The story you’re reading was supposed to be in the works for the next few weeks, maybe even months.
If all went accordingly, maybe you would have read this on Feb. 8, which is when we will learn whether the recent film The Queen of Basketball receives an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Or perhaps we would have even waited until March 27 and released this interview in tandem with the Academy Awards.
We had a good reason for the waiting: Lusia “Lucy” Harris, the delightfully charming subject of the documentary, had never met Shaquille O’Neal, who signed on to be an executive producer of the doc and has championed it in interviews.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk directly with him,” Harris told me on Jan. 14. “But I have read some of the comments that he’s said, and I am very honored and pleased and overwhelmed. I think his platform can do a lot to promote this documentary. I’m certainly looking forward to meeting Mr. O’Neal.”
We wanted to tell the story of that meeting: Two ebullient basketball legends filling up a room with stories and big, echoing laughter.
Harris, O’Neal and the world were robbed of that moment when Harris died unexpectedly Jan. 18, four days after our interview. Her family – she has two sons and two daughters – was in talks to take their mother on a surprise trip to meet Shaq. Now, they must grieve even as the film about their mother does the work of telling a story that was nearly lost to time.
Harris won multiple national championships for Delta State University in Mississippi, scored the first points by a woman in Olympic basketball and had the honor of becoming the first and only woman officially selected in the NBA draft.
All that came before the WNBA was a wish – the NCAA didn’t even sanction women’s basketball back then – and Harris settled into a quiet, albeit at times troubled, life (she discusses her bipolar disorder diagnosis in the film).
She was one of the most dominant athletes on the planet, with nowhere to play. The game never got to fully see what Harris could have accomplished.
O’Neal wanted The Queen of Basketball (directed by Ben Proudfoot for The New York Times) to help give Harris her flowers while she could still smell them. He spoke about his desire to give Harris her red carpet moment, though he knew it was long overdue. He hoped it would finally help her get the recognition she deserved for everything that she gave to the sport.
“For me, it’s a triumph in resurrecting the career of one of the greatest American athletes of the 20th century,” said O’Neal, who recently spoke to For The Win about the film. “But it’s also tragic because it reminds us of what we had lost.”
Now it feels like we’ve lost that all over again. Harris was 66 years old and finally able to tell her full story. She died four days after we talked. It was her final interview.
Dominating player with nowhere to play
Harris was born in a small town in Mississippi in 1955. She grew to 6-foot-3 and became a standout high school basketball player who would sometimes literally outscore the entire opposing team. While she hoped to attend Alcorn State University, an HBCU, there was no women’s basketball team. She decided on Delta State instead.
The school enjoyed a 51-game winning streak while she was on the team, handily defeating much bigger programs like LSU en route to winning three consecutive national championships between 1975 and 1977.
Watching her play the game feels like watching an unbeatable titan clashing against anything and everything that stood in its way. During one of her collegiate campaigns, Harris was able to average an absurd mark of 31.2 points and 15.1 rebounds per game.
“When I think about my basketball career, I think about all of the places that I had the opportunity to travel to and the people that I met — my teammates. It was an awesome opportunity to get a chance to travel,” Harris said. “And getting a chance to go to the Olympics and also getting a chance to play in Madison Square Garden — that was awesome.”
Harris did more than just play at Madison Square Garden, though. She scored 47 points, which was the most points that any player — including pros — scored at the arena in 1976. She also did more than just simply go to the Olympics. She was actually the leading scorer and rebounder for the first Team USA Women’s Basketball squad to participate in the Olympics.
The following year, in 1977, Harris won the inaugural Honda-Broderick Cup (given to the top female athlete in college sports, later won by the likes of Katie Ledecky, Misty May and Mia Hamm). It was also the year that she was selected by the New Orleans Jazz in the NBA draft.
“That was a tremendous honor to be drafted in the NBA,” said Harris. “But I think I had other ideas at that time. I don’t think that I was really ready to play against a men’s team. I had my family in mind. I wanted to be with my family.”
Unfortunately, with her college days behind her, Harris quickly realized that she was without a job. She eventually found more stability as an admissions counselor, returning to work at Delta State.
Years later, in 1992, escorted by her favorite player, Oscar Robertson, Harris officially became the first black woman inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
While it was a nice tribute to everything she did for a sport that she both loved and excelled in, without the infrastructure in place, it’s still difficult to process that Harris was never able to turn the prowess she had for the game into a career or monetize on any of that success.
“The world needs to know that the reason Lucy’s career was stuffed in a box at the back of an archive is simple,” O’Neal said. “Women athletes, especially Black women athletes, have been historically short-changed and denied opportunities.”
Opening the door for female athletes
During her time at Delta State, the women’s basketball team would regularly draw sell-out crowds at home. Attendance would often double what the men’s team would earn.
Though the women’s team might have brought more money back to the university, Harris believed one of the reasons people weren’t as familiar with her story is because the games weren’t televised at the time.
A lifelong champion for female athletes, she was glad that has since changed, especially so she could enjoy watching some of her favorite players, like Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith, whenever she wanted.
“Women’s basketball has come a long way, and I think it has a long way to go … For one thing, we get a chance to see women play on TV a whole lot more. That was unheard of when I was playing,” Harris said. “As far as having a long way to go, salaries could be better. Salary-wise, there is no comparison when it comes to WNBA and NBA players.”
Although she lamented the wage gap between the WNBA and the NBA, she said she especially enjoyed watching the United States women’s national basketball team whenever they played in the Olympics.
O’Neal says thanks to individuals like Harris, female athletes have significantly more opportunities now than they did when Harris played the game — which was just shortly after Title IX, prohibiting sex-based discrimination in schools, was signed into law. However, O’Neal also acknowledged there are still vast shortcomings.
“Because she was a trailblazer and had to fight and had to suffer through so many things, sports are a more fair place. It’s supposed to be a place of equality and merit and talent. It’s supposed to be a place free of racism and free of inequality,” O’Neal said. “Now, 50 years after Title IX, maybe it could be a good time to reassess how we’re doing on that.”
The 'Queen of Basketball'
When both O’Neal and Harris were individually asked what they hoped viewers take away from the experience of watching the documentary, they both shared some enlightening perspectives.
Based on how much it hurt Harris to not play sports professionally like she could have if she were a man, it wasn’t surprising to learn the premium she placed on getting a college degree.
“You can make a living from being an athlete now. Things are different,” Harris said. “But I want them to understand that education is very important. In order to be successful, go ahead and get that education first so you can be able to go on just in case your athletic career doesn’t pan out. You’ll have another career you can make a living from.”
Those are values that she instilled in each of her four children, all of whom were athletes.
Her son, Christopher Stewart, played college football at Notre Dame and played in the NFL before going back to Notre Dame Law School and becoming a lawyer. Another son, Eddie, has a master’s degree. Her daughter, Christina, has a doctorate. Christina’s twin, Crystal, received a doctorate in education from Delta State.
Harris said the documentary did a good job capturing the essence of what she shared with them.
“I was very pleased with the way things turned out and the way it was displayed and the way it was shown,” Harris said. “I was very pleased with it. It really was a walk down memory lane, and to see my children being a part of the documentary, I was very pleased to see that.”
O’Neal took a slightly different approach when asked what he wants people to think about when they watch the film. He wants viewers to reflect on the past so that as a society we can prevent any future athletes from getting denied the chance to earn a living playing the sport that they love.
“It kind of fills a huge gap in the history of basketball by finally telling the story,” O’Neal said. “It’s a story all of us need to think about and consider all of the talents like Lucy who were denied the opportunity to have a fulfilling and enriching career commensurate with their talents because they were women.”
“With Lucy’s story, you have to ask a question,” O’Neal added. “Who are we sidelining in sports today? How can we make sure what happened in Lucy’s time isn’t happening again?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Shaquille O'Neal making sure Lusia Harris' story gets royal treatment