Question: Who scored the first-ever basket in Olympic women’s basketball competition?
Answer: Lusia Harris-Stewart, USA, 1976.
It would come as no surprise Harris-Stewart’s name didn’t leap to mind. Since she’s a quiet and self-effacing woman, teammate Ann Meyers had to point out the historical significance of her basket.
The 6’3” Harris-Stewart is considered by many to be the prototypical modern center. Born February 10, 1955, in Minter City, Miss., she grew up watching her equally tall older sister win high school championships. “Most people don’t realize how organized [girls’] basketball was in Mississippi during that time,” she explained. “In my area, it was a money-drawing event.”
“I used to love watching her play,” said Harris-Stewart of her sister. “She could really handle that ball. When I went to Amanda Elzy High School in Greenwood, we had the same coach, Conway Stewart. That was so awesome, to be able to play for someone who loved the game.” Harris-Stewart remembers coach Stewart talking about the game and keeping a cool head. “He talked to me a whole lot about keeping my composure and not to do things to be thrown out of a game. Because,” she admitted with a sly smile, “even though I was a shy person, I would get you back on the court.”
During high school, Harris-Stewart was honored as a three-time all-conference and all-region player (1971-1973) and a two-time all-state selection (1972-73), and she once scored a school record 46 points in one game. Though her team didn’t win a high school championship, the trip to play in the state tournament in Jackson made an indelible impression. “Never having the chance to leave Greenwood, it was a big thing to travel two hours away and stay in a hotel for the first time. That was real nice.”
Harris-Stewart understood that with her graduation in 1973, her competitive basketball days were over. She intended to get her degree at Alcorn State when opportunity, nudged by the passage of Title IX, came knocking. Nearby Delta State University, had just lured legendary high school coach Margaret Wade out of retirement to resurrect a basketball program shut down since the 1920s. They were looking for players and, said Harris-Stewart, “the recruiter, Melvin Hemphill came to my school and said, ‘We’re starting a women’s basketball team, and we want you to play on that team.’”
The invitation was significant not simply because it offered her an opportunity to continue playing but, as Pam Grundy and Susan Shackelford point out in their book “Shattering the Glass,” because Harris-Stewart was black, Delta State was a white school and Mississippi had been a fierce battleground during the Civil Rights era. In keeping with her character, Harris-Stewart doesn’t make much of being the only black player on the team. “Sometimes the fans would say, you know, things in the stands,” she told Grundy and Shackelford, “but my focus was to score that basket. And sometimes it got to be pretty rough in the games… Everybody said that I did a lot of smiling, but I had a few to say that I was pretty physical under the boards.”
Delta State lost only three games that first year, but the last loss prevented them from participating in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) tournament. “Oh, wow,” Harris-Stewart remembers thinking. “’We just missed out on another trip!’ I was so upset. I said, ‘I bet we won’t miss out on it next year!’”
Harris made good on her prediction.
In the second year of the program’s existence, Delta State traveled to Harrisonburg, Va., for the tournament, advancing to the finals where they met the three-time defending champions, the Mighty Macs of Immaculata. “Everyone was talking about the Mighty Macs. And those nuns were beating on those buckets,” laughed Harris-Stewart, recalling the famous galvanized buckets Immaculata fans would bang as noisemakers. “We said, ‘Okay, this is our time to shine.’ Everybody kept asking each other, ‘Are you ready?’ ‘Yeah, I’m ready. You?’”
Delta State defeated Immaculata 94-78, repeated the win in 1976, and in 1977 defeated Louisiana State University for a third consecutive championship. Harris-Stewart was MVP of the tournament each of those years and finished her collegiate career with 2,981 points (25.9 ppg) and 1,662 rebounds (14.4 rpg). A three-time Kodak All-American, she helped lead the Lady Statesmen to an overall record of 109-6. In her final season, she won the inaugural Broderick Award as the nation’s outstanding female collegiate basketball player as well the Honda Broderick Cup as the best collegiate athlete in any sport.
It was during her collegiate career that she earned a gold medal as a member of the 1975 U.S. Pan American team, and led the United States in both scoring and rebounding as they earned a silver medal in the 1976 Olympic Games. Inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame (1990), Harris-Stewart was is one of only a handful of women in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (1992) and was part of the first class of inductees into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (1999). This past October, she was honored during the Women’s Sports Foundation dinner as she entered the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
“The game has changed so much,” reflected Harris-Stewart, who’s taught and coached at the college and high school level since graduating. “It’s the outlook from the athlete’s point of view. We have scholarships. When you get out of college there are endorsements, there are professional teams. All of that is there. But it wasn’t there [back] then. I think that we played for the love of the game. It really was just for the love of the game. Most people say, ‘Well, why aren’t you rich?’ And I say, ‘How could I be rich?’” she laughed, “I didn’t get paid for playing.”
At her core, it’s the opportunities and experiences of her playing days that Stewart-Harris revels in, not the statistics. “I look back on my career, and I think about all the places I’ve gone, the people I’ve met,” she reflected, “and it’s been great; and it’s all been because of basketball.”