With the recent completion of the NBA All Star game held in Dallas, TX in which the East edged the West squad 141-139 and Dwyane Wade being named the MVP and the upcoming Frenzy aka March Madness, I thought it was fitting to remember the first African American that broke the color barrier in the sport of Basketball.
Harry Haskell “Bucky” Lew (January 4, 1884 in Lowell, Massachusetts – 1963) was the first African American to play in a professional basketball game. Lew played in a New England League game for Lowell against Marlborough on November 2, 1902, the first documented instance of an African-American playing in a professional basketball game. Harry Lew was born in Lowell in 1884 to an African-American family with a long and illustrious history in Massachusetts. His great-great-grandfather, Barzillai Lew, was a free black man who purchased the freedom of his future wife for $400. A gifted musician, he served in the Revolutionary War. He played the fife at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and years later at General Burgoyne’s surrender after the Battle of Saratoga. Harry Lew’s grandparents’ home in Lowell was a stop on the Underground Railroad. His father, William, was a delegate to the 1891 Equal Rights Convention in Boston.
He came of age in the Jim Crow era when “separate but equal” kept blacks and whites in different worlds, in the North as well as the South. Breaking the color barrier on a Lowell basketball court was not easy. Bucky Lew was a talented musician—he played a violin solo at his graduation from Lowell High School — an excellent student, and an extraordinary basketball player. According to one of his teammates, he was “the best double dribbler he had ever seen” (double dribbling was legal at the time). A brilliant defensive player, he was always chosen to guard the best player on any opposing team. But when Lew first took the court against white men, his skillful play was met with jeers and racial slurs.
After leading the local YMCA team to a Merrimack Valley championship, he played defense for the Pawtucketville Athletic Club in the New England Basketball League. When the League folded, Lew stayed in the game, working as a player and general manager for his own Lowell-based teams. In 1928, he moved to Springfield. One of the pioneers of basketball, he has never been inducted into the Hall of Fame, located just a few miles from where he spent the last 35 years of his life. Years later “Bucky” Lew reminisced about that first game. On November 2, 1902, his team, Lowell’s Pawtucketville Athletic Club, faced a team from Marlborough. He remembered that his manager was reluctant to let him play against white boys. But Lew was a hometown boy, and “some of the local papers put the pressure on by demanding that they give this little Negro from around the corner a chance to play. Well, at first the team just ignored the publicity. But a series of injuries forced the manager to take me on for the Marlborough game.”
Lew was supposed to be the extra man, and to spend the game sitting on the bench, but then one of the starting players was injured. At first the manager refused to put him in. “He let them play us five on four,” Lew remembered, “but the fans got real mad and almost started a riot, screaming to let me play. That did it. I went in there and you know… all those things you read about Jackie Robinson, the abuse, the name-calling, extra effort to put him down … they’re all true. I got the same treatment and even worse … I took the bumps, the elbows in the gut, knees here and everything else that went with it. But I gave it right back. It was rough but worth it. Once they knew I could take it, I had it made.” This was only the first of Lew’s encounters with racist opponents and fans. “Nobody ever voiced an objection to playing against him as a black player until they played him and he would shut down their best player… Then all of a sudden, they would say, we don’t want to play against a Negro player. They just used that tactic to get him off the court for the next game.”
After Lew played one year with the Lowell team and two years for a Haverhill team, the New England League disbanded. Lew formed and traveled with his own team, playing and coaching, for another 20 years.
Photo and story courtesy of hoopedia.com