The Story Behind The Only Woman Officially Drafted By The NBA

She's sometimes called the "Queen of Basketball," but that doesn't mean she's received the same recognition as male champs like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. Lusia Harris is one of the most accomplished female basketballers of all time, having played in the Pan American Games, the World Games, and the Olympics (via Mississippi Encyclopedia).

But perhaps her most notable achievement is her status as the first and only woman to ever be officially drafted into the National Basketball Association, or NBA (via NPR). Though technically, women are eligible to play in the NBA, they aren't often chosen for teams; many argue this is because height and size disadvantages can make it harder for them to compete against larger men (via Ball Are Life). But that didn't stop the New Orleans Jazz team from drafting Harris in 1977 in a move that shocked fans across the nation — and even came as a surprise to Harris herself.

Popularity of women's basketball

Though the Women's National Basketball Association, or WNBA, is now a well-known league, it's actually a rather new addition to the field of American sports. While the NBA was created in 1946 (via the NBA), the first women's league wasn't established until 1978 (via ONE37pm). The Women's Professional Basketball League, or WBL, didn't last long, but it set the stage for professional women's basketball, and eventually, in 1996, the WNBA was created.

When the first women's basketball leagues were established, they struggled to attract money and viewers. Even now, women's basketball sees much lower ratings than men's, pulling in around a quarter-million views for a championship game compared to over 15 million views for the men (via WSN). It's probably no surprise that women's basketball players receive smaller paychecks as a result — women earn an average of $120,600, while men an average of around $5.4 million (via NPR). With these low salaries, you might expect elite female players to try and get a place on the NBA roster. But in fact, these sorts of gender crossovers are extremely rare, with Lusia Harris being the only example of a woman who was officially drafted into the NBA (via NPR).

Lusia Harris' childhood

Lusia Harris was born and raised in Mississippi, where she also attended college at Delta State University (via The New York Times). As a kid, Harris — whose parents were farmers — was part of a big family, one of the youngest of 11 kids (via Mississippi Encyclopedia). When she was younger, Harris loved to watch basketball and dreamed of one day becoming a baller herself (via NPR). She started playing the sport as a child and continued playing up through college. There, Harris helped lead her team to victory multiple times, when the Delta State University women's basketball team thrice won the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women championship (via Mississippi Encyclopedia).

Over time, Harris gained widespread recognition for her work, with impressive game stats, including an average of 25.9 points per collegiate game (via NPR). During college, she also attended the 1976 Summer Olympics, where women's basketball was played for the first time and where Harris made the first score in the competition (via Mississippi Encyclopedia). But despite the long list of accomplishments, Harris planned to quit basketball after she graduated from college since there were no reputable leagues for her to join.

Why the New Orleans Jazz drafted her

Lusia Harris had a rare opportunity in 1977 when she was approached by the New Orleans Jazz to join their team. That year, the New Orleans Jazz used the 137th pick to select Harris for their team (via The Athletic). However, while Harris was stunned by the Jazz's decision to pick her, she eventually decided against trying out for their team. She made the decision in part because she worried that the move was a "publicity stunt" (per NPR), and New Orleans Jazz's then-General Manager Lewis Schaffel later confirmed this. Moreover, Harris was pregnant at the time the Jazz approached her.

Still, though Harris decided to pass on the opportunity to join the Jazz, her basketball career wasn't over just yet. She went on to play in the Women's Professional Basketball League for a season (via Mississippi Encyclopedia), and she has been able to pass on her love for athleticism to her four children, all of whom play sports themselves.

She wasn't the first woman to be drafted in the NBA

Though Lusia Harris was the first woman to officially be drafted by the NBA, she was not the first woman to ever be drafted. In fact, eight years before Harris was drafted, another woman by the name of Denise Long almost had a chance to join an NBA team (via Des Moines Register). In 1969, Long was a high schooler when the San Francisco Warriors drafted her during the 13th round of the draft, according to the Des Moines Register. Like Harris' pick, the decision was considered to be a publicity stunt, though the situation unfolded differently for Long than Harris.

Unlike Harris, Long didn't have the option to try out for the Warriors. The Warriors' draft pick of her was rejected by the NBA commissioner, and Denise Long never joined the team, though she did play in an unpaid women's league that was helmed by the owner of the San Francisco Warriors.

Lusia Harris' legacy

Even though Lusia Harris never actually played in the NBA, she has a strong legacy that has helped pave the way for women following in her footsteps. Since she retired from the sport of basketball, she's received recognition from many different halls of fame, including the Delta State Sports Hall of Fame, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, according to NPR. Most recently, a 2021 documentary called "The Queen of Basketball" chronicled Harris' career and accomplishments, helping to share her story with new audiences. According to Harris' family, she was excited and happy about the increased awareness of her story and experiences, according to People.

Sadly, Lusia Harris passed away in January 2022 at the age of 66 (via ESPN). She is survived by her two daughters and two sons, as well as several siblings and many grandchildren (via The New York Times).