“I think it’s hard to watch the film, and not fall in love with Lucy’s laugh.” said director Ben Proudfoot. He’s right. And there’s so much more to love about Lusia “Lucy” Harris. You must watch The Queen of Basketball documentary produced for The New York Times: Op-Docs series that debuted earlier this year and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
“Born in a small town [Minter City] in south Mississippi in 1955. Became a female basketball player. At one time, was the greatest in the United States. As a matter of fact, the New Orleans Jazz drafted Lucy – the first woman to be drafted by a men’s basketball team. I don’t know what else to say about her. She’s retired now. And living a happy life!” said Lusia confidently, and somehow equally humbly, about herself in the opening of the film that details her story.
A few short months later, Lusia died unexpectedly on January 18, 2022, in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. She was 66. Her impressive legacy – and her laugh – live on.
“When I was watching the film, what I always noticed in every viewing, is that it’s also a love story about a woman’s joy. And I think there’s such a power to seeing a black woman with joy who is generous who loves her family.” reflected moderator Nana Adwoa Frimpong, during the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles’ Q&A session about the film.
As a child, Lusia often stayed up past her bedtime watching her favorite NBA players with a quilt over her head and the TV, dreaming of some day playing on the same courts. Growing to mighty 6’3″ by the time she was in high school, Lusia was often called “long and tall and that’s all” by her classmates. But she knew she could be much more than that on the court — and off of it.
Lusia went on to lead the Delta State University women’s basketball team to three consecutive national championships in the mid-1970s, averaging 25.9 points and 14.4 rebounds per game. “Lucy Harris was the trademark for how centers should play,” Hall of Famer Ann Meyers-Drysdale told The Next.
Lusia earned a gold medal as a member of the ’75 US Pan American Team that competed in Mexico City. Before earning a silver medal in ’76, when she made history as the first woman to score a basket in the Olympics. Later, she entered the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as the first Black woman and the first female college player ever to be enshrined there.
However Lusia’s moment came decades before the WNBA was started. So a few months after her final game at Delta State, Lusia was chosen with 137th pick by the Utah Jazz in the NBA draft in ’77. Only one woman before her, Denise Long, then a high school senior, had been drafted — by the San Francisco Warriors in 1969 — but Walter Kennedy, the NBA commissioner, disallowed the pick reported the New York Times.
Lusia worked as an admissions counselor and assistant women’s basketball coach at Delta State; played for the Houston Angels of the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League during the 1979-80 season; and coached the Texas Southern University women’s basketball team from 1984 to 1986. She earned a master’s in special education from Delta State in 1984, and taught special education in Mississippi.
“She broke so many barriers at Delta State outside of athletics. [She was a charter member of Delta Sigma Theta incorporated.] She was the homecoming queen [at Delta State]. It’s just amazing to hear the impact she had not just in athletics, but also in education, in social organizations, and just different ventures like that.” Crystal Washington, Lusia Harris’ daughter said.
Amidst all her accolades and success, Lusia’s proudest work was the wonderful family she created. “My mom was an incredible person…For me, as a daughter, I just always looked up to her. When you listen to her story, there are several different instances where she always chose family, and so a lot of people always talk about you know when she was drafted by the NBA, she chose her family. But there were times later in life where she had the opportunity to go and coach with the Utah Stars, and she turned them down because she wanted to raise her daughters. So for me as a mother, that’s the type of mother that I want to be for my children, and it’s all because of her.” said Crystal.
Ben Proudfoot, an Academy Award® nominated short-documentary director and entrepreneur, brought Lusia’s story to life. His Breakwater Studio’s work has been recognized by the Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca, Hot Docs, The Emmys, The Webbys, James Beard Foundation, and Telluride among others. Shaquille O’Neal executive produced the film.
“The Queen of Basketball fills a huge gap in the history of basketball by finally letting the lovely Mrs. Lucy Harris tell her own story. I think it’s a story that we all need to think about. Because she was a great talent. And you know, she was denied the opportunity to have a fulfilling, enriching career because she was a woman. And this is 2022. It’s the 50th anniversary of the signing of Title IX, which has gone a long way in ending discrimination.” said Shaquille.
“So the question is: who else are we keeping at bay?” he posed.
Take a moment to enjoy the film here or to read the transcript below:
“Growing up in a pretty much all black community, everybody knew each other. There was 11 of us. Big family. Next to the last, Lusia May Harris: Lucy.”
“My parents were sharecroppers. So we would pick cotton when we came home from school. That was our way of making a living. I know we went without. But we didn’t want for anything.”
“A lot of the kids would gather at our house to play ball, because they didn’t have a goal, and we did. I would stay up long past our bed time, and put a quilt over our TV and my head so I could watch Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], Oscar Robertson my favorite.”
“‘Lucy, you better go to bed! You got school in the morning.’ ‘OK mama, I’m going.’ and I’d watch a little bit more.”
“I wanted to grow up and have my own family. And I wanted to shoot that ball just like they were shooting it. I was taller than everyone else in my class. 6’3″. They would tease me: ‘Long and tall, and that’s all.’ That I was tall and I couldn’t do anything else. That wasn’t true.”
“I became a member of the [basketball] team. But I didn’t know how to play. I had to learn how to play defense, offense, pivot. I did develop a shot. It just came natural. I remember one game. I had scored 40 points – their whole team had not scored 40 points. My whole attitude changed about my height. It became an asset.”
“In ’72 Title IX was passed. Whatever you provide for the men, you have to provide for the women also. Equality. I had made it up in my mind that I was going to go to Alcorn [State University]. It’s a black school, but they didn’t have a women’s basketball program. So I changed my mind.”
“Being the only black on this team [at Delta State] I had to adjust to that. I wasn’t really close to anybody on the team. But once we got on that floor you couldn’t tell. When I got the ball, I knew my job was to score. And more than likely, I would score.”
“[We] got to the semi-finals: the game that determines whether you go on to nationals, and we lost that one game. Man, we were highly upset. And we got together as a team, and we told each other, ‘If we get this far next year, we’re going to go on to the national tournament.'”
“Now, the NCAA had not taken over then. It was just for the men. Couldn’t play with the men. At the time Larry Bird, Magic, they were NCAA. But women had AIAW: Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. We went all the way. The name of the team to beat was Immaculata. They had won three national championships. So we had said we were going to win three national championships, too.”
“They were undefeated. They had a lot of nuns – because that was a Catholic school – nuns that would cheer for them. And they were beating on buckets. We had a big crowd from Cleveland. It was so loud in there that you couldn’t hardly hear anything.”
“Most of the time she [her coach, Margaret Wade] wouldn’t say anything. She would just open up her jacket. And it said, ‘Give ‘Em hell.’ Debbie brought the ball down the court, passed it to Wanda or Ramona, and they would pass it to me.”
“‘Oh, they’re not going to win.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah?’ We had to really battle. Touch and go there for a while. A small town team, and we won the game.”
Delta State University’s Lady Statesmen upset three-time defending champion Immaculata 90 to 81.
“A lot of people began to follow the game, a lot of fans.”
The men’s team drew only half as many fans as the women’s team, who regularly sold out the school 4,500-seat field house.
“We began to travel more. That was the first time that I had flown on an airplane. As a matter of fact, the men didn’t fly, and the women did. I guess the women were bringing in the money – no comment.”
“Nobody expected us to win back-to-back championships. So we won.”
They won 69 to 64, to become national champions a second time – after only four years of existence as a team.
“Lusia, she’s hard to describe, really. She’s one in a million. I don’t think there’ll ever be another ball player like her. And to have the personality that she has and be as humble as she is, it’s really incredible. It’s hard to explain.” said her teammate.
“Montreal, that was the very first time that women’s basketball was placed in the Olympics. It was just unreal. We played Japan the very first game. They shot the first basket, but they missed. Came back down the court. Ann Meyers passed me the ball. I shot it and made it.”
Lusia made the first basket in the history of Olympic women’s basketball.
“And Ann Meyers said, ‘That’s history.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah?’ Maybe that is history. Now that’s a record that will never be broken. We won the silver medal. I wanted my parents to be proud of me, and they were. Make you feel special.”
Delta State and Lucy went on to win their third consecutive national championship title.
“I wanted to keep playing. But there was no place to go. There was no WNBA when I came along. It didn’t exist. My high school sweetheart, George, asked me to marry him. I said yes. There are different forms of mental illness. My form is bipolar. It didn’t surface until after I stopped playing.”
“Phone ring – someone from the New Orleans Jazz calling, looking for Lucy. We want you to come and try out for the team. We had already decided to start a family. I just thought it was a publicity stunt. And I felt like I didn’t think I was good enough. Competing against a woman, yes. It’s a different story competing against a man. So I decided not to go. I said no to the NBA.”
“When I realized, I don’t have a job. To just try to make it, you know, to just try to make a living for myself and for my family, I was looking for a coaching job. And just having a feeling of not wanting to be there, not wanting to be where I am. I think it took its toll. I had a nervous breakdown, and I had to return home.”
“I got a job at Amanda Elzy, my old high school. And I became the head coach there. And I began to pick myself up. After years went on by, seemed like all of that was a separate life. I never picked up a newspaper to read an article about how good I was. I clipped the newspaper articles out and put them in my scrapbook. Until after my career was over. That’s when I went back and started reading about what I did as a player.”
“Three-time national champion, Olympian, wow. Very impressive. I have good memories about basketball. The NBA, I don’t regret not going, not even a little bit. Why not? Christopher is a lawyer. Eddie has a master’s. Christina received a Doctorate. Crystal has a Doctorate in education, which she received from Delta State. They’re athletes, all of them. ‘Momma, I didn’t know you was a star.’ I say, ‘Yeah I had my days.'”
“If I was a man, then there would have been options for me to go further and play. I certainly would have had money. Would have been able to do a lot of things that I would have wanted to do. Yeah, they’re millionaires. Famous. But I wanted to grow up and shoot that ball just like they would shoot it, and I did. As a matter of fact, I was inducted into the Hall of Fame. First female athletes, me and Nera White, escorted by Oscar Robertson, my favorite.”
“Basketball has come a long way. Maybe the world would have known my name, had I continued playing. But I didn’t, so I don’t speculate.”
The world knows the queen of basketball’s name now. Not a moment too soon. “I got the call last week about her passing. And it’s sad to me because after Kobe [Bryant] and my sister passed away, I broke one of my rules. I said to myself that when I want to do something or see somebody or reach out to somebody I’m going to do it every day. And I talked to her and I was like ‘I’m going to come see you after this, and after this,’ and I didn’t even get a chance to hug her, and kiss her on the hand, kiss her on the cheek, and tell her I’m sorry. So it just kind of hurts me. So to everybody out there…if you want to call somebody and say you love them or miss them or you just want to see them, do not wait til the next day. As soon as they come into your mind make sure you handle it.” said Shaquille.
“We feel very fortunate that we had the chance to make this film, and for [Lusia] to see some of its success while she was alive.” explained Ben.
Lucy paved the way for athletes today. This documentary has to be required viewing for all Americans, and we have to remember her name.
Learn more about Lusia Harris here: