Alfreda Harris — Boston’s First Lady of Basketball 

Alfreda Harris 

Boston’s First Lady of Basketball 

“I trust Alfreda Harris. Her good sense, her judgment, her straight talk, her values. In everything she does, I know that her top priority is and always has been in the best interest of kids. There are many who claim to make a difference. Alfreda Harris is among the few who actually do. She is the real deal.” 

-Boston Mayor Tom Menino, 2010 

Known to her legion of former players and mentees as Ms. Harris, Roxbury native Alfreda Ramsey Harris is a true legend as a coach. Community leader, teacher, and mentor to generations of Boston’s youth.  

For more than fifty years Harris has served the community in a wide variety of roles. These include the following: Deputy Director of Recreation for the City of Boston; member; of Boston School Committee (retiring in 2013 after 16 years as the committee’s longest-serving member), first women’s head coach of basketball at UMass-Boston; first head women’s basketball coach at Roxbury Community College & Emerson College, only woman to coach boys at Boston Shootout Tournament, Project Director of Harvard School of Public Health’s “Play Across Boston” program, Project Director for Northeastern University’s “Sport in Society: ” Program Director at The Shelburne Community Center (where the gymnasium is named in her honor); and guiding force with former Celtic Wayne Embry behind the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League (BNBL). 

Among the many awards she’s received are the Henry L. Shattuck Award for Public Service from the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, the WCVB Good Sport Award, and the Mannie Jackson Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame given to “individuals who have honored the game through lifelong accomplishments,” while “striving to improve their communities by making a commitment to others.” 

Commenting on her home, Harris shared these observations in an interview she conducted for a Northeastern University oral history of Boston:  

You know, I have always said, there is gold in the hills of Roxbury. You know, just give us an opportunity and we will succeed. It is all good things, good people, and people doing good things. I remember how I got to work with young people for the city of Boston. I was taking my daughter to nursery school and Jeep Jones (Boston’s deputy Mayor to Kevin White) was taking his daughter to nursery school, and he looked up at me and he said, you know what, I got a job that would fit you to a T. I said, what do you mean? He said, no let me tell you, he said, I want you to go on Wednesday. This is where I want you to go, I want you to see this certain person. And I went, and I actually ended up working for the city. I started off as an instructor in recreation. When I retired I was deputy commissioner of recreation. When I think back on it, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to prove what I could do and what I could do well. Then I think about all the young people I have mentored who have went on to become good upstanding citizens. Through that I have touched so many lives, and through the simple game of basketball.” 

Of her early days in the game she reflected, “I played basketball at the Shaw House. You know, back in the day when you played half court and couldn’t go over half court. Under the direction of Phyllis Walker. That is where I honed my skills as well as in the Boston public school system at Girls High School (Class of 1955).” In short time she and a few of her teammates improved their games by joining the boys for their five-on-five games while abandoning a soon-to-be-antiquated format that called for two teams of girls, comprised of three guards and three forwards, to each play on only one portion of the floor. Forwards would defend and pass to their guards while never crossing over and vice versa.  

In her four-plus decades as a coach, she helped countless players, including Olympic stars Medina Dixon and Michelle Edwards, who starred for her Shelburne Smokers, secure college scholarships. Included among the youngsters who rode the bus with her on countless AAU and college excursions were also a legion of future lawyers, doctors, teachers, coaches, and even a few referees. 

And while her Roxbury Community College and UMass teams set a gold standard, capturing four New England championships while achieving an impressive 136-20 won/lost record, her mantra was always simply, “education through recreation.”   

Her most cherished reward is when former players greet her on the street or while shopping stopping to thank her for the guidance she provided while steering them to college and career choices. Such is the game-changing and life-altering mentoring from Boston’s beloved first lady of basketball.  

About the Curator’s Corner

Richard Johnson’s “Curator’s Corner” is  where you will find videos featuring Richard and Sports Museum Executive Director, Rusty Sullivan, discussing Boston sports history, as well as blog posts written by Richard himself.

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