So much of the late Lusia Harris’ legacy boggles our minds: three-time national tournament MVP; scored first points in Olympics basketball history; and led Delta State to three straight national championships beginning just the second year after the program was recreated.
And then there’s this: First and only woman ever drafted by an NBA team.
Even now, nearly 45 years later, you might wonder: How in the world did that happen?
Glad you asked.
The 1977 NBA draft was held on June 10 at Madison Square Garden. There were 170 names called over eight rounds. With the 137th pick in the seventh round, the New Orleans Jazz selected Harris, making headlines around the world in the next day’s newspapers.
The Jazz, who did not attend the draft, were in a state of flux at the time. Butch van Breda Kolff had been fired early in the previous season with a 14-12 record.
Now you might ask why a coach would be fired with a winning record by a franchise that had never known success. It was not for his record. No, van Breda Kolff had lobbied hard for the Jazz to trade three first round draft picks to the Los Angeles Lakers for Gail Goodrich, a trade that lives on in NBA infamy. (The Lakers would use one of those first rounders to take another future Hall of Famer, one named Magic Johnson.)
All that has nothing to do with why the Jazz took Harris, but we’re getting there. The Jazz participated in the ’77 draft by long distance from their offices, located then in the Louisiana Superdome. That’s where the Jazz played their games, which during that period of time might be best described as “The Pete Maravich Show.” Often, more than 40,000 fans would attend to watch Pistol Pete, when his knees would allow, do his thing. I know this because I was often one of those many thousands. The Jazz most often lost, but the entertainment value was off the charts.
Elgin Baylor, one of the greatest players in history of the sport, was the interim head coach. Lewis Schaffel was the new general manager. Mississippian Pat Speer, an Ole Miss grad who had once played basketball for the legendary Bert Jenkins at Gulfport High, was in the Jazz front office and present in the Jazz “war room” for the 1977 draft.
“We didn’t have a first round pick,” recalls Speer, who now lives in Madison. “We had traded that for Goodrich.”
With the second round pick, the Jazz took Essie Hollis out of St. Bonaventure, who would play a total of 25 NBA games. With the third round pick, the Jazz took Connecticut’s Tony Hanson, who would not play at all.
In the fourth round, the Jazz took Dennis Boyd out of Detroit Mercy, who would score a total of six points over five games in his brief NBA career. Fifth rounder Jim Grady out of Gonzaga and sixth rounder Wayne Golden out of Chattanooga never played a game.
So eventually the draft reached the sixth pick of the seventh round and it was time for the Jazz to select.
Only here’s the deal: The Jazz had nobody left on their list of draft prospects. Schaffel asked Baylor, who shook his head. Schaffel had no thing left on his list either and asked, “Anybody?”
And Speer chimed in, “We should take Lucy Harris.”
Harris had just led Delta State to a third straight national championship, scoring 23 points and pulling down 16 rounds to help the Lady Statesmen defeat LSU for the title. Speer had heard about Harris from his friends in Mississippi. His father was from Indianola and knew all about Harris, Coach Margaret Wade and those fabulous Lady Statesmen.
Nobody voiced any objections so Schaffel went with Speer’s suggestion and delivered the news to then-NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien, who announced the pick. Forty-five years later, I can assure you: The Jazz selecting Harris with the 137th pick of the draft received at least as many headlines as Milwaukee taking Indiana’s Kent Benson with the first pick — and a whole lot more than Kansas City taking Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner (now Caitlyn Jenner) two picks after the Jazz took Harris.
“You know, a lot of people called it a publicity stunt, like it was planned or something,” Speer said. “It wasn’t. It was spur of the moment. We had never discussed it.”
Speer remembers talking to Harris on the phone in the aftermath of the draft. “At first, she seemed determined to come to training camp,” Speer says. “Later on, she declined. Turned out, she was pregnant.”
Harris’ basketball-playing career was over for all intent and purposes. She played briefly for the Houston Angels of the ill-fated Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) in the 1979-80 season.
Says Speer, “I don’t know what possessed me to blurt out her name, but in retrospect, I am glad I did. I mean, it seems such a shame there wasn’t a WNBA at the time so she could have continued to play. At least, this way, she has some lasting recognition as a professional. I mean, here we are all these years later, and she’s still the only one, the only woman ever drafted by the NBA. That’s pretty neat.”
Yes, it really is.