If someone asked you who the greatest names in basketball are, what would you say? Based on where you live, your generation, perspective, you might list Jordan, LeBron, Magic, Shaq or Kobe. Some might say Leslie, Swoopes, Staley, etc. How many would say “Harris?” Well, Ben Proudfoot schools us all in his short documentary, The Queen of Basketball about one of the greatest basketball players that ever lived, Lusia “Lucy” Harris.
The Queen of Basketball has all the elements of a great sports movie: a strong story, compelling hero, realism, the right mix of action, and a (somewhat) happy ending. It opens with the playful banter between woodwinds and strings in a hopeful composition as a grainy video of a women’s basketball game comes into focus. Even with the sound from the game replaced with the orchestral melody, you can feel the electricity in the gym. The crowd on their feet while the jacketed coaches sit contemplatively on the sidelines staring at the hoop—you know a lot is riding on this game.
And there she is, Harris, number 45, a Black woman at the free-throw line, standing tall, a shining light in a multitude of faces, her face almost hidden by the basketball she's holding. She shoots, rebounds, and shoots again, then gracefully bounds toward the other end of the court. We hear, then see our narrator, now an older version of number 45–equal parts delight and grace–whose eyes sparkle as she speaks. Hers is the only voice we need to tell her story. Her magic and wonder belying her grey crown—her sweet countenance sweet-talking you.
Proudfoot’s The Queen of Basketball is a coming-of-age story in many ways. As much as Harris loved the game, she didn't quite know how to play it when she started high school. But would eventually join the inaugural women’s Olympics team, scoring its first basket making history with a team comprised of greats like Pat Summitt and Nancy Lieberman. Then in 1977, she became the first woman drafted by the NBA. But before we get to that part of the story, we visit 1950’s Mississippi, just a hair beyond Jim Crow, when Harris was born second to last of 9 kids in a family of sharecroppers.
At night, Harris would pull a quilt over her head to watch Russell, Chamberlain, and her favorite, Oscar Robinson, play ball for hours. As the tallest person in her class at 6’3’’ she said her classmates would tease her, saying “long and tall and that’s all” When she joined the basketball team at Amanda Elzy High School, she had to learn the mechanics of the game: defense, offense, how to pivot, etc. But with matter-of-fact humility, she states the one thing she didn’t have to learn was her shot; because “it just came [naturally].” She shot 40 points in one game, and the opposing team didn’t have 40 points collectively. Harris quips that she is actually “long and tall, and that’s NOT all.”
Twenty years before the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) existed, Harris would be the first woman drafted by the NBA. How had her name not been in the common lexicon of superheroes and history-makers? In less than 30 minutes, Proudfoot guides the viewer through a narrative that touches on American history, mind-health issues, race, and gender politics (without hitting you over the head with it) and without Harris having to do anything other than talk about her life lived without regret. In her own, again, joyful matter-of-fact voice, she shares her thoughts about some heralded basketball players of her generation—not necessarily by name, but in two general statements: “If I were a man, there would’ve been more options for me to go further and play, I certainly would’ve had money….they are millionaires, famous…but I wanted to grow up and shoot that ball just like they were shooting and I did.” While sharing this, Proudfoot shows video clips of the commercials of her contemporaries like Magic, Bird, Jabbar, etc., selling tennis shoes, hamburgers, etc. The message is subtle but clear.
The old game footage that Proudfoot adds between Delta State and Immaculata University time travels you back in time and places you right there in the gym. As the tension builds, the noisy crowd (including nuns "banging on buckets" and hardcore fans from Cleveland, Mississippi) blends with a choral symphony that sounds like Sunday morning—and Delta State upsets Immaculata in a stunning loss. Its excitement reminded me of a more recent upset in 2017 when Mississippi State’s Morgan William dropped a basket in overtime after a battle of a game that ended UCONN’s 111-game-winning streak. Similar stories in that the wins were unexpected...and William’s humility and countenance in her interviews reminded me of Harris.
Proudfoot’s documentary, The Queen of Basketball, is a love letter to, for, and about Harris—an opportunity to honor and give her roses while still living. As a previously uninformed and new fan who fell for her quickly, this is still bittersweet because Harris passed away on January 18, 2022, at 65 years of age, though not before she was honored at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, where the documentary premiered.
As the woodwinds and strings play again in the background, Harris's own words sum up her life's accomplishments (which includes her induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame). On her decision about the NBA, she says: "I don't regret not going...not even a little bit, and why not?" Pausing for a moment, her eyes smiling bright, she lists each of her four children's achievements: an attorney, a master's degree, and two doctorates. So even though I hope The Queen of Basketball wins an Academy Award, the truth is that the queen, herself, already won something more significant, a beautiful life with the family she always wanted.
And on a personal note, I am relieved to be able to reclaim the number 45 for posterity’s sake. Moving forward, whenever I see or hear that number, I will only and forever think of Lusia “Lucy” Harris, The Queen of Basketball, soaring above us all—may she reign in peace.