‘The Queen of Basketball’ Lucy Harris finally gets her flowers
If the name doesn’t ring any bells, consider yourself ready to be schooled
She is arguably the greatest living women’s basketball player who’s never graced a Wheaties box. As a dominating center, she won three national titles. She scored the first basket in the first Olympic competition for women in 1976. She was the first and only Black woman to be drafted to the NBA (before the WNBA existed) — courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz. In 1992, she became the first Black woman to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
And yet, if the name Lusia “Lucy” Harris-Stewart doesn’t ring any bells, sadly, you’re not alone.
In The Queen of Basketball, a documentary short that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in June, Ben Proudfoot (A Concerto Is a Conversation) tells Harris-Stewart’s story. Proudfoot’s team digitized nearly 10,000 film negatives and 16,000 feet of film to reveal why Harris was unstoppable on the court. She averaged 25.9 points and 14.4 rebounds per game and graduated with 15 Delta State team, single-game and career records. She also led her alma mater to a 109-6 record.
In this chat with The Undefeated, Harris-Stewart talks about how she got into the sport, why she decided against joining the NBA and shows her love for the WNBA.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What first motivated your love of the game?
I started playing basketball at a very early age at T.Y. Fleming Elementary in Minter City, Mississippi. What motivated me to play is that I’m from a large family and I wanted to play like my sister, Janie Mae. She always told me that I needed to learn how to play with the big boys, which there were a lot of in my family, too. I got my skills by playing with them at home.
When I got to Amanda Elzy High School, I was coached by Conway Stewart, and he pretty much took me under his wing and showed me a lot of things that I could do with that basketball. Shooting was one of them. And while I couldn’t dribble and pass that well, I knew how to get my shot in the paint and not get pushed outside the area that I could shoot from. He taught me a lot about the game.
What does this moment where you’re able to receive your flowers from the sports and Black community mean to you?
It is an honor for this whole film to be done [and] available to be seen. I believe there are a lot of people who really just don’t know who I am or the history of women’s basketball, including my place within it. People might not know that the 1976 women’s basketball team were the first to ever be included in the Olympics in Montreal. I think that in itself is an honor, and that team pioneers the game for all those who came after.
I really didn’t realize that [my time playing] was a history-making moment. But, as one of my teammates pointed out to me, by scoring the first point in that game meant that it was immediately history and a record that could never be broken. That really means something to me, especially now that I have grand- [and] great-grandchildren.
I want them to know that their grandmama played in the Olympics. It is very important that they be able to do things that they want to do [in their lives]. They don’t have to play basketball, but whatever they want to do, they’re capable.
That’s a strong takeaway, Ms. Lucy. Extra strength when you add in the fact that you are the first and only Black woman to have been drafted by the NBA. What was that moment like for you?
During that time, I knew that I couldn’t compete on that level. I was thinking about myself on that level, competing against men, and I knew all about those people I would’ve had to compete against. I didn’t worry about it [after that day] and made a decision to stay and raise my family. I have no regrets about that.
How have you felt about the evolution of the WNBA and how it has stood up for its players and for the Black community?
I really enjoy watching the WNBA. They really can do a lot of things with that basketball. They’re faster and have loads of talent. The women are much taller [laughs]. I’ve seen women dunk the ball and they’re exceptionally talented.
As far as the issues that are going on, I applaud them because they stand up for what they believe in and back up what they say, which is so important. There are so many things going on now. It’s heartbreaking to see all the issues we have to put up with. But to see these women stand up, support each other, and for the teams to advocate for them means a lot.
Standing up for what they believe, as a group, is important and that’s the main thing right there. When you are just an individual, it is hard to get anything done. But, as a group, a lot of things can be done to move progress forward.
Who are some of your favorite players today?
I love the [Phoenix] Mercury and enjoy watching a few teams in the WNBA. Also, I love the NBA, and enjoy watching LeBron [James] and Kevin Durant. I know they’re all on different teams, but I enjoy watching them. I love basketball and I watch all the different games.
What would you want viewers to learn about you after watching The Queen of Basketball?
I used to be a shy person, and that’s what most people think [about me]. But after this documentary, they’ll realize that I am not a shy person at all. I am a very proud mom of four beautiful kids, eight grandchildren and a beautiful group of great-grandbabies.