Canadian director’s Oscar-nominated film spotlights ‘Queen of Basketball’ Lusia Harris

Chris Stewart hopes an Oscar-nominated short film about his late mother, Lusia “Lucy” Harris – a trailblazing basketball player and women’s rights champion – will cement her place as “the greatest of all time”.

“Very often, in the United States especially, black women’s stories are kind of written or not written at all,” said Stewart, a New York-based attorney.

“I think she just saw an opportunity to tell her story in her own way, which is like the ultimate honor.”

The film, basketball queen, shares the story of Harris’ historic legacy in women’s basketball. It was produced and directed by Halifax-born filmmaker Ben Proudfoot. Shaquille O’Neal serves as executive producer.

Harris, 66, died Jan. 18, six months after the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where she saw her story unfold on the big screen for the first time. Now it’s up for Best Documentary Short at the Oscars.

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

Harris, pictured center back row, made history as a player on the Lady Statesmen basketball team at Delta State University. (Breakwater Studios)

As a student in Greenwood, Mississippi, Harris made a name for herself in basketball, before playing 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 United States at the Summer Olympics in Montreal, where the team won silver.

But it is the following year that she will mark the history of the NBA. 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 WNBA was founded.

She, however, turned down the opportunity to have a family – but also because she was unsure of the team’s motives, Proudfoot said.

“She didn’t know why she was drafted or what the explanation was, and it doesn’t look like they were really trying to hard sell her,” he said. Day 6 host Peter Armstrong.

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

Changes in American Society

It was Harris’ “superlative list of accomplishments” that prompted Proudfoot to tell his story in The queen of basketball.

“There was very little information about someone who I clearly thought was a very important figure in history, and it just brought me closer and closer to the flame,” he said.

WATCH | Full documentary, The Queen of Basketball:

A few key changes in American society helped open the doors for Harris’ rise in the sport.

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

This law, passed in 1972, prohibited gender discrimination in schools and other federally funded educational institutions, thereby opening the door to women’s sports teams in universities.

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

Black women ‘sometimes get left out of history’: Son

Despite “creating a path” for women, Stewart says Harris suffered many consequences for being first, rather than reaping the benefits.

“People should recognize that there is a propensity to miss stories told by black women doing extraordinary things that are sometimes written out of history,” he said.

During research for the documentary, Proudfoot says his team discovered 40 boxes of papers documenting Harris’ career at Delta State University not cataloged in the university’s library. “[Administrators] have been very helpful” in allowing access to the archives, he noted.

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

Proudfoot’s film, though told almost exclusively through Harris’ recollections, includes archival interviews and footage from the height of his career.

“It begs the question of what other forgotten heroes of American history were left in the archives or never archived at all, just because they were female or because they were African American or Asian American or you call it,” he said. .

Since The queen of basketball was released, Harris’ family lobbied lawmakers to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian honor in the United States — Stewart told CBC Radio.

“It not only shows her impact in entertainment and sports, but also her impact as an American,” he said.

A petition to rename the Delta State University sports coliseum after her, replacing the name of politician Walter Sillers who is widely criticized for his racist views, including his advocacy of segregation, has also won support from prominent members. community and politicians. CBC Radio has contacted 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 the Tribeca Festival)

Bittersweet Oscar Nomination

Stewart and her three siblings will travel to Los Angeles for the Oscars on March 27.

“While it would be great to have her here, to have this movie — those 25 minutes of her telling her story the way she wanted it told — it’s just priceless,” Stewart said.

The film marks a second nomination for Proudfoot, who is now based in Los Angeles. The fact that Harris is not present “puts a lump in my throat,” he said.

“I think all of us – our whole team, her family – had this image in our minds of seeing Lucy on the red carpet, and it breaks my heart that this couldn’t happen.”

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

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