Author’s Note: Ha! Now add Oscar winner to the resume…hers, the director’s, Steph Curry’s, everybody involved! I say let’s have more Oscar-winning documentaries about women–woohoo!
Lucy Harris died about a month ago, but the “Queen of Basketball” seemed the perfect subject to cap off Black History Month, with a tribute to her remarkable career. She won three national championships before NCAA women’s basketball became the commercial juggernaut it is today; she excelled in the Olympics in the days before Team USA dominated women’s Olympic basketball as it does today; she competed when she was the only Black face on the team, on the court, or practically in the building.
Whenever someone is the first, it always means more than a note in a record. There are stories under the stories.
Tall Family, Tall Dreams
Harris is the subject of a delightful but unfortunately short biopic making the rounds on ESPN, produced by Shaquille O’Neal. Ben Proudfoot’s film is narrated by Ms. Harris, who talks about her basketball days with a smile.
Harris was the 10th of 11 children, born to sharecroppers in the deep South of the Mississippi delta. Her idols as a teenager were the basketball heroes of the late 1960s: Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and especially Oscar Robertson, her favorite. She spoke of sneaking TV after light’s out–I had one of those 9-inch sets myself–so the family was not dirt poor, even with so many mouths to feed. By the time Lucy was old enough to watch basketball under the blankets, her siblings may have been working as well as babysitting her.
All her elder brothers and one sister played basketball at Amanda Elzy High School, where they all went to school. They were coached by Conway Stewart, whose team went to multiple state championships, winning one with Harris’ older brother. The year that Harris came along, the team won every game until its last, missing the opportunity to go to state her first year. They fixed that the next year. She broke the school record, scoring 46 points in one game, and captaining the team back to the state championships.
Saving Women from Competition and Falling Uteri
Women’s basketball in the U.S. had been traveling a roller coaster by 1972. Invented at the turn of the century, the women’s game had taken off only a few years after the men’s. Women played in high school and college, but two forces worked against them. First, there was that idea of medical risk, which I noted a few posts ago talking about ski-jumping. Doctors in that era thought that jumping sports would lead to uterine prolapse, i.e. a falling uterus. Hence, the rules for women limited them to half-court play and a lot of passing to someone under the basket, rather than the jump-shots we see today.
At the same time, P.E. teachers–both women and men–didn’t want to see women suffer from the negative repercussions of competition that happened in men’s sports. On the growing professional sports circuit for men, there was bribery, cheating, substance abuse, and injury (true! still true today!) There was a large contingent of sport professionals that wanted to keep women’s sports healthy. So they prevented competition. That’s one big reason that women’s college sports did not promote championships until the 1970s.
But women’s colleges had teams back in the 1890s, and basketball was popular or women. So popular that, by the 1930s, high school and college teams throughout the South and Midwest had squads which played to enthusiastic crowds, especially during World War Two. A quasi-professional circuit developed among the corporations, which is how Babe Didrickson was hired in Texas to work for an insurance company which won a national champion–in women’s basketball.
Title IX: Jump Starting Women’s Sports
Delta State University, a small Mississippi college, had a women’s basketball program in 1931, then dropped the sport as being ” too strenuous for young ladies.” Star player Margaret Wade was heartbroken and burned her uniform with the rest of the team, but the program stayed dormant–until 1973. Shortly after Title IX passed in 1972, Delta State re-launched its program, with Margaret Wade as its new head coach.
Coach Wade had heard about the willowy, versatile Harris and talked her out of going to Alcorn State to come play for Delta State. The footnotes here are of interest. Alcorn State is an HBCU, the first Black land-grant college established in the U.S. So Harris had wanted to go to an HBCU, even though it had no professional sports. Delta State, on the other hand, had been white-only until 1967. It had waited for 13 years after the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was illegal, and three years after the Civil Rights Act to admit Black students. Here, a handful of years later, Lucy was recruited to a school that still waved the Confederate flag at games (and probably still does).
Lucy was the only black woman on the team during the four years she played for Delta State. The Delta State Lady Statesmen (or Fighting Okras, take your pick) eventually upended the powerhouse team at the time, which was Immaculata. That Catholic all-women’s college in Philadelphia had a smart group of nuns coaching and cheering for them, and they were good enough to earn their own documentary, The Mighty Macs, which chronicles their six straight final fours in women’s college basketball. They won the first three. Delta State won the other two.
The Okras won the national championship during Harris’s final three years, under Margaret Wade. At one point the Fighting Okras had a 51-game winning streak. Today, the women’s collegiate basketball MVP trophy is appropriately named the Wade Trophy after the Delta State coach.
That first year of the AIAW national basketball championship was 1972, the year Title IX passed. The AIAW was filled with the remnants of skeptical P.E. teachers, but they were finally convinced to let competition rise to a national level. At the time, the NCAA thought women’s sports weren’t worth their time so they let the AIAW do their thing. By the mid 1980s, however, when fans of women’s basketball showed continued interest, and games were being played in Madison Square Gardens to packed houses, the NCAA noticed. After at first ignoring them, the NCAA put the AIAW out of business. Such is the down side of success.
There were other down sides, too. The Delta State University home arena, where the women play, is named after Walter Sillers, Jr. Sillers, a Mississippi legislator, was the descendant of a Confederate officer and plantation owners. Sillers’ father was in the KKK and Sillers known as one of the most racist political leaders in Mississippi history. The building is still named after him. When you think of Harris being the first, imagine her experience playing game after game in that arena.
The Olympics Elbow into the Mix
With Title IX pumping up women’s sports in the U.S., there was rising interest in international competition for women as well. The U.S.S.R. also loved basketball–one of the first international tournaments was played in St. Petersburg in 1909–and had been pressing since the 1950s to get the women’s game into the Olympics. The Australians played their own form, imported from women’s colleges in London. By the time the IOC decided to grant women’s basketball access to the 1976 Montreal Olympics, there was a wealth of interested, quality women’s teams to play.
The Soviet team was led by seven-foot Uljana Semjonova. Semjonova was so tall, said Harris, that she didn’t need to jump to a make a shot. The Americans had a great team, too. Eleven of that first Team USA went into the basketball Hall of Fame, including Ann Meyers, Nancy Lieberman, and Pat Head. Plus Harris, who was the top scorer for the squad, averaging over 15 points a game.
Team USA won the silver that year, with a 3-2 record to the Soviet’s undefeated streak. But Harris had another asterisk. She scored the first basket in women’s Olympic history.
Scooby Doo, John Wayne, and the First Woman
After the Olympics, many of the outstanding college women players, from Meyer to Lieberman, wanted to keep going. At the time, they had no options to do so. Serious college basketball for woman in many cases had just gotten off the ground with Title IX. Men’s pro ball had been around for decades and had developed a complicated draft and lottery system.
Teams then–like teams today–wanted fans, and some were willing to try what they knew were gimmicks. The Lakers tried to draft Scooby Doo and a wooden chair. In football, the Atlanta Falcons had tried to draft 64-year-old John Wayne. When the Golden State Warriors in 1969 drafted Denise Long, it was in that same spirit of publicity. Long, unlike Mr. Scooby, was an outstanding basketball player, but still in high school. Plus had that uterus. So her pick was disavowed.
Thus, when Lucy Harris was drafted by the New Orleans Jazz in 1977, it was more gimmick than otherwise. She was the best player in her heyday, but even when the Jazz drafted her they knew she was pregnant and had no intention of playing for anybody. Still, it made the record books. Harris’ U.S. teammate Ann Meyers did try out for the Indiana Pacers and at one point the Pacers signed a contract, though she never played in a professional men’s game.
The quality of the women’s play and enthusiasm for teams helped launch the Women’s Professional Basketball League. The WBL had a rough time getting enough funding to sustain itself–as all sports do. Harris played briefly with the Houston Angels, but she was also raising a family, and it was hard to split her time. She didn’t last, and neither did the WBL.
The league was, in some sense, the victim of bad timing. The league got off the ground just as the college circuits were beginning to blossom and got a good head of steam from the 1976 Olympics. They hoped that the 1980 Games would again showcase American women on TV and help them get more sponsors, more air time, and a growing fan base. With the Moscow boycott, though, that opportunity disappeared and so did the league. They were gone by the time Team USA took the gold in Los Angeles.
But by the time Atlanta rolled around in 1996, women’s basketball had thrived so much, thanks to pioneers like Harris, Meyers, and Wade that the U.S. women took not only the gold, but managed to launch the WNBA. Meanwhile, Harris was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Lucy Harris’ time after basketball also had its ups and downs. She was diagnosed as bipolar and eventually developed arthritis severe enough to put her in a wheelchair. Yet her children all went on to college and graduate school. In the brief documentary chronicling the exploits of “The Queen of Basketball,” she speaks with an ever-present twinkle in her eye, proud of her children and her own place in history. We are fortunate that the documentary was made before she passed at age 66.
First at everything. The true definition of a pioneer.