Wicker honors women basketball stars for Black History Month

U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, (R-Miss.), took to the Senate floor to honor two Mississippi basketball stars, Lusia “Lucy” Harris and Alice Ruth “Ruthie” Bolton.

“I rise today during this Black History Month to call attention to two remarkable daughters of the state of Mississippi, two basketball legends, Lusia Harris and Ruthie Bolton,” Wicker said. “These two Mississippi athletes took women’s basketball to new heights, and they continue to inspire countless young girls to follow their dreams in sports.”

Harris, who recently passed away at the age of 66, was a three-time national champion, an Olympian, and the first woman to be drafted by the NBA.

Bolton, 54, is a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and WNBA All-Star from McLain, Miss.

See below for Wicker’s full remarks, as delivered.

Mr. President, I rise today during this Black History Month to call attention to two remarkable daughters of the state of Mississippi, two basketball legends, Lusia Harris and Ruthie Bolton. These two Mississippi athletes took women’s basketball to new heights, and they continue to inspire countless young girls to follow their dreams in sports. When the Academy Awards announced their nominations, we learned that a New York Times documentary on the life of basketball legend Lusia Harris had been nominated for an Oscar.

This hit documentary has already received nearly 700,000 views on YouTube, where viewers can find it under the name of “The Queen of Basketball.” I was certainly thrilled to hear the news of this nomination, and I encourage every American to watch the 20-minute film. It’s a story of American grit and determination and the story of an extraordinary Mississippian breaking multiple glass ceilings in the world of sports.

Known by her friends as Lucy, Ms. Harris led an extraordinary life, becoming a three-time national champion and Olympian, and the first and only woman officially drafted by the NBA. The first and only woman ever officially drafted by the NBA. Unfortunately, we lost Ms. Harris all too soon last month at the age of 66.

Lucy Harris, a Mississippi Delta native, was the tenth of 11 children born to sharecropper parents. As a child, she would stay up past her bedtime watching the basketball greats Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson. In her words, “I wanted to grow up and shoot that ball just like they would shoot it, and I did.”

At a towering height of six foot three, Lucy became a superstar at Amanda Elzie High School in Greenwood, Mississippi. When she graduated in 1973, Title IX was fresh off the books, opening up options for college basketball. Lucy was quickly recruited to Delta State University on a scholarship, where she led her team to three consecutive national championships as the team’s only African-American player. As she put it, “When I got the ball, I knew my job was to score. And more than likely, I would score.”

Lucy averaged 25.9 points per game and 14.4 rebounds while she was at Delta State, where the women’s game started to sell twice as many tickets as the men’s. Her raw talent and leadership lifted the Lady Statesman to a record of 109 wins and six losses during her tenure. 109 and six. And to this day, she remains Delta State’s all-time scoring leader with 2,981 points.

It should be no surprise that Lucy was recruited for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. There she made history by scoring the first points ever in a women’s Olympic basketball game and led Team USA to a silver medal. If that wasn’t enough, the following year she was recruited by the New Orleans Jazz  a men’s basketball team. But by then, she had married her high school sweetheart, George Stewart, and was pregnant with their first child. And so she turned down the chance to play for the New Orleans Jazz.

Instead, she returned to Delta State University, where she served as an assistant coach and earned a master’s in education. She later became a high school teacher and girl’s basketball coach at her alma mater in Greenwood. And in between, she spent two years coaching women’s basketball at Texas Southern University in Houston.

Lucy Harris’ name is forever written in the history books. In 1992, she became the first Black woman to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and was later ushered into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. She is survived by her children: Christopher, Eddie, Christina, and Crystal, all of whom have won college degrees and who carry on her memory.

If the WNBA had existed in the 1970s, I think we can safely assume Lucy Harris would have continued to dominate the court for many years. She did not get that chance. The WNBA would not come into existence until 1997. But I’m proud to say that another daughter of Mississippi, Ruthie Bolton, followed in the footsteps of Lucy and carried the torch forward.

Ruthie Bolton was born 12 years after Lucy Harris, hailing from Greene County, Mississippi. She was the 16th of 20 children. Ruthie first dreamed of a career in basketball as a star player for McLain High School, where she led the team to a state championship. Then she landed a scholarship at Auburn University, where she helped the Tigers to three Southeastern Conference titles and four NCAA Tournament appearances.

Ruthie Bolton went on to play 15 seasons of professional ball in Europe, including the country of Turkey, and in the United States, where she played eight seasons for the Sacramento Monarchs. She also helped Team USA win two gold medals at the Olympics in 1996 and 2000. Ruthie Bolton now stands shoulder to shoulder with Lucy Harris in the women’s basketball Hall of Fame.

Mr. President, my wife Gayle and I had the honor of meeting Ruthie Bolton a few days ago while touring her native Greene County, Mississippi. We each got to hold the two gold medals. And Ruthie and I were given the privilege of leading a local lunch crowd in a verse of Amazing Grace.

As we celebrate Black History Month, I am immensely proud to honor these two outstanding Mississippi athletes.

In her Oscar nominated film, Lucy Harris had this message to the next generation of young Americans. She said, and I quote, “I especially want those young children to understand that if you work hard…anything is possible.” That was the optimistic attitude that made Lucy Harris such a success. Those were great words of advice to our future heroes. Words proved true by people like Mississippians Lucy Harris and Ruthie Bolton.

Bob Bakken

Bob Bakken is the most recognized and most trusted name in DeSoto County news and sports reporting, as readers continue to express their appreciation for his accuracy and fairness in the stories he writes. Bob provides content for DeSoto County News and occasionally is heard on the OB Pod podcast talking about area happenings. A former newspaper editor and writer, his award-winning background also includes television news producing, sports media relations, and radio broadcasting.

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