Lucy Harris already made history. We (and the Oscars) just caught up

In less than 22 minutes, you’ll learn about the greatest basketball story rarely told.

A segment of an old newspaper page with 'The Queen of Basketball' Lucy Harris talking to a group of ...

There is nothing new about the story of Lusia “Lucy” Harris — except us. The Mississippi native already became the first woman to score a basket in the Olympics, in 1976. She already became the first and only woman drafted into the NBA, in 1977. She already became the first Black woman enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, in 1992. Before her story was Oscar-nominated, it was already legendary. We just didn’t know it.

“I don’t know anything about basketball, but this is a preeminent and singular person. She should be the most famous female basketball player ever. Why isn’t she?” The Queen of Basketball director Ben Proudfoot tells Mic. “Honestly, my hunch was, ‘This is an African American woman in the Mississippi delta in the 1970s, that might have something to do with it.”

In July 2020, Proudfoot drove down to Mississippi and spent 11 hours with the congenial basketball pioneer, capturing her life story in her own words for the documentary The Queen of Basketball. During the roughly 22-minute film, Harris let the world in on the greatest basketball story rarely told. She grimaced when remembering her Amanda Elzy High School classmates teasing her about her height being her only redeeming quality, and beamed with joy when she remembered how her dominance on the court proved she had more to offer. She expresses no regret about declining the New Orleans Jazz’s offer to become the first woman ever to play in the NBA, because the then-pregnant basketball prodigy valued making a family over making history. She’s honest about her bipolar disorder and the way her life turned out; a life cut short on January 18, 2022 at the age of 66, weeks before her Oscar nomination.

The Queen of Basketball debuted at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival and was recently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 2022 Oscars. Speaking with Mic the day after the nominations were announced, Proudfoot discussed why Harris’s race wasn’t a major factor in the retelling of her basketball journey, the stories he couldn't fit in the doc, and the significance of mostly white Oscar voters nominating a uniquely Black story.

This documentary spends less than 22 minutes telling a story most people probably don’t know. How did you decide to tell Harris’s story?

That’s a great question. That’s something I, the editor Stephanie Owens, and the producers all talked about at length for months. Mostly, we just followed Lucy’s lead in terms of what she emphasized and what she didn't. We knew we wanted it to be short enough to be widely shared and seen by millions of people. This was designed to be easily sharable and could catch on fire on the internet. We wanted it to be as efficient as possible so you can understand not only the important plot points, twists, and turns in the story, but also the emotional impact of getting to know her and understanding who she was without putting anything in there that was redundant or didn’t need to be there.

You did mention that Harris was the only Black student at her high school, but the film doesn’t really highlight her race or the struggles that came with it. Was it a conscious decision to omit that part of her story?

Yeah, it was a conscious decision and discussed at length in the editorial process. The biggest reason why we did that is because Lucy didn’t talk about it. I went down there to Mississippi thinking that would probably be a major part of the story. She was the only Black player on her team. A few miles from where she was born and a few months from when she was born, Emmitt Till was murdered. That’s the context into which she was born — Mississippi Delta 1955. I don’t know why Lucy didn’t talk about it. She didn’t tell me any stories other than the culture shock of going from an all-Black community to a 99% white college at Delta State, at the time. She didn’t know how to acclimate. She spent a lot of her freshman year adjusting to that change. I thought, as a white man, she wasn’t comfortable telling me those stories. But, after she passed away I spoke with her roommate who is African American and said Lucy never told her stories about anybody ever treating her in any different way. She was convinced that was because Lucy wasn’t telling those stories, not because they didn’t happen.

To that point, The Queen of Basketball is nominated for an Academy Award by Oscar voters who are mostly white males. What is the significance of this nomination to you?

I think it’s a good film, but I think it’s a great story. I think it’s a story extremely well told by Lucy. What’s extraordinary about The Queen of Basketball is Lucy and the way she tells her story. As a film, it’s not the greatest film ever made; it’s very good. But it’s an incredible and singular story. Lucy is so charismatic, honest, and humble that you fall in love with her. From a demographic standpoint, I think it shows that people are voting for a great human story well told by Lucy. It transcends any demographics in the Academy, and I think it speaks to the fact Lucy is an irresistible storyteller. We did premiere the film at Tribeca and that was really special. She came out to New York City for that. I know that was really special to her. She wouldn’t have caught out any of this but, I think she would’ve enjoyed it.

In the documentary, you mention her mental health issues with bipolar disorder. Did you bring that up or did she?

I don’t think she had spoken about that publicly ever before. I didn’t know about it going in. I just asked her what her first memory was and went chronologically in our interview, which lasted 11 hours. When we got to the point when she was diagnosed, she just told me the story. She spoke about it a lot, and she spoke about how she wanted to speak out about it because she wanted to erode the stigma around mental health for others. She was very open about it. She was brave.

Is there a story about her basketball life that had to be left on the cutting room floor?

There were so many. She played to a packed audience at Madison Square Garden in New York City. She played a team that came from China to the Mississippi Delta in the ‘70s. With her older sister, she used to play for money in Chicago. She’d walk up to guys, and bet them who would win. They’d take the bet and her and her sister would always win. She said that was the only time she ever made money off of basketball. She had a lot of great anecdotes.

Speaking of her lack of pay from basketball, WNBA players are paid poorly compared to their NBA counterparts. Did she have any thoughts on the current state of women’s basketball and the WNBA?

She said she loved how far women’s basketball had come. She was frustrated by how hard it was for her to watch WNBA games from her TV in Mississippi. She was really frustrated at how hard it was for her to watch those games.

In terms of her being able to literally watch the games or emotionally?

No, no, no. It was literally hard for her to view the games. It was hard to access. She was incensed at the pay disparity. I think she was the one who told me the highest-paid WNBA player makes less than the lowest-paid NBA player. She was really upset about that. She didn’t think that was fair. She was hopeful for the future. She knew her place and importance as a pioneer in the game, and she hoped it would go in the right direction.

In the documentary, she said she had put her basketball history behind her. How important do you think her past basketball life was to her present identity at the time?

She chose in 1978 to say no to the NBA because she wanted to be a good mother. In her eyes, she felt at that time, given her circumstances, she couldn’t do both. She invested her time and energy from that point forward to being the best mother she can be. I can tell you from having attended her funeral on Saturday, that’s what people talked about. Yes, people mentioned her incredible achievements as a basketball player but, most of the time was spent talking about [Lucy] Harris the human being; the mother; the great sacrificer; the great giver of wisdom and strength; the great example of perseverance. That’s what people talked about. She was a mom and she was a friend before she was a basketball player, in her mind.