduced to the Olympics, she set the standard of excellence that is carried still today.

Harris wasn’t the first Black player to compete internationally for Team USA: Marian Washington and Colleen Bowser did that during the 1971 FIBA World Championship, according to Washington. Harris also wasn’t the only Black player on that 1976 team — Trish Roberts averaged 12 points and 3.8 rebounds. Both Gail Marquis and Charlotte Lewis were also on the roster, though they didn’t play much.

But at 21 years old, Harris was the first player to score in Olympic women’s basketball history. The Mississippi native led the team to a silver medal, averaging 15.2 points on 63 percent shooting, to go with seven rebounds per game.

“Without her, we don’t win a silver medal,” the late Pat Summit said in a 2005 documentary. The legendary Tennessee coach, a member of that team, called Harris the “anchor” of the 1976 squad in her book “Sum It Up.”

Harris did something unprecedented at the time for the U.S.: seamlessly transition from college star to the Olympic stage, competing with the best in the world while maintaining her presence in the paint. 

LUSIA HARRIS (DUNKING)
Lusia Harris scores against Bulgaria during the 1976 Summer Olympics.

Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives

Harris learned to battle successful international stars, like 7-foot future Hall of Famer Uljana Semjonova. “It was tough,” Harris told the Kentucky Women’s Basketball Oral History project. “She is so much taller, so much bigger, and she didn’t jump. 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.”

Though Semjonova may have towered over her, Harris was dominant against most players she faced. She was quick to the rim, secured rebounds and had a soft touch on her jump shot. Opponents struggled to contain Harris, and she remained nearly unstoppable under the basket throughout her career. 

So the Olympics performance wasn’t anything new for her. 

Earlier that year, in wrapping up her junior season at Delta State, she led her team to its second consecutive Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) title won her second consecutive tournament MVP award and earned her second consecutive Kodak All-American honors. In February 1976, Harris scored 47 points in Madison Square Garden, the most in the venue that season for any college or pro player.

Lusia had the game, All-American honors and national titles along with the fan mail, requests for autographs and multiple “Lusia Harris Days” in her state. She was the nation’s best player of her era and the first modern women’s college basketball star. 

Harris’s story began in Minter City, Mississippi, where she learned how to play the game in her backyard. “Days were spent laboring on the farm, picking cotton or scrubbing clothes in the Tallahatchie River,” wrote John Stamm in the May 23, 1976, edition of The Clarion-Ledger. “And at night she played basketball.”

Harris played at Amanda Elzy High School outside Greenwood, Mississippi, and she planned to attend Alcorn State University, a historically Black university. But Alcorn State didn’t have a women’s basketball program, and she loved to play. Delta State, however, had just reinstated its women’s team and appointed Margaret Wade — who would become the namesake of the Wade Trophy — as head coach.

In her college career, Harris averaged 25.9 points on a 63.3 field-goal percentage along with 14.5 rebounds. In all, she racked up 2,981 points and grabbed 1,662 rebounds in 115 games. Teams tried to double- and triple-team her, but the paint was hers.

Harris attended the regionally held national team tryouts in Nashville. After she made the team, she had to adjust to a new style of play — mostly the running. Delta State walked the ball up and down the court, but U.S. team head coach Billie Moore wanted Lusia to run. 

“As a point guard, I’m running down the floor to kick it up and I’m like, “Where’s Luce?” 1976 captain Juliene Simpson told The Black Sportswoman. “She would say, ‘OK, here I come. And if I don’t get down there, you guys can shoot, and I’ll just wait on this other end.’ And that just didn’t work for what our style was.”

So Harris had to learn how to run. Her Team USA training was the first time she did sprinting drills. And it paid off, especially when competing against players like Semjonova. 

After the national team won its silver medal in Montreal, Harris returned to Mississippi. During her senior season, Delta State won its third consecutive AIAW title, and Harris won her third tournament MVP award and Kodak All-American honors.

Despite Harris’s collegiate and international success, there was no place for her to land after she finished college in 1977. The New Orleans Jazz selected her in the NBA draft, but she didn’t think they were serious. She received an offer from a team in France, but she wanted to stay home. 

The Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) was founded in 1978, and president Bill Byrne told The Greenwood Commonwealth that Harris would give the league “instant credibility.” The Houston Angels asked her to help out with the 1980 playoffs, and they brought her out shortly after she gave birth to her son. She said she tried to get back into shape while with the team, but it felt impossible.

“I came back to my job [as an admissions counselor]. I couldn’t make a living out there, and plus, I wasn’t any use to the team,” she said. “I couldn’t help the team. So I came back home.”

Eventually, Harris began coaching, which was always a part of her plan as someone who majored in health, physical education and recreation. She spent time at Texas Southern University before losing her job. 

In the documentary “The Queen of Basketball,” she revealed that she is bipolar and suffered from a nervous breakdown while away from home. She returned to Amanda Elzy and took over for her former coach when he retired.

Harris is now retired herself and living in Greenwood, but she understands her impact on women’s basketball and the national team. It doesn’t matter if or when Team USA’s current win streak ends, or the type of talent that enters the team in the future. Lusia Harris will always be a part of USA basketball history, and she’s happy with that. 

After all, she got to go first.

“You can’t always be the best in what your country invents,” she told The Delta Democrat-Times. “Other countries can play basketball, too. I’m very happy with my silver medal. I was just happy to play in the Olympics, and especially the idea of being on the first team.”

Bria Felicien is an Atlanta-based writer and the founder of The Black Sportswoman.

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