Crystal Stewart Washington documented her trip to the Oscars with nearly a dozen pictures and a Facebook post that said, “if you want to see someone from the small town of Minter City, MS do the impossible, watch the Oscars.”
A little more than an hour later, “The Queen of Basketball” was announced as the Oscar winner for the Best Documentary Short Subject. The movie chronicles the life of Washington’s mother Lusia “Lucy” Harris, the first and only woman to be drafted by an NBA team and the first Black woman inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
“If there is anyone out there that still doubts that there is an audience for female athletes, let this Academy Award be the answer,” Proudfoot said hoisting the award.
Harris, however, was not present to accept the award. She died on January 18 at the age of 66 before the movie was nominated.
Amazingly, a year ago few people were aware of Harris. The documentary brought to light the former basketball phenom’s story. The short film, screened at the 20th annual Tribeca Festival, was directed by Proudfoot, an Oscar award-winning director and executive produced by Shaquille O’Neal. At 22 minutes long, it is only a glimpse into Harris’s impact on the sport of basketball.
The 6’3” center was a force on the hardwood. A quick, powerful player with great hands and a sweet jump shot, she represented a dominance that reminded sportswriters of the best male centers in the league. The Minter City native seemed to have been born to play basketball. Her parents were sharecroppers so Luisa and her 11 siblings grew up picking cotton. She spent her free time playing basketball with her older brothers and sisters. At night when she should have been asleep, she covered herself and the television with a blanket to watch NBA games on television. However, it was at Amanda Elzy High School in Greenwood, Miss where she truly learned the game.
“I became a member of a team, but I didn’t know how to play,” Harris says in the short film. “I had to learn how to play defense, offense, pivot. I did develop a shot. It just came natural.”
The captain and high scorer, she led the team to a state tournament appearance. In one high school game, the three-time MVP outscored the entire opposing team.
Harris graduated from high school in 1973 with plans to attend Alcorn State University. However that year, Delta State was reviving its women’s basketball program which had closed four decades earlier. Alcorn didn’t have a women’s team and Harris, seeing an opportunity for more time on the court, elected to enroll at the small Delta college. It would prove to be an extraordinary decision.
Harris became arguably the most renowned player to ever attend the school. She averaged 25.9 points and 14.4 rebounds in 115 games shooting better than 63% from the field. She still holds the school’s record for career points (2,891) and rebounds (1,662). She earned Kodak All-American honors in 1975,1976 and 1977, Mississippi Sportsperson of the year in 1976, and the first ever Broderick Cup – awarded to the top female college athlete in the country in 1977. Her impact on the Statesman was unmistakable.
“The Delta State family mourns the passing of Dr. Lucy Harris Stewart, the iconic basketball star who led the Lady Statesmen to three national championships,” said Delta State President William N. LaForge in a statement on the school’s website. “We extend our sincerest condolences to her family and friends.”
The Lady Statesmen were ahead of their time in the basketball world and people had begun to take notice. Their coach, Margaret Wade, had been a member of the Lady Statesman team from 1929-1932 before the school disbanded the program. Her success with the program earned her the moniker “ the mother of modern women’s college basketball.” Wade is the namesake for the Margaret Wade Trophy awarded annually to the top NCAA women’s basketball player. In fact, the women’s team was so competitive that it drew twice as many fans as the men’s games and routinely sold out the school’s 4,500-seat gym.
“The men’s team didn’t sell out as well as the women’s team,” Harris said in “The Queen of Basketball.” “We began to travel on airplanes. As a matter of fact, the men didn’t fly. I guess the women were bringing in the money.”
Harris was the only Black woman on the team when she led the Lady Statesmen basketball team to their first Association for Intercollegiate Athletics national championship. They faced three-time champion Immaculata University. The two teams played in front of a gym of nuns in full habit beating on buckets. The sound was deafening but not enough. Harris had 32 points and 16 rebounds in the win.
The Lady Statesman would beat Immaculata again in 1976 and then Louisiana State University in 1977 to hold the crown for three consecutive years.
The summer before her senior year, Harris was selected to the U.S. Women’s Olympic women’s basketball team for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The U. S. tipped off against Japan in the first game. Harris scored on a pass from teammate Ann Meyers – the first ever basket in an Olympic women’s basketball game.
“Now that’s a record that can never be broken,” Harris said.
The 1976 Olympic team included basketball greats Nancy Lieberman and Pat Summit but Harris led the team in scoring. She averaged 15.2 points and 7 rebounds per game and the U.S. finished the games with a silver medal. Summitt, who went on to have a legendary career as the women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee recalled her time on the team with Harris in the book “Sum It Up.”
“(Harris) was the first truly dominant player of modern women’s basketball, 6-foot-3 and 185 hard-muscled pounds of pivoting, to-the-rim force.”
Harris returned to Delta State for her senior season and finished with a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education. Later that year, she was selected by the New Orleans Jazz in the seventh round of the NBA draft. It remains the one and only time a female has ever been officially drafted by an NBA team. Harris turned down the offer to play in the all-male league.
Harris stayed close to basketball for the next few years. She worked as an assistant women’s basketball coach at Delta State for four years. She also played for the Houston Angels of the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) for the 1979-1980 season. It would be her last year playing competitive basketball.
“I wanted to keep playing, but there was no place to go,” she said in the documentary. “If I was a man, there would have been options for me to go further and play.”
After earning a masters in special education from Delta State, Harris served as the head women’s basketball coach at Texas Southern University from 1984 to 1986. She later took a job coaching basketball at her alma mater Amanda Elzy High School in Greenwood and continued to teach and coach in Mississippi high schools until the early 2000s.
In 1992, Harris became the first Black woman and the first female college player to ever be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Her entry on the website describes her as, “one of the greatest centers ever to play women’s basketball” It goes on to say, “Harris-Stewart changed the face of women’s basketball.”
In 1999, the All-American was one of the 26 inaugural inductees and the first black woman inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. The inaugural class included her coach Margaret Wade and her Olympic teammates Nancy Lieberman, Ann Meyers Drysdale and Pat Summitt. She was escorted to the stage by her favorite player – Oscar Robertson.
She has since been inducted into both the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and the Delta State Sports Hall of Fame.
Harris was acutely aware that her accomplishments had received less attention than they could or even should have.
“Maybe if I would have continued playing, the world would’ve known my name,” Harris says at the close of the film. “But I didn’t so I don’t speculate.”
The world is definitely learning her name now.