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Give the Ball to Lusia

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Give the Ball to Lusia

A woman? Yes, the New Orleans Jazz had indeed selected a woman in the seventh round of the 1977 draft. And yes, it was a publicity stunt.

by Dan Sorensen

Lusia Harris-Stewart"Well, look at all the publicity we got," said then Jazz general manager Lewis Shaffel.

Maybe the Jazz should have taken their seventh pick more seriously. None of their earlier picks made the team, and the Jazz, 35-47 that season, kept their losing tradition intact for several seasons. The woman they chose was Lusia Harris-Stewart, the All-American from Delta State. She had led the Lady Statesmen to three national titles. She was the star of the 1976 Olympic team that won a silver medal in Montreal. At 6-3 and 185 pounds, she was big and strong. She had a quick step to the basket, was a relentless rebounder, and a deft shooter. A female Karl Malone.

Lusia (pronounced Lucy) knew she could dominate a lot of male players, but doubted she could compete against the likes of Dr. J, Kareem, Bill Walton, or Bob Lanier. "No, I never even thought of showing up in camp," she says with a laugh. She knows she was born twenty years too early; had the WNBA existed back then, Lusia would have cleaned up. You'd see her on commercials like the ones you see now with Swoopes and Lobo exuding all that We Got Next attitude. Though it's hard to imagine Lusia ever putting on any attitude.

Lusia now lives in Greenwood, Mississippi, "The Cotton Capital of the World." It's also the place where they filmed "Ode to Billy Joe" and "Mississippi Masala." Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, spent time in Greenwood and is buried in nearby Itta Bena. Lusia's light brown tract home is in a modest subdivision near the industrial park where they make Baldwin pianos and basketball backboards. Her small yard is inhabited by three mutts: Phoenix greets arriving visitors, Queen runs after cars, and Jody likes to bite.

Inside the home, Lusia's niece, Karen, is cooking dinner, and Karen's small daughters are watching Smurfs on TV. There's a purple Barney doll on a sofa, but otherwise the living room is neat and devoid of clutter. The best sofa is covered in protective plastic. The pink carpet is worn, but newly vacuumed. Lusia is wearing a white blouse and a red vest patterned with intricate shapes of black and gold. When she takes a seat on a floral-patterned sofa, you can tell that her knees are bothering her. "My doctor says I should have my knees operated on, but I want to take some weight off first." Later in the day Lusia will stop by a medical clinic to pick up a supply of Lodine samples, which the clinic saves up for her. "It helps the arthritis," she says.

Lusia's living room contains reminders of her illustrious career in basketball: photos of the Lady Statesmen and the '76 Olympic team; a framed copy of the Delta State proclamation of Lusia Harris Day; the plaque, still wrapped in the protective plastic, announcing her election into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; an album of photos from that day in May of 1992 when Oscar Robertson escorted her to the podium to join fellow Hall of Famers Connie Hawkins, Bob Lanier, Lou Carnesecca and Al Maguire.

"There's a picture of Annie, you know, Ann Meyers, she came to the ceremony. She's a good friend," says Lusia. "It was unreal. When they called, I said 'What hall of fame? What are you talking about?' It took a while to sink in that it was the Hall of Fame." She keeps her Olympic silver medal, housed in a polished rosewood box, safely locked away. She takes it along when she gives basketball clinics during the summer. "I like to show it to the kids to motivate them."

Basketball is still a big part of Lusia's Life: She coaches the Lady Dragons at Quitman County High, where she also teaches health and P.E. Her twin 11-year old daughters, Crystal and Christina, play ball; they are now 5-7 and still growing. Her 17-year-old son, Eddie, is 6-11, wears a size 20 shoe, and is still growing, though he recently lost 40 pounds to get down to 320. "He wants to be Shaquille," says Lusia, smiling.

She doesn't have much time these days to watch a lot of basketball on TV, but she follows the game closely. "I love Karl Malone," she says. "I just like the way he carries himself on the court. He seems like a neat person." Lusia hesitates, then continues. 'Now I know he's married and a real family man, but I have to say that he's just a fine-looking man." Silent for a few seconds, Lusia ventures a hesitant question: "Do you think it would be possible to get his autograph?"

Lusia Harris-Stewart Lusia's own family is an extended one. Her two sons, Eddie and Christopher — "He's a big boy, too, nine years old and 200 pounds" — live in Houston with her former husband, George Stewart, who sells cars. Her household in Greenwood includes her twin girls, her niece Karen, and Karen's daughters, Kanique, 6, and Alexis, 4. Karen's parents died ten years ago in a fire. "Three of my brothers died under tragic circumstances," says Lusia. "Besides Karen's dad, Robert, there was Sammie, who was shot, and Willie Jr., who was stabbed to death by his wife."

Willie Jr.'s daughter, Annie, lives on the other side of the Highway 82 with Lusia's 94-year-old father. Annie herself was severely burned in another fire, and in addition to caring for her grandfather, she takes care of her three-year-old son Denarius and her one-year-old grandson, Cordrick. Michael and James, Karen's brothers, also reside in the house.

Two of Lusia's sisters live nearby. Ella lives in Greenwood and works at the local mental health center, and Ethel, who loves to gamble in the riverboat casinos in Greenville, is a special ed teacher over in Cleveland, Mississippi. Other siblings live in Chicago, and when the family gathers, it is always at Lusia's home on Cherry Street.

Lusia's mother, Ethel, had been the center of the family. Lusia's siblings tell her she reminds them of their mother. "They think I look like her. She was quiet, and she ruled with an iron hand," says Lusia. "But she was a lot of fun, very playful. She was real big, maybe 300 pounds, and she had this favorite chair. If you were sitting in it and slow getting up, she'd just sit in your lap." Lusia's mother raised 11 children and various cousins in a three-room, tin-roofed sharecropper's shack. They worked couple of acres in Minter City, which was hardly ever more than a village, and now is not much more than a gas station and washeteria near the intersection roads 8 and 49E.

Lusia's father wasn't always around the field. "He didn't work the farm. I don't know what he did, but he'd go off somewhere. He never learned to drive, but a few years ago Hal Pleasant up in Minter City gave him a golf cart to get around in. Now that he's here in Greenwood, he can't drive it because he'd try to drive down the middle of the highway in it."

Lusia's mother made the kids go to bed early, but they would drape a quilt over the old black and white TV that got just one channel, crawl under the quilt, and turn up the sound just loud enough to hear it. Their favorite shows were Father Knows Best and I Love Lucy. Sometimes their mother would hear them laughing and yell from the next room to go to sleep so they could get up for school.

Lusia Harris-Stewart School was T.Y. Fleming, a red brick one-story building right across the road from the field. During cotton season, Lusia had to come right home after school to help with the picking. "Man, that was hard work. Around the edges of the boll are these sharp burs, and you cut up your cuticles pretty good picking out the seed-cotton.” Motoring up 49E toward Minter City on a rainy afternoon, Lusia thinks about those burs and glances at the back of her right hand. Just golden red nail polish now on the nails of her graceful fingers.

As a girl Lusia would pick the seed-cotton one boll at a time and deposit it into a sack behind her from her shoulder. "It could get pretty heavy, 60 or 70 pounds if you stuffed it full." It was hard work, hot and muggy. "My sister Ella didn't have to get in the field because she was afraid of the little pink bollworms," says Lusia, laughing. Older brother Frankie got across the field by driving the school bus, while he was still a student, for Amanda Elzy High down in Greenwood. He was a basketball star, but instead of going to college, he rode the bus up to Chicago, looking to get out of the South and make a living.

At first her older brothers and sisters wouldn't let Lusia play with them when they went to "the hill,” the place at the side of the house where they had affixed a hoop to a backboard constructed of nailed-together scrap wood. "I don't know why they called it the hill, because it was totally flat,” says Lusia with a big laugh. She started fooling around with the basketball herself after the older siblings left the hill. Later on she started going one-on-one with older sister Janie. "All I wanted to do at first was beat Janie," she says.

The rain's coming down pretty hard outside the car, and you can see a low red brick building through the ticking wind-shield wipers of Lusia's Windstar van. "There's T.Y. Fleming," says Lusia, gesturing to her left. "And here's our field." She points across the muddy winter stubble to a line of white oaks. "Our house used to be right back in there." On the other side of the road, tucked into the willows, is a white sign that says: "Minter City, Home of Lusia Harris, Mississippi's First All-American Women's College Basketball Player."

Lusia continued to come home from School and pick cotton, dreaming the whole time of getting across the field herself. She rehearsed in her mind her move to the basket. She was tall and awkward and hated to run, but after awhile, the kids stopped laughing at her on the basketball court, which was just a dirt patch with chalked-in lines. "The lines would get scraped away, so we'd have to stop playing to fix them again," says Lusia. "We had a lot of fun."

In high school, Lusia got on the bus that stopped across the field on highway 49E and rode down to Amanda Elzy in Greenwood, where she played basketball on a real court and amassed many awards and much attention. "Just give the ball to Lusia," everyone said. She still came home to pick cotton before the sun went down, and on weekends waited on tables at Miss Litha's in Minter City. She also studied hard and got good grades.

Lusia Harris-Stewart On her first trip into Greenwood she saw a big red brick mansion surrounded by a picket fence whiter than cotton. "That was my dream house." Today the paint on the fence has peeled away.

Riding into Greenwood as a girl, Lusla still had the dream of going across the field, of entering that happy world glimpsed on the black and white TV while she crouched under the quilt. But she wasn't quite sure what form that dream of happiness would take. Then Delta State and coach Margaret Wade came calling, and Lusia's dream had apparently found its fulfillment. Cleveland, Mississippi was only forty miles away from Minter City, but it seemed a world away from the field.

"I had seen white people before, but I had never talked to them," says Lusia. "I was really shy" She was the only black player for the Lady Statesman; as usual, the strategy was give the ball to Lusia.. "Coach Wade was a real mother figure. She really knew how to motivate you. She had this badge on the inside of her blazer, and whenever we'd take the floor she'd flap it open. The badge said, "Give 'em hell!"

All the opponents knew what the Lady Statesmen were going to do — give the ball to Lusia — so they stepped on her toes, scratched, elbowed, shouldered, and shoved her. "My way of getting back was on the boards. Or I'd say, 'OK, you do that again and I'll do you back." Lusia averaged 27 points a game, and her team compiled a 107-6 record over three years. "We filled the Coliseum every game. We had people squeezed around the floor." The Lady Statesmen kept giving the ball to Lusia and won three national championships.

At Delta State everyone loved Lusia. She was Homecoming Queen, strolling and waving across the football field to accept an armful of roses. The president of the university proclaimed Lusia Harris Day. His citation read: "Basketball star, world traveler, Olympic medalist, and All-American, Lusia has always been first a charming and gracious person."

Everything was going great. Lusia married her high school sweetheart and got a job working as an admissions counselor for Delta State. She traveled the state talking to kids, motivating them the way Coach Wade had motivated her. But what Lusia really wanted to do was teach; she was also tired of being on the road so much. She approached the administration at Delta State about teaching some classes. She had a master's degree in education, but there just weren't opportunities at Delta. Lusia is typically matter-of-fact about the episode, but you talk for any length of time with Lusia's father, and he'll start in on how the university done his daughter wrong.

Lusia and her husband packed up and moved to Houston, where Lusia got a job at Texas Southern University and George got a job selling cars. She taught phys ed and health, and coached basketball, volleyball, and tennis. But she missed Mississippi. "It didn't go well. I had some depression and just had to get back home." George stayed in Houston. Back in Greenwood, Lusia cared for her dying mother, who had refused to move out of the house in the field. "We had found another place for her as a FHA hardship case, but she just would not move." Lusia shakes her head at the memory. "She just would not move."

Lusia was able to get on at her old high school, Amanda Elzy, where she taught health and coached. But after two years there, she was presented with a pink slip. "Last hired, first fired," Lusia says simply. You lose one job; you have no choice but to find another. She worked as a substitute at W.C. William Elementary, and then did study hall at Bankston school, and after that got on at Armstrong Elementary over in Greenville, where she also coached freshman basketball at the high school. Next she taught special ed in Ruleville, and after that worked for two years at Drew High. She heard about a job at Quitman County High, where she could also coach. It was an hour drive from Greenwood, but she wanted to get back into basketball.

These days she leaves the house at 6:30 a.m. every morning and heads up 49E toward Quitman County, driving in the dark past the glimmering square ponds of the catfish farms and cotton field of her youth. During the basketball season, doesn't get home till past 10:30 at night. "The parents up there don't care about coming to pick up their kids after practice, so I drive a lot of the girls home." Lusia bought a used Ford Windstar van last fall, but already she's put 20,000 miles on it. "And I've gone through two tires and gotten three speed-tickets," she says with a rueful laugh.

At Quitman County High Lusia teaches four periods of health and two of P.E. "Right now the school is struggling to get accreditted," she says. "The air-conditioning doesn't work, and in the winter the heater doesn't work. Sometimes the kids have to keep their coats on in class." The kids are all grouped together, 8th through 12th grade, and so Lusia has to deal with big differences in knowledge and understanding. "One of the problems is that the kids just don't want to read. They can't afford books, but somehow they play video games and come to school with $150 Air Jordans. I don't think they have the right priorities."

Then there's the problem of disipline. "When I was growing up, if adult told you not to do something, you listened. But now, even if you are teacher, if you tell a kid something, they'll just say, 'you're not my mother.'"

Lusia insists that her own children follow the rules. "I tell them before they can play, they have to get their homework out. I want them to do well in school. And I tell my daughters they could make a career out of basketball. You never know what the game will be like for women when they get older.

"It's hard for them to picture what it was like back in the field." But Lusia is not one to dwell in the past. "It's been tough, but life goes on."

About the only time Lusia has for herself these days is when she sits up in bed late at night, props up a notebook and puts some of her thoughts on paper, filling a page or two with her old-fashioned and elegant handwriting. She also has time for herself when she sits at the wheel of her red Windstar, driving to and from school up in Quitman County. She tunes the radio to the gospel station and listens to Shirley Caesar or the Starlite Singers. As the days get longer and the gray days of winter give way to spring sunshine, the catfish farms shine like sheets of silver, and among the cotton blossoms the tall cotton gins glisten like green temples. Sometimes Lusia thinks of the days back in the field, when she dreamed of having a perfect family where father knew best and everyone was happy ever after.

"Things just didn't work out that way. But family still comes first. My family is my life."