In the mid-1970s, when the horn sounded for a Delta State University Lady Statesmen basketball game, center Lusia “Lucy” Harris couldn’t be stopped.
“The pass comes in at No. 45 in the lane, it turns to the basket, goes up. Goal!”
This scene was repeated time and time again as she led her team to three consecutive National College Championships, earning the tournament MVP title each time. Additionally, when the Olympics finally added women’s basketball in 1976, she scored the first points in the competition’s history and led the Americans to silver at the Montreal Games.
Harris “had the distinction of being the [Olympic] top scorer and top rebounder on the team,” notes the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where she is enshrined. “Lusia Harris-Stewart was tall, relentless and dominated the painted area like no woman before her.”
Though she earned her place in the hoop room, Harris’ incredible accomplishments have been largely forgotten, even the remarkable fact that she became the first and only woman officially drafted by an NBA team (chosen in 1977 by the New Orleans Jazz). But the Oscar-nominated short documentary The queen of basketballwhich is part of the New York Time Op-docs series, helps restore Harris’ legacy.
“One of the greatest basketball players of her time, male or female,” says director Ben Proudfoot. “She was absolutely pre-eminent. She was absolutely amazing.
Proudfoot, who earned an Oscar nomination last year for A concerto is a conversation (co-directed with Kris Bowers), discovered Harris through a friend. With the help of The New York Times, he tracked down Harris in Mississippi where she was born and raised and still lives, and reached her by phone.
“I was so excited to talk to her and I told her who I was and asked her if she would be interested in talking to me and talking about her story,” Proudfoot recalled. “And she said very simply, ‘Sure, come on, come on. “”
Proudfoot says he and cinematographer-producer Brandon Somerhalder quickly crafted a road trip from Los Angeles
“It was in July in the middle of a pandemic. Brandon and I literally packed a van and drove across country to Greenwood, Mississippi, and we just camped there, and figured out a way to do the interview safely and spent a lot of time figuring it out every element of the story. he told Deadline. “You could focus on a specific game and Lucy could tell you how it went with the narrative of the game and how she did. His memory was truly at the highest level of memory I have ever encountered.
Harris, now 66, opened up about her modest upbringing in Minter City, Mississippi, the 10th of 11 children.
“We went without,” she says in the film. “But we lacked nothing.”
She would reach the height of 6′ 3″. Growing up, she recalled, children teased her with a rhyming taunt: “Long and tall and that’s it.”
In 1972, shortly before Harris graduated from high school, Title IX became law, dramatically expanding opportunities for female athletes at all levels, including college. A women’s basketball program was started at Delta State in Cleveland, Miss., under coach Margaret Wade. Harris joined the team and quickly turned it into a powerhouse.
Their main rivals were the Mighty Macs of Immaculata College, a Catholic university in Pennsylvania. The Mighty Macs boasted staunch supporters, dressed in black and white, as Harris told the director during their interviews.
“She’s like, ‘Oh yeah, the crowd was full of nuns and the nuns were banging buckets,'” Proudfoot says. with history.’ And, of course, we scanned the [archive] movie and there are the nuns and they are banging on buckets to distract the other team.
As Harris and Delta State take on Immaculata in the thriller title contest, the film’s score rumbles with “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” complete with choir.
“Our composer, Nick Jacobson-Larson, added drum elements, so it’s a mix between the Vivaldi and the drum sound that he created,” says Proudfoot. “It was a suggestion from Stephanie [Owens]our editor… This is probably my favorite sequence.
The Mighty Macs may have had the nuns on their side, but the Lady Statesmen prevailed.
“The divine spirit ended up with Lucy,” says Proudfoot. “Glory was with her.”
Harris turned down the chance to try out for the New Orleans Jazz and instead focused on raising a family, and she became the basketball coach at her high school alma mater. . In The queen of basketballshe is open about the mental health issues she sometimes encounters as an adult, a condition diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
“I chose to include it because Lucy chose to tell me,” Proudfoot explains. “I remember her telling me during the interview that she specifically wanted to talk about it because she wanted to erode the stigma around mental health.”
Shaquille O’Neal, himself one of the greatest centers in basketball history, watched The queen of basketball and later approached Proudfoot to serve as executive producer on the film.
“When I saw it, it made me cry,” Shaq revealed in an exclusive interview with Deadline. “I thought, ‘I have to do whatever it takes to get this story out to the world…’ I want to see Lusia at the Oscars, on the red carpet, I want to see this woman get shot. I want her to have that moment where she can speak to an even wider audience, so she can inspire future generations.
The NBA legend praises Harris for sharing his mental health struggles.
“I think she was brave. I think she was honest,” O’Neal says. “There are a lot of athletes who discuss their mental health and that’s also brave of them.”
“He has a huge heart,” Proudfoot says of Shaq, “and he has a huge reach, not just literally, but in terms of the audience he built. It was an extremely humble experience that he would like help tell this story…He does it because, like me, Lucy’s story ignites him. It’s a passion for him.”
Harris knows that if she had been born a man, her basketball talent would likely have earned her a fortune, as it did near-contemporaries like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. She ponders the opportunities the richness of life could have opened up, but the Lucy of The queen of basketball expresses no regrets. She’s almost shy about all she’s accomplished and endearingly self-effacing.
“She’s not looking for the spotlight. Her friends and family would probably describe her as shy, as reserved,” notes Proudfoot. “She is extremely people-oriented, making sure you are beautiful okay… She’s just incredibly humble… You’re sitting with this truly amazing human being who has accomplished more than almost anyone in the same field. And you would never know.