Born January 1884 in Dracut, Massachusetts, Harry Lew would make sports history as the first Black professional basketball player. He grew up in a talented family with ties to history. Several were musicians and his grandparents operated a station of the Underground Railroad in Massachusetts.
Pro Basketball Debut
Lew himself picked up the violin at an early age. In his teens, he would join his father’s dry-cleaning business in Lowell while also playing on the young employed boys’ basketball team at the YMCA. Harry Lew played for the team for four years and he would be state champion each year with them.
He was recruited to the New England Professional Basketball League’s Pawtucketville Athletic Club at 18. Initially, the manager didn’t want to put Lew on the court. It would be a chance injury from a teammate that changed things. The manager simply allowed the opposing team Marlborough to play them five-on-four but the fans became agitated and called for Harry Lew to play.
In an interview from 1958, Lew described basketball as much more physical due to its lack of rules on fouling, out-of-bounds, and double dribbling. While he dealt with racial slurs, he was shown to be a tough player who could roll with the roughness of play. He described his play as being primarily an outside shooter and that he had to be accurate since there were no backboards.
Final Years in the Game
After the 1905 season, the New England League—at the time the New England Association—closed its doors. For two decades afterward, Harry Lew played throughout the New England area with teams he set up. In 1926, at the age of 42, he played his final professional game. He moved took his dry-cleaning business and settled in Springfield, Massachusetts before passing in October 1963.
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