Lusia Harris laid the foundation for women's USA Basketball dynastyTheSportsWig Admin
The day after she got the news of Lusia Harris’ death, Billie Moore’s voice was still heavy with sadness. It’s been nearly 46 years since Moore as head coach and Harris as top scorer and rebounder started United States women’s basketball on a path to become one of the most dominant forces in Olympic history.
“The bond doesn’t ever go away, no matter how much time goes by,” Moore said this week from her home in California. “I remember Lucy always had the biggest smile on her face; she was very soft-spoken and unassuming. She really didn’t want the spotlight on her.”
But Harris, who died Tuesday at her home in Mississippi at age 66, deserves the spotlight, as does the 1976 Olympic team. The Americans won a seventh consecutive gold medal at the Tokyo Games in August behind coach Dawn Staley, who played for the team that began that current streak at the 1996 Games.
Just as this past summer’s U.S. team members paid tribute to the Atlanta Olympians, the players in 1996 understood the groundwork laid by the silver medal won by the 1976 squad in the first Olympic women’s basketball competition. And with the death of Harris, those who were a part of that Olympic history with her reflected on their shared journey with grief and gratitude.
Nancy Lieberman was the youngest player on the 1976 Olympic team, having just graduated from high school in New York City and turning 18 a couple of weeks before the Games began.
Lieberman had first gotten to know Harris in 1975 on the U.S. team that won gold at the Pan American Games, coached by Immaculata’s Cathy Rush with Moore as an assistant. Lieberman recalled the Pan Am training camp, where she was running around like the hyperactive teenager she was, and Harris would say, “Kid! Slow down!”
“I was probably like a bat out of hell, zipping around everywhere in practice and in the dorms, annoying everyone to go play more,” Lieberman said. “And Cathy Rush came to me and said, ‘You know, if we actually get to the competition without Lucy killing you, I would consider that an accomplishment.’
“Lucy was a country person, and I was a city kid. So in that way, we were diametrically opposite of each other. But she cared. In our conversations, she would reach out. She would always give encouragement. Every time I was around her, no matter how old we got, I would always think of her as the star of the show.”
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In the Bicentennial summer of 1976, Harris was 21 and had just finished her junior season at Delta State in her native Mississippi having won a second consecutive AIAW national championship. At 6-foot-3, she was an unstoppable force inside.
“Basically, if Lucy got the ball in the paint, one of two things was going to happen,” said Moore, who was coaching at Cal State Fullerton then. “She was going to score, or she was going to score and go to the free throw line.”
Harris shot 63.3% from the field in her college career, and averaged 25.9 points and 14.5 rebounds as a three-time All-American. Under coach Margaret Wade, Delta State played a style that suited Harris: It generally walked the ball up and ran half-court sets to get Harris the ball.
But Moore was a fast-paced, transition-oriented coach. And she felt since the Olympic-favorite Soviet Union had legendary 7-foot center Uljana Semjonova, the United States had to play up-tempo.
“Lucy hated running,” former Tennessee star Trish Roberts — who also was a member of the 1976 Olympic team — said, chuckling. “But in training camp, playing for Billie, we realized we had to run a lot. Oh, did we ever.”
Moore knew it was tough for Harris to adjust to such a radical change in style, but she did it.
“Playing internationally, you had get up and down the floor,” Moore said. “That’s another thing that has always stuck with me about Lucy. That wasn’t natural for her, but if that’s what it was going to take, she was going to do it.
“For someone as gifted as she was, who dominated inside with her strength, and great hands and post moves, to change wasn’t easy. But she worked really hard, and she was so coachable. Over the years, the further I got away from that time, the more I have admired how she handled it.”
Ann Meyers Drysdale, who had just finished her sophomore year at UCLA in 1976, remembers the explosive force that Harris was on court contrasted her easygoing personality off court.
“She was sweet, and had the best laugh,” Meyers Drysdale said. “She sewed her own clothes, and when we would travel, she would lay a lot of her clothes under the mattress so they wouldn’t get wrinkled.”
The U.S. team was formed in 1976 via regional tryouts across the country, getting whittled down to 12 in Colorado Springs. The team then went to a training camp at Central Missouri State University. The whole community in Warrensburg, Missouri, got involved, including local restaurants donating meals to the team. There was virtually no budget for it from the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States of America (ABAUSA), which was later renamed USA Basketball.
The United States wasn’t even in the Olympics yet. The Americans had to qualify at a tournament in Hamilton, Ontario. ABAUSA and the U.S. Olympic Committee weren’t prepared for them to win that event, which they did at 5-0. There were still nine days before the Montreal Games opened, and they could get into the Olympic village.
So Moore reached out to contacts at Kodak, which was based in Rochester, New York, and had started supporting the collegiate women’s All-American team in 1975. They got the University of Rochester to let the U.S. team use its gymnasium and stay in a dorm that was still under construction.
“And we didn’t have a single complaint from the players,” Moore remembered. “They were just so thrilled we were going to the Olympics. We got local men’s players to come help us scrimmage.”
Roberts recalls that she didn’t recognize the magnitude of what they were doing until marching into Olympic Stadium in Montreal. By that point she had grown close to Harris, Illinois State star Charlotte Lewis and Gail Marquis, who played at Queens College.
“There were four Black players on the team, and we kind of hung together,” Roberts said. “Not that it was a big deal; everyone got along really well. But we just loved to laugh and joke. I remember Lucy always talking about her high school sweetheart. And after the Olympics, she got married.”
“She worked really hard, and she was so coachable. Over the years, the further I got away from that time, the more I have admired how she handled it.”
Billie Moore on how Lusia Harris changed her game to fit the U.S. style
The first game of the first Olympic women’s basketball competition was between the United States and Japan, and Harris scored the first points.
“She got the ball in the lane, she went over her left shoulder and banked it in,” Lieberman said. “It was the classic Lucy basket. Charlotte Lewis was my roommate; she was 6-3 and could dunk, she was an incredible athlete. She couldn’t stop Lucy. Our teammate Nancy Dunkle couldn’t stop Lucy. Quite frankly, Semjonova couldn’t stop Lucy.”
However, the Americans didn’t have much international experience. They lost their opener to Japan, with Harris getting 17 points. That was followed by wins over Bulgaria and host Canada. Then came the showdown with the Soviet Union, which at that point had not lost an international competition since 1958. The Soviets won in a 112-77 blowout, with Semjonova getting 32 points and 19 rebounds, and Harris 18 and 10.
In the locker room before facing Czechoslovakia for the silver medal, Lieberman recalls Moore telling them how critical it was to finish with a victory.
“She said something along the lines of, ‘What you do here today can help set the course for women’s basketball for the next 25 years,'” Lieberman said. “The way she said it, it was almost like she was a prophet.”
The Americans clinched the silver medal with an 83-67 win, led by Harris’ 17 points. She averaged 15.2 points and 7.0 rebounds in the Olympics, shooting 63% from the field. Then she went back to Delta State and won another national championship in 1977.
Professional opportunities were still limited then unless players went overseas, and by graduation Harris was married with her first child on the way. She briefly played in the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League in the United States in 1979-80, but essentially by age 25, her basketball career was over.
In today’s world, it’s not at all uncommon for athletes to mix motherhood and their pro careers, but Harris simply didn’t have those kind of opportunities. But she and her Olympic teammates kept in touch over the years.
Meyers Drysdale, who has three children, would discuss parenthood with Harris. They also both worked at a basketball camp in the late 1980s when their kids were little. Meyers Drysdale said she is thankful the recent documentary “The Queen of Basketball” was done while Harris was still alive.
“Lucy got that chance to know that people really did appreciate how great she was, and that she would be remembered,” Meyers Drysdale said. “Billie always told us, ‘You were the first Olympic team, and there’s only one first.’ It is a sisterhood.”
Roberts recalls her final text messages with Harris on Jan. 10, the night of the College Football Playoff National Championship. Harris knew which team Roberts, a native of Georgia, was rooting for.
“During the game, Lucy texted, ‘How ’bout them Dawgs!'” Roberts said. “And I was like, ‘They haven’t won yet, Lucy! There’s more time!’ So when they won, she texted back, ‘Well, they’ve won now!’ And I am so glad we had that last, fun conversation.”