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Shaquille O'Neal helps resurrect the legacy of Lusia Harris, 'The Queen of Basketball'

Lusia Harris with her USA Olympic medals.  (“The Queen of Basketball” / Breakwater Studios / The New York Times)
Lusia Harris with her USA Olympic medals. (“The Queen of Basketball” / Breakwater Studios / The New York Times)

Lusia “Lucy” Harris won three straight college basketball championships with her team in the 1970s. She represented the U.S. at the 1976 Olympics and was drafted by a team in the NBA.

But many don’t know of Harris and her outstanding achievements. She narrates her own story — like how at one time she was the greatest woman basketball player in the U.S. — in the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Queen of Basketball,” directed by Ben Proudfoot and produced for The New York Times: Op-Docs.

NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal signed onto the project as an executive producer after he saw parts of the film, including “magical” never-before-seen archival footage that created an “intimate experience,” he says.

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Producers dug up footage from “a long lost history” that Harris’ own children never bore witness to, he says.

“Her kids have never seen the footage,” O’Neal says, “so when they saw the documentary, there were tears everywhere.”

Harris’ career was never spotlighted in a way it deserved because women athletes, specifically Black women athletes, “have been historically shortchanged,” he says. “The Queen of Basketball” fills in those missing gaps in basketball history by diving into Harris’ life.

O’Neal considers himself a “basketball aficionado,” but before the film, he hadn’t heard of Harris. Once he discovered her emotional story, he says he knew instantly he had to spread the word and join the project.

“Listen, I’ve seen a lot of great women basketball players, but the fact that I’ve never heard of this woman, I think it was a shame,” he says.

The documentary serves as a vessel to “resurrect the career of one of the greatest American athletes of the 20th century,” he says.

Harris, born in Mississippi in 1955, was the child of sharecroppers. She learned to play basketball with her brothers, and she became a star at Delta State University. She was the only Black player on her team, something she says she had to adjust to.

“I wasn’t really close to anybody on the team,” she says in the film. “But once we got on that floor, you couldn’t tell.”

O’Neal wanted to celebrate Harris’ story of triumph in sports, similar to the experiences of other greats like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, because they paved the way for athletes today. These athletes not only had to excel in their sport but also had to fight against racism, discrimination and misogyny, he says.

“We [athletes] need to recognize where we came from and how we got here. A lot of people [were] fighting for us and standing up for us to the point where we can [now] make $30, $40 million just to shoot a basketball,” O’Neal says.

As Harris dealt with discrimination and threats off the court, she and her team went on to win the collegiate title three times in the ‘70s. She was on the U.S. Olympic team in 1976 in Montreal and scored the first basket at those games.

O’Neal describes 6’3’’ Harris on the court as “ferocious” and “playing with a lot of tenacity.” Her statistics were astounding. “Her numbers were way better than my numbers,” O’Neal laughs. “She was so good that the people used to watch her games and not the men’s game.”

Harris was drafted by the New Orleans Jazz in 1977 — an offer she declined.

The basketball player wanted to care for her family, and she had also spent so much time fighting against discrimination and likely hit a point where she didn’t want to fight anymore, O’Neal says. She could have competed in the NBA, he says.

At that time, there was no Women’s National Basketball Association. Harris, now without a job and feeling lost, says she had “a nervous breakdown” that took its toll. After enduring so much with little praise, O’Neal says she wasn’t given the proper recognition.

It’s why O’Neal and the team behind “The Queen of Basketball” wanted to give Harris a true red carpet moment for the Academy Awards. She died in January before that dream of limos, flowers and flashing cameras could become a reality.

O’Neal wants everyone, but specifically women athletes, to watch the documentary, which was released near the 50th anniversary of the signing of Title IX. He says now’s the time to reassess how sports are creating fair, equal spaces.

And with this Oscar-nominated documentary, he wants people to walk away remembering Harris as “The Queen of Basketball.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

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