Today is the birthday (1884) of Harry “Bucky” Lew, the first African American to play basketball professionally, when he joined the Pawtucketville Athletic Club of the New England League in 1902.

Lew was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1884. He stood 5’-8” and played basketball at the Lowell YMCA from 1899 to 1902 before joining the pro league.


Harry “Bucky” Lew. (Image courtesy of the Lowell Sun.)

But he was interesting beyond basketball; Lew was also an accomplished cyclist, once called “the Major Taylor of this city,” by the Lowell Sun, in reference to the world champion African American wheelman.[1]

His fascinating family background included music; he was trained as a classical violinist and was a direct descendent of Barzillai Lew, a black fifer and drummer who played the fife at the Battle of Bunker Hill in the American Revolution.[2] A long line of musicians and entertainers followed in the Lew family, and the patriarch Barzillai became so well known historically that Duke Ellington honored him with a piano composition, Barzillai Lew, recorded in 1943 on the Hurricane record label.

Getting back to basketball, there seems to be mix-ups in the way Lew’s hoops career has been documented, since varying accounts place Lew on the Newbury-Haverhill team, the Pawtucketville Athletic Club team, and the Lowell team during his time in the New England League.[3]

The confusion is in the fact that the New England League had a Haverhill team, a Pawtucketville A.C. team, and a Lowell team. The New England League folded after two years, and several of its teams including Haverhill and Lowell were absorbed into the new New England Basketball Association (which also contained a Newburyport team). Furthermore, Lew himself describes where he played, in his only known documented interview, in the Springfield Union, in 1958.

“I can almost see the faces of those Marlboro players when I got into the game,” Lew reminisced about his very first game. “Our Lowell team had been getting players from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and some of the local papers put the pressure on by demanding they give this little Negro from around the corner a chance to play.”[4]

Franklin Dorman, whose book Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts extensively chronicles the Lew family, seems to clarify things by noting that Lew, after playing for Pawtucketville, “later moved to the Haverhill team, but the league folded in 1906.” However, there is still a problem because the New England League Association seems to have folded after the 1904-05 season.

Harry "Bucky" Lew of Lowell, Mass., an early basketball pioneer, is believed to have become the first African American professional player when he joined the New England League in 1902. (Photo courtesy of Merrimack Valley Magazine)

Harry “Bucky” Lew of Lowell, Mass., an early basketball pioneer, is believed to have become the first African American professional player when he joined the New England League in 1902. (Photo courtesy of Merrimack Valley Magazine)

Nevertheless, Lew became the darling of fans and the local press through his exceptional skills on the court. He was exceptional playing the left back position—later called left guard and eventually just point guard—with the Pawtucketville Athletic Club in a 51-9 victory over New England League rival Manchester in front of 1,400 fans in late December 1902 during his first pro season. “The colored boy, Bucky Lew, had his eye with him and sent the ball flying into the cage seven times,” the Lowell Sun reported. “If pushed a hard the little fellow would have scored several more.”[5]

These kinds of performances soon became well known; before long he was considered a star and began making headlines often. Lew was “quick as a flash and in all his tackles was clean and effective,” in a late January 1903 game against the Burkes.[6] “Lew’s work was cheered repeatedly by the audience,” wrote the Lowell Sun in March.[7]

Lew switched teams for the 1903-04 season, going to rival Haverhill. During a 15-12 loss to Lowell with 900 spectators watching, “Bucky landed a couple of sensational goals, for which he was loudly cheered,” the Sun newspaper reported in November.[8] A few days later, “Bucky” was at it again, now playing the left forward position. “Here it is all Lew and the colored boy certainly is making good in grand style,” the Sun gushed in December 1903. “His playing in each game is right up to the limit and it takes a good man to get away with him.”[9]

Harry (Bucky) Lew

Harry (Bucky) Lew with Haverhill in December 1904, this time with an injured left shoulder that is still bandaged up. (Boston Daily Globe)

By year end, Lew had his own economy revolving around him. “There has been some betting that Bucky Lew will score more baskets from the floor tonight than any other player in the  game,” the Sun reported on December 17, 1903.

The accolades kept rolling in. “BUCKY LEW PLAYED A FINE GAME,” read a headline after Haverhill defeated Concord, 19-11, in January 1904. This was particularly amazing since one of Lew’s teammates on Haverhill was future Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame player Edward “Ed” Wachter, who got little if any mention during the entire season. “BUCKY LEW EQUAL TO HARRY HOUGH,” read another socially intriguing headline in February after a Haverhill win over South Framingham, which included one of the league’s other big stars. “Bucky Lew held his own with the world beater, Harry Hough,” the Sun exclaimed.[10]

That much attention was bound to attract some resentment, as suggested by the headline, “BUCKY LEW SERIOUSLY INJURED AT HAVERHILL.” During a win over Manchester, “he was thrown by Devlin and his right shoulder was knocked out,” according to a report. “He may be out of the game for the rest of the season.”[11] It was only then that his teammate Wachter first began to get noticed. In a subsequent win over Lowell, he committed eleven fouls. “One attack that he made on Kane was entirely uncalled for,” a sportswriter declared. “He caught the Lowell man full in the face and play was stopped for a few minutes.” That is an astonishing number of fouls by a future Hall of Fame player, and “there were others the referee failed to see.”[12]

Lew left Haverhill to sign with Lowell for a few games at the beginning of the 1904-05 season. This generated immediate controversy when Natick “refused to play against Lew because he is a colored by, and they are all southerners and therefore have a feeling against colored people in general.” But the league didn’t appreciate it. “The Natick team was fined $50 for its action and ordered not to repeat the offense under penalty of a fine of $100.”[13] Because of the un-played game, their next matchup had to be a doubleheader, which Lowell’s manager James Gray not only predicted would be a sweep but also backed it up by telling newspapers that “he is willing to wager a few dollars on the statement.”

By mid-December, however, Lew was back with Haverhill and they were rolling through the New England Basketball League with ease. Despite winning the league’s championship title, no mention of Wachter or his contributions can be found in the local papers.

Of note, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall Of Fame officially recognizes Harry “Bucky” Lew as basketball’s first African American basketball pro. This is documented in a 1978 letter to one of Lew’s living descendants in which then executive director Lee Williams wrote, “It will be our position that pending further documented information (if any), we will consider Mr. Lew the first Negro to play professional basketball.”

Following his departure from the pro leagues, Lew kept his skills sharp but seems to have limited his playing time to guest appearances. “Bucky Lew of Lowell, the well known basketball player, is to be with the All Stars of Boston against Company F of Marlboro, tonight,” the Fitchburg Daily Sentinel reported in 1914, almost a decade after Lew was making headlines. “It is a long time since Lew first started playing the game, and he was always one of the best.”[14]

A year later, “Bucky” was remembered again. “In the days when Lowell stood among the leaders in professional basketball, Lew was considered one of the greatest basketball players in the country,” the Lowell Sun reminded its readers in 1915.

During this time, Lew took advantage of the regional notoriety and goodwill he had generated over the years and formed his own barnstorming basketball team, Bucky Lew’s Traveling Five. He barnstormed on and off with this team for the next twenty years, and ran a dry cleaning business on the side. In 1923, Lew was part of the effort, along with former teammate Ed Wachter, to revive the old New England League. But nothing came of it. Meanwhile, all of his endeavors in the sport must have been somewhat lucrative, as Lew didn’t retire from basketball until 1926. Lew moved his family to Springfield two years later, where he died in 1966.

Let’s hear it for African American basketball pioneer Harry “Bucky” Lew, born on this date in 1884. Happy Birthday!

[1] Lowell Sun, 28 May 1901.
[2] For more details on Barzillai Lew and his descendants, including Harry Lew, see: Franklin A. Dorman, Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts, 1742-1998 (Boston: New England Genealogical Society, 1998).
[3] Lew played for Newbury-Haverhill according to Bijan Bayne, Sky Kings: Black Pioneers in Professional Basketball (Franklin Watts, 1996); he played for Pawtucketville Athletic Club according to Tatsha Robertson, “A Binding Chord,” Boston Globe, 23 February 1999; he played for Pawtucketville A.C. and later, Haverhill, according to Franklin A. Dorman, Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts, 1742-1998 (Boston: New England Genealogical Society, 1998); he played for Lowell according to Mike Bogan, “First Black Pro Hoop Player’s Recognition Near,” Springfield Union-News, 1 February 2001.
[4] As cited by Bogan.
[5] Lowell Sun, 1 January 1903.
[6] Lowell Sun, 31 January 1903.
[7] Lowell Sun, 17 March 1903.
[8] Lowell Sun, 11 November 1903.
[9] Lowell Sun, 1 December 1903.
[10] Lowell Sun, 29 February 1904.
[11] Lowell Sun, 4 March 1904.
[12] Lowell Sun, 11 March 1904.
[13] Lowell Sun, 1 December 1904.
[13] Fitchburg Daily Sentinel, 20 March 1914.
[13] Lowell Sun, 21 January 1915.