Lusia Harris-Stewart Shows Why We Must Rewrite History

The basketball legend, who died earlier this week, is relatively unknown — and that's exactly the problem.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

“Harris may not be a household name,” cautions NPR’s obituary for legendary basketball player Lusia Harris-Stewart, who died earlier this week at 66 years old. 

In some ways, Harris-Stewart’s relative anonymity is unfortunately typical of our scattershot and ever-evolving general understanding of cultural history. That is why the discipline exists, to flesh out and correct long-misunderstood narratives, and give those who, for any number of reasons, haven’t yet received their earned place in our limited collection of known, “important” historical figures their due.

But one glance at Harris-Stewart’s laundry list of accomplishments — her opening points in the first USA Olympic women’s basketball game, her silver medal at those same 1976 Olympics, her total dominance as a college player with three AIAW national championships and a 25.9 point and 14.5 rebound per game average at Delta State (which she attended just six years after that school was integrated), her status as the first Black women inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and (the most cited) her position as the only woman ever officially drafted into the NBA, by the then-New Orleans Jazz in 1977 — and any case for why she has been excluded from sports’ canon for so long rings extra hollow. There might be some rough equivalents from the early days of men’s basketball — pioneers who have faded into obscurity with time — but Harris-Stewart’s achievements were within many people’s lifetimes, not lost in some archive.

We know the reason. Or do we? Our collective sexism, and specifically misogynoir, is certainly to blame. But it’s not as though no one told Harris-Stewart’s story; it has been chronicled in articles and oral histories, and even in a recent documentary co-produced by Shaquille O’Neal. It’s not like she was completely ignored. Instead, her story — like those of all but a select few women athletes — was deemed niche, irrelevant to most people, for whom women athletes have been either mildly interesting anomaly or the butt of some deeply unfunny joke for decades. 

But as people have gradually and far too recently been convinced of the importance of stories like Harris-Stewart’s, they have yet to be rewritten into their rightful place: at the very center of how we understand sports and our society. Her accomplishments, won so matter-of-factly, are still too subversive and radical to be connected to any kind of through-line — a through-line that certainly exists, a through-line that to explain would require a complete reinvention of our current hierarchies, our favorite myths.

The fact that her connection to the NBA is the headline of most of her obituaries, though she never so much as tried out for a team, is the most glaring symptom of this problem. Her achievements matter far beyond a move that she herself feared was a publicity stunt, far beyond her small inroad into the white, straight, male-dominated story that white, straight men have determined is worth knowing about. 

It is not about the history of women’s sports, it is about the history of sports, period, and our history, which has persistently undersold or totally ignored the work and importance of women like Harris-Stewart. The reasons why Lucy Harris, as she was known throughout her career, isn’t a household name are the same reasons why our society feels so deeply and irreconcilably fractured. One-off stories and demands for attention are necessary and yet not enough. Finding the eventual corrective will require the creativity and optimism to think beyond what seems possible, just like she did.