As the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team prepares to go for its seventh consecutive gold medal, few people know who scored the first basket at the Olympics or the first woman in the Basketball Hall of Fame. That should change with the documentary “The Queen of Basketball,” which focuses on the life and career of Lusia “Lucy” Harris.
A friend suggested that director Ben Proudfoot look into Harris’ story. “I had been really interested in a theme around people that if history had gone a little differently they might be household names,” said Proudfoot.
Harris was born in a small town in Mississippi where her parents were sharecroppers. She grew to 6-foot-3, which garnered a lot of teasing, but that stopped when she became a star on her high school basketball team. Much sought after for college teams, she decided to play at Delta State University, winning three consecutive (1975–77) Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women national titles (women’s college sports had not yet joined the NCAA). When women’s basketball made its Olympic debut in 1976, Harris scored the first two baskets.
“My curiosity led me to get in touch with her,” said Proudfoot. “It was the middle of the pandemic in July. We drove to Mississippi from California. My cinematographer and I filmed her in two days…using special COVID protocols.”
Wanting to include playing footage of Harris, Proudfoot went to the Delta State archives. After pressing for access, he was led to a trove of material. “We scanned 16,000 feet of 16-milimeter film,” he said. “It was a very complete record of her college career. That confirmed every detail and point of what she told us.”
After graduating college, Harris was the first woman drafted into the NBA, but she declined to go for the tryout. In 1992, she became the first woman inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The 22-minute film also includes Harris’ issues with bipolar disorder and how she reclaimed her life. Her four children all played sports and have all earned advanced degrees.
“You can see in the film what a remarkable individual she is,” said Proudfoot. Harris saw the film for the first time at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere. “At the end of the film, the entire audience gave her a standing ovation.
“I hope more people become aware of Lucy’s story, are inspired by it and can learn from it,” he added. “I hope she finds her rightful place in the canon of great Americans.”
The Queen of Basketball is now screening through The New York Times Op-Docs and on the Times’ YouTube channel.