At the recent Academy Awards, Shaquille O Neal and Steph Curry received Oscars for their documentary, “The Queen of Basketball”. The film was based on the life and accomplishments of the late Lusia Harris, who was officially the first woman drafted into the NBA. But in reality, Lou as she preferred to be called, was not the first to be selected in the league. With an asterisk, that honor is awarded to Denise Long, who was a high school phenomenon that dominated the game in the 1960s.
Both Lusia and Denise reached the pinnacle of their respective athletic careers. In a twist of fate, it can be said that both share the title of being the first woman drafted by the NBA. However, the NBA has never had a female player in its nearly 75 years of the sport. So, how is it possible these women were drafted? Both women attracted national attention and obvious interest from the league, but the similarities surrounding their journeys to the NBA differed.
Denise Long had a stellar high school career at Union-Whitten H.S. in Iowa. At 5’11” she was a dominant forward and was at her best shooting from the deep perimeter on the court. She amassed 6,250 points and averaged 69.6 points per game in high school. To put what she accomplished in perspective, Wilt Chamberlin and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged a little over 2000 points combined in their high school years. Sports Illustrated described Denise as “swiftness and grace” on the court and she attained national attention when she was drafted by the then San Francisco Warriors in 1969.
Denise was the 175th pick in round 13 however, her selection was quickly overturned by NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy. His decision to do so was based on two factors. The first was that at the time high school players were not allowed to play in the National Basketball League, that mandate was overturned in 1971. The second reason was that Commissioner Kennedy felt that drafting Denise was merely a publicity stunt. As it turned out, he was right on both counts as Warriors owner Frank Mieuli fully admitted to being aware the league would void the draft pick. She played a year in the “Warrior’s Girls’ Basketball League” a precursor to the WNBA. Denise went back to college and became a pharmacist. She is currently retired.
Lusia Harris is the real deal and the official first woman drafted into the NBA. Born in Minter City, Mississippi, she attended Amanda Elzy High School where she was a 3-time MVP. Upon graduation, Lusia attended Delta State University where she became an unrelenting force in women’s collegiate basketball. At 6’3’ and playing the center position, Harris was unstoppable.
A 3-time All-American for the Lady Statesman, Lusia finished her college basketball career with 2,981 points averaging 25.9 points per game. Defensively, Harris grabbed 1662 rebounds, averaging 14.5 per game. In 1976, she led Team USA to a Silver Medal at the Olympic Games in Montreal Canada. On a historic note, she scored the first points ever for women’s basketball as that year was the inaugural year for women to compete.
The NBA draft in 1977, would present another historic moment for Lusia when the New Orleans Jazz selected her in the 7th round as the 137th pick. The Jazz at the time featured stars such as Nate Williams, Gail Goodrich, and Pete Maravich. Coached by Elgin Baylor, the decision to draft Lusia was partly to attract people of color, specifically women, to beef up the attendance. Unfortunately, Harris felt that the Jazz organization wasn’t serious in their selecting her to play which was perhaps reminiscent of Denise Long. Lusia chose to return to school to receive her Master’s Degree in Education and to pursue a career in coaching at her alma maters Delta State University and Amanda Elzy High School. She passed away recently after a lengthy illness on January 18th of this year, she was 67 years old.
As trailblazers, Denise and Lusia have left their mark on the game of basketball. But don’t you wonder how they would have fared if they were actually able to showcase their talent in the NBA?