EXCLUSIVE: NBA great Shaquille O’Neal is joining a new team—the one behind the award-winning documentary The Queen of Basketball.
The Hall of Fame center and four-time NBA champ has signed on as an executive producer of the New York Times Op-doc short, which tells the story of Lusia “Lucy” Harris, one of the greatest women basketball players in U.S. history. Harris’ name is little known even to many with deep knowledge of the game, despite her incredible accomplishments—winning three national titles in college and a silver medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal (she was the first woman to score a basket in Olympic history).
Harris also became the first woman ever officially drafted by an NBA team, when the New Orleans Jazz (now the Utah Jazz) selected her in 1977 in the 7th round. She was inducted into both the pro basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Lusia ‘Lucy’ Harris’ heroism has gone unsung for way too long and I am particularly proud of my involvement in bringing her story to bear,” O’Neal said in a statement shared with Deadline. “A living legend and a pioneer in both men’s and women’s basketball, her life is a significant example of fortitude that is sure to inspire.”
Filmmaker Ben Proudfoot, who earned a 2021 Oscar nomination for his short film A Concerto Is a Conversation (co-directed with Kris Bowers), could find himself back in Oscar contention with The Queen of Basketball. On Sunday night, the film won Best Documentary Short at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. Today, it was awarded a Special Jury Mention from DOC NYC, with jurors noting, “Viewers fall in love with Lusia because the filmmakers deftly convey her deep strength and fragility at the outset. We are immersed in the experience of a pathfinding woman athlete whose remarkable career was cut short by the racial and gender barriers of her time.”
Proudfoot commented, “Helping unearth and celebrate Lucy’s storied career over the past year-and-a-half has been a great joy of my career. When Shaq and his team reacted to the film with such generosity and support, we were blown away and just thrilled for Lucy. In a way, Shaq is stepping up to assist Lucy in having the career moment she never got. It’s a special moment of solidarity between two remarkable players.”
Harris’ bright and warm personality, and her endearing modesty, suffuses the film with a particular glow. It explores her upbringing in a small town in Mississippi, born the 10th of 11 children to Ethel and Willie Harris. She measured 6’3” in high school, and remembers being teased for her exceptional height.
She said classmates taunted her with the insult, “Long and tall and that’s all.”
Growing up, she idolized Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, but in those days before Title IX’s enactment, there were not a lot of opportunities for girls or women in sport. Harris did manage to join a new women’s basketball program at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, leading the Lady Statesmen to three consecutive national crowns.
Basketball helped her develop a more positive self image; she recalls eventually being able to say to herself, “Long and tall and that’s not all.”
Harris elected not to try out for the New Orleans Jazz. She started a family and later became the head coach at the place where she had played her prep ball, Amanda Elzy High School in Greenwood, Miss. In the film, she speaks candidly about struggles with mental health after her playing days were over, and wonders wistfully, but not bitterly, about opportunities and wealth that likely would have come her way had she been a male possessing such athletic gifts. The WNBA has elevated women players of today to star status, but that professional league wasn’t founded until 1996, long after Harris had hung up her uniform.
“I am excited that Shaquille O’Neal decided to join as an executive producer for The Queen of Basketball,” Harris said. “Shaq is one of my favorite basketball players and I have enjoyed following his career after the game. I truly appreciate having his support for this project.”
Lindsay Crouse, commissioning producer for The New York Times, said, “We are thrilled that Mr. O’Neal sees the same fearless spirit and joy in Lucy’s story that made us want to share it with our devoted audience of Times viewers via Op-Docs. His willingness to use his platform to boost her legacy will help ensure it is seen and celebrated by generations of ambitious young women to come—ensuring they know a pioneering woman in sport who helped forge the path.”
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