Oscar brings recognition to woman basketball pathbreaker Harris

The Queen of Basketball, a 22-minute feature on the life of hoopster Lusia Harris, produced by Shaquille O’Neal and Stephen Curry, won the Oscar for best short-subject documentary in Los Angeles on Monday. The documentary delves into the ‘what if’ and the cultural significance of a black player passing down basketball to later generations.

Narrated by Harris herself, the documentary introduces her love for basketball through late nights watching NBA matches featuring Kareem Abdur Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and her favourite player Oscar Robertson. With no avenue to play the game at the college level or professionally at the time, watching these players would be the only solace for Harris in rural Mississippi. A six-foot-three frame by the time she reached high school, she would be taunted by the boys in her school – ‘Long, tall and that’s all’. And then everything changed for her.

In 1972, US President Richard Nixon signed Title IX, a rule that made it mandatory for schools and colleges to provide sport and competition to girls at par with what they provided to boys. The next year, Harris, who in the documentary states that she was about to join a black college, instead chose to go to Delta State because that was the only college that had started a women’s basketball programme.

It was around this time in the 1970s that two young basketball players named Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The documentary leans into footage from both their time in college playing basketball while continuing the theme of a close-up shot on Harris’ face as she recounted her own experience of playing in college. At 6’3, Harris was playing as a centre for her team and would routinely outscore opposition teams.

In 1975, Harris took the Delta State Lady Statesmen basketball team to the AIAW Championships. She repeated the feat a year later and made it to the United States Women’s basketball team. For the documentary, these Olympics are a key moment. Montreal was the first ever Olympics where women could play basketball and the first ever game was a clash between Japan and USA. Japan would miss the first attempt at scoring and on the opposite end Harris makes a layup to become the first woman to score a basket at the Olympics.

USA and Harris would end up with the silver medal and Harris would go onto win her third AIAW championship in 1977 – completing a collegiate three-peat.

But the part that the documentary builds the most towards is also the part that captures an audience’s imagination the most about Harris – her life after basketball. At the time, no Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA) existed. For a young, black woman basketball player, there were no avenues to continue playing the game.

Pioneer, in several ways

The documentary cuts into Harris’ file of newspaper clippings from the time she played – clippings that she kept for when she would stop or would have to stop playing the game. During these shots, the camera oscillates back to her face as she opens up about suffering from bipolar disorder and how she would disappear from public life a couple of years after winning an Olympic silver.

Harris is also famous for being the only woman ever to be drafted in the NBA. She was a seventh-round pick by the New Orleans Jazz (Now the Utah Jazz) but chose to give up the chance to play in the NBA. Part of this was because she had chosen to marry her childhood sweetheart, part of it was that she thought it was a gimmick and she wouldn’t have survived in the NBA.

“Phone rings, someone from New Orleans Jazz is calling. ‘We want you to come and try out for the team’. I just thought it was a publicity stunt and I felt like I didn’t think I was good enough. Competing against a woman, yes. It’s a different story against a man. I said no to the NBA,” said Harris in the documentary. The 22-minute footage is rife with director Ben Proudfoot – who has a previous Oscar nomination for A Concerto is a conversation – using Harris’ matter-of-fact, yet hard-hitting, lines to get through to the audience.

The theme of ‘what if’ makes its final appearance in the last bits of footage in the documentary. On one hand, Harris describes why she could never play professionally, her life as a high school coach and how her children went on to become successful. On the other hand, there is Larry Bird and Magic Johnson – peers of hers in college – now starring in Converse sneaker commercials after having become titans in the NBA.

One of the final clips of the documentary shows Harris getting inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame by none other than her idol Robertson. It then shows women playing in the modern-day WNBA. The idea isn’t to portray that she got left behind, but that she chose a different path that came with its own successes and losses.

“If there is anyone out there who doubts that there is an audience for female athletes and questions whether their stories are valuable or entertaining or important … let this Academy Award be the answer,” said Proudfoot at the Oscars.

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