Delta State Lucy Harris, shown here going to the hoop, dominated the women’s game in much the same manner as Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain dominated men’s basketball. She led Delta State to three national championships. (Photo: Delta State Athletics)

Lusia Harris, the Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell of women’s basketball, has died. The Minter City native who led Delta State to three consecutive national championships at the highest level of women’s college basketball was 66.

Known to her friends and a legion of Delta fans as Lucy, Harris burst on the national basketball scene in 1975 when she led Delta State, known as the Lady Statesmen, to a 28-0 record and the national championship. And that was only the beginning. From a distance of nearly half a century, her accomplishments are mind-numbing. For instance:

  • She averaged 26 points and 14.5 rebounds per game for her four-year Delta State career and was the MVP of all three national tournaments. She once scored 58 points in a game against Tennessee Tech. She scored 47 points in one of the first women’s games ever played at Madison Square Garden.
  • She starred on several U.S. National teams and scored the first basket in Olympic women’s basketball history in 1976. That U.S. team won the silver medal.
  • She remains the only woman ever drafted by an NBA team. The New Orleans Jazz famously drafted Harris in the seventh round in 1977. She declined to try out. There was no WNBA at the time. Harris played one season in a fledging women’s professional league and then returned to the Delta to coach high school basketball.

Harris was one of the first two women inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, the sport’s international hall of fame, in 1992. She was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 1990. She was an inaugural inductee into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.

Lucy Harris with her national team medals.

Langston Rogers, another Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer and longtime Ole Miss sports publicist, was the Delta State sports information director in the 1970s and was there for the women’s basketball team’s incredible four-year run during which they won 109 games and lost only six. Over the three championship seasons, they were 93-4.

“Lucy was truly the first superstar of the women’s game,” Rogers said. “She just dominated. Nobody could dominate a game like Lucy could. She was 6-foot-3, weighed 185. She was a tremendous leaper, and she was so strong. She had great hands. Lucy would be the first to tell you she had a lot of help and she had a great coach (Margaret Wade), but she was the driving force of three national championship teams. She meant so much to Delta State.”

Rogers became emotional when asked about Harris as a person. “She was always smiling,” he said. “She was a force on the floor but she was soft-spoken and shy off the court. Everybody loved Lucy. I’m telling you this is a tremendous loss for Delta State, Mississippi and for women’s basketball around the world.”

Harris was the only African American player on the Delta State team, recruited by assistant coach Melvin Hemphill after she had starred for Amanda Elzy High School in Greenwood.

Lucy Harris, a post player, was 6-foot-3. Debbie Brock, a point guard, was 4-foot-11. Both Delta State greats are in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, as well as the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.

Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Debbie Brock, the ball-handling wizard of a point guard on those Delta State teams, says she and Harris – and all the DSU players – were like sisters.

“There was so much trust, so much love,” Brock said, shortly after learning of Harris’s death. “In my mind, Lucy was the greatest women’s post player in the history of the game. Her game would translate right now. She was such a force, so talented and so strong, and she worked so hard at it.”

Harris traveled to Knoxville last summer for Brock’s induction into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. “Of all the people I wanted to be there, she was at the top of the list,” Brock said. “She was my presenter, even though she was in a wheelchair. I am sure it wasn’t an easy trip for her but she was there.

“And then she called me on New Year’s Day to wish me a happy new year,” Brock continued. “She said she was doing fine. That’s less than three weeks ago. I just can’t believe it.

“Lucy, to me, never changed. She was always soft-spoken, always kind, always full of love. But let me tell you, back then, when she got between the lines, she was all about winning. You know, we all were.”

Harris’s death comes shortly after an award winning documentary “The Queen of Basketball” – detailing her life and career – has introduced her to a new generation of women’s basketball fans.

“I am just so glad that somebody had the forthrightness to do that documentary,” said Ann Meyers Drysdale, the former UCLA basketball All-American who played on U.S. National teams with Harris and has gone on to a successful broadcasting career. “Lucy was the gold standard of what a center is supposed to be. I never played against her in a game but I did in practice, and I did not enjoy that one bit. She was so strong, she had such great footwork. She was unbelievably competitive. You did not want to mess with her or catch one of her elbows.”

Meyers, the widow of baseball Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, was speaking from her home in Huntingdon Beach, Calif.

“She was a great teammate. The thing with Lucy is that she was such a sweet, loving person off the floor,” Meyers continued, choking on her words. “I loved her as a sister and I am going to miss her.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.