Day 6

Canadian director's Oscar-nominated film shines a light on 'Queen of Basketball' Lusia Harris

The film, The Queen of Basketball, shares the story of Harris’s historic legacy in women's basketball. It was produced and directed by Dartmouth, N.S., filmmaker Ben Proudfoot.

Filmmaker Ben Proudfoot sought to tell the story of a basketball pioneer

Lusia Harris is a basketball legend. Her story is told in the Oscar-nominated short film, The Queen of Basketball, by Ben Proudfoot. (Breakwater Studios)

Chris Stewart hopes an Oscar-nominated short film about his late mother, Lusia 'Lucy' Harris — a pioneering basketball player and champion for women's rights — will cement her place as "the greatest of all time."

"So often, in the U.S. especially, the stories of Black women are just kind of written over or not written at all," said Stewart, a lawyer based in New York City.

"I think she just saw an opportunity to tell her story her way, which is like the ultimate honour."

The film, The Queen of Basketball, shares the story of Harris's historic legacy in women's basketball. It was produced and directed by filmmaker Ben Proudfoot, who is from Halifax. Shaquille O'Neal serves as executive producer. 

Harris, 66, died on Jan. 18, six months following the film's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City where she saw her story unfold on the big screen for the first time. Now it's up for best documentary short film at the Academy Awards.

Much of Harris's legacy went largely unrecognized for decades. Stewart says his mother's successes were little discussed even among his family growing up, leaving him and his siblings to do their own research. 

Harris, pictured back row-centre, made history as a player for Delta State University's Lady Statesmen basketball team. (Breakwater Studios)

As a student in Greenwood, Miss., Harris made a name for herself in basketball, eventually going on to play for Delta State University. Between 1974 and 1977, she would lead the university's Lady Statesmen to three national championships. In 1976, she competed for the U.S. at the Summer Olympic Games in Montreal, where the team won silver.

But it was the following year that she would make NBA history. Harris was the first woman to be officially drafted by the league when the New Orleans Jazz invited her to try out — two decades before the creation of the WNBA.

She turned down the opportunity, however, to have a family — but also because she was uncertain of the team's motives, Proudfoot said. 

"She wasn't sure why she was being drafted or what the explanation was for it, and it doesn't seem like they really tried to sell her on it hard," he told Day 6 host Peter Armstrong.

Harris would become a teacher and coach, leaving the world of professional basketball behind her.

Shifts in American society

It was Harris's "superlative list of accomplishments" that drew Proudfoot to tell her story in The Queen of Basketball.

"There was very scant information about somebody that I thought was clearly a very significant figure in history, and it just drew me closer and closer to the flame," he said.

WATCH | Full documentary, The Queen of Basketball: 

A couple key shifts in American society helped open the doors for Harris's rise in the sport. 

Schools in Minter City, Miss., where she was born, began integrating Black and white students a few years before she enrolled in university. Around the same time, Patsy Mink, the first woman of colour and first Asian American woman elected to U.S. Congress, co-authored Title IX. 

That law, passed in 1972, barred discrimination based on sex in schools and other educational institutions receiving federal government funding, effectively opening the door for women's sports teams in universities.

"So she was sort of the dominant force [in] the first year that the college had had a basketball team since the 1920s," said Proudfoot.

Black women 'get written out of history sometimes': son

Despite "creating a lane" for women, Stewart says Harris suffered many of the consequences for being first, rather than reaping the benefits.

"People should recognize that there is a propensity to miss stories told by Black women that do extraordinary things that get written out of history sometimes," he said.

During research for the documentary, Proudfoot says his team uncovered 40 boxes of material documenting Harris's career at Delta State University uncatalogued in the university's library. "[Administrators] have been very helpful" in providing access to the archive, he noted. 

An undated newspaper clipping, featured in the short film The Queen of Basketball, details the NBA's move to draft Harris. (Breakwater Studios)

Proudfoot's film, while told almost exclusively through Harris's recollections, includes archival interviews and footage from the height of her career.

"It begs the question of what other forgotten heroes of American history have been left behind in the archives or never archived at all, simply because they're a woman or because they were African American or Asian American or you name it," he said.

Since The Queen of Basketball was released, Harris's family has lobbied lawmakers to have her awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honour in the U.S. — Stewart told CBC Radio. 

"That shows not only in the entertainment and sports realm her impact, but also shows her impact as an American," he said. 

A petition to rename Delta State University's sports coliseum after her, replacing the name of politician Walter Sillers who is widely criticized for his racist views, including his defence of segregation, has also gained support from prominent community members and politicians. CBC Radio has reached out to the university for comment.

Proudfoot, left, and Harris, third from right, attend the 2021 Tribeca Festival Premiere on June 10, 2021 in New York City. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival)

Bittersweet Oscars nomination

Stewart and his three siblings will make the trip to Los Angeles for the Academy Awards taking place March 27. 

"Although it would be great to have her here, to have this film — that 25 minutes of just her telling her story the way she wanted it to be told — it's just invaluable," said Stewart.

The film marks a second nomination for Proudfoot, who is now based in Los Angeles. That Harris won't be in attendance "puts a lump in my throat," he said.

"I think all of us — our whole team, her family — had that image as a goal in our mind of seeing Lucy on the red carpet, and it just breaks my heart that it won't be able to happen."

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview with Ben Proudfoot by Laurie Allan.