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Lusia “Lucy” Harris is perhaps the greatest basketball player you haven’t heard of — yet. A pioneer for women in the sport, Harris led the Delta State University Lady Statesmen to three national championships in the 1970s. In 1976, when women’s basketball was added to the Olympics, Harris scored the first basket in the inaugural game; the U.S. women’s team would earn the silver medal at the Montreal games.
After the Olympics, Harris became the first — and last — woman to be drafted by the NBA, selected by the New Orleans Jazz. After declining to try out for the team, however, Harris joined the Houston Angels in the Women’s Professional Basketball League and played professionally during the 1979-80 season.
Now, Lucy Harris is the subject of an Oscar-shortlisted documentary short called The Queen of Basketball as part of the New York Times Op-Docs series. Directed by Ben Proudfoot, who was nominated last year in the category for A Concerto Is a Conversation (co-directed by Kris Bowers), the short film follows Harris’ career and her influence on the sport, told through her own words.
On board as an executive producer is fellow basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, who spoke with THR about why he was so inspired by Harris’ story and wanted to help bring it to audiences — basketball fans and not — in order to show how much progress the sport has achieved.
What about Lucy Harris and her story inspired you to join this project?
I consider myself an information specialist. If there’s ever information I’m not aware about? I like to become aware. You hear a lot of great women’s names [in basketball history]. They’re kind of around my era, maybe a little bit before my era. But when people talk about the greatest, it’s like, “Who’s this Lucy lady?” I actually saw the film, and it fills in a huge gap in the history of basketball by telling a story that all of us need to think about and consider. Because of the time she lived in … She was a woman athlete, a black woman athlete and she’s been historically shortchanged and denied opportunities. We just want the world to know [she] was the greatest ever. I just want women, especially female athletes, to see this.
Why do you think her story was lost to time for so long?
The reason why so many other stories have been lost to time: Either the people that can tell you about them are no longer around, or they just haven’t gotten to [tell it]. And the crazy thing is, I’m sure there are more stories like this, maybe about a tennis player or golfer. When I first saw the film, I was like, “Wow.” And let’s not forget that 2022 is the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which ended discrimination on the basis of sex in college sports. As a basketball player, I always want to know who did what and when — and why, and how. I came across this story and I was super compelled to share it with the world.
Beyond looking at what Lucy accomplished in her career, what do you think the doc says beyond her contributions to the sport?
For me, sports was supposed to be a fair space. It was to be about merit and talent. It should be a place that’s free of racism and free of inequality. Fifty years after Title IX [was signed] cannot be a better time to [remember that], because we can’t let what happened during Lucy’s time happen all over again. For me, it’s just all about spreading the word, spreading the message. I don’t want anyone to have an opportunity denied.
Do you think there are athletes today who maybe take for granted what is available to them?
A lot of people take things for granted. Every time I see a legend, I always tell them, thank you. Look, I had it easy, and I know they didn’t always have it so easy. [Once I was] sitting next to Charles Barkley and he said the most he ever made was $5 million. And he’s one of the greatest players ever. Dr. J. [Julius Erving] probably made less than that. Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] made less than that. How can a guy with 11 championships make less than a million dollars? Now you got some of these guys making 200, 300 million dollars. Those are the ones that need to be thanking people like Lucy, Wilt and Kareem. That’s why I thank them all of the time, and I thanked them by releasing this film. And especially for African-American female athletes, I want them to see that they are great. And if they think they are having tough times, look at what Lucy had to go through.
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