Inside Stories

Lowell’s Starting 5: Historic Downtown Basketball Sites

by Chris Boucher

As we continue to draw attention to one of the Mill City’s sports pioneers through a new book about him, here’s a quick tour of five important early basketball sites in downtown Lowell. They include the gym that hosted the first game played in the city, places several Hall-of-Fame players appeared, and arenas where Harry “Bucky” Lew made history as both the first Black pro coach and franchise owner in integrated leagues.

Located across Merrimack Street from Saint Anne’s Church. Now a parking lot.

The old YMCA was the site of first basketball game in Lowell in December of 1892. With each team consisting of a dedicated goalkeeper and eight other players who lined up against each other in three rows, the game sounded closer to foosball than the basketball we know today.

A reporter from the Lowell Courier-Citizen was on hand and described it this way: “The game of basketball was introduced in the city last evening, at the Y.M.C.A. gymnasium, and the athletes there went wild over it.”

The ball caromed off the walls, ceiling, and exposed pipes. According to the reporter, “it hit the gas pipe, nearly turning the gas off, and came down, causing two of the men to run into each other and upset. The fun was fairly on.”

The game looked like it would end in a scoreless tie until one player scored several late baskets for a 4-0 final score. Despite their offensive challenges, the players promised to further evangelize the sport that was taking the country by storm.

While he was too young to appear in that initial game, Lew would later join the Y and get his start in amateur basketball at the site.

Institute Building
Located at 98 Middle Street. Still standing and marked by Lowell Historic Board plaque.

This building was built by the Burke Temperance Institute. Named for an Irish priest, they crusaded against alcohol and sponsored sports teams to promote a healthy alternative. One such sponsorship involved the basketball team that was such a fierce rival of Lew’s PAC.

The Burkes were known for their physical style of play. They practiced upstairs and perhaps not surprisingly, one newspaper account had a player gashing his hand after poking it through a window. In a preseason game prior to Bucky’s signing, one of the Burkes knocked out the front teeth of a PAC player, perhaps clearing a way for Lew to join the team.

The Institute dropped sponsorship of the Burkes halfway through the 1902 season. As an organization that crusaded against alcohol because they felt it led to poor decisions like violence and gambling, they were likely not pleased to see that the headlines their team generated often involved both.

The team left Lowell for Manchester, NH, after finding a sponsor there, but kept the Burkes nickname. They continued to live a nomadic existence over the next few seasons, eventually playing for Amesbury, Marblehead, and Newburyport.

Associate Hall
Located at the intersection of Worthen and Merrimack streets. No longer standing after fire, currently the site of a Goodyear building.  

Associate Hall became the home of the first integrated basketball team led by a Black owner when Bucky Lew took on a team in the Central Massachusetts Basketball League in 1915. Lew owned and operated the franchise and even saved a few bucks by signing himself as a substitute player.

Early press was favorable and in a season preview, the Lowell Sun said: “Harry Lew…himself a basketball player known in every part of the east where the sport is played, is at the head of the project, and this fact alone should make the move a success.”

He was also the most popular player on the team, which led to trouble for one man. According to the Sun, after fans heard Lew “censure [Paul Grant] for individual playing,” they turned on Grant and hissed and booed him until he quit the team.

Huntington Hall
Located at the intersection of Dutton and Merrimack streets. A lone wall of three large arches and a doorway are all that remains of the building after a long-ago fire.

Huntington Hall was the site of the first integrated pro basketball game. Lew became the first Black pro baller when he played for the Pawtucketville Athletic Club in 1902. The PAC was one of two Lowell teams in the New England Basketball League that year.

According to basketball historian William Himmelman’s Pro Basketball Encyclopedia, “Lowell [was] a hotbed of enthusiastic and knowledgeable basketball fans. The two Lowell clubs led the league in attendance, with PAC drawing over 2,000 fans for some games, big numbers for turn of the century sports.”

For perspective, the Boston Braves only averaged about 1500 fans the same year.

In a setup similar to Boston Garden, the lower floor was a train station and the upper floors included offices and a large hall. Train tracks remain on the site today and often a trolley or train engine and car are parked at the site.

Here Lew battled the cross-town rival Burkes basketball team. He also played against several notable players, such as Harry Hough, the best player in the game at the time and one of its few double-digit scorers in what amounted to basketball’s dead ball era. Lew also played with future Hall-of-Famer Ed Wachter in the hall.

Crescent Arena
Located behind UTEC on Hurd street and extending to Warren Street. Currently a parking lot.

After fires destroyed the other downtown facilities suitable for hosting basketball games, Crescent, with its capacity of 1500 fans, became the place to play.

The best known game in its history came when the most famous team of its era, the Original Celtics from New York, came to play the Lowell Pro League champion Sacred Hearts in 1927. The Celtics were led by Joe Lapchick, who later coached the New York Knicks and, as documented in many books and movies, played a key role in integrating the NBA.

The full Celtics team was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1959 and Lapchick was additionally inducted as an individual in 1966. Perhaps predictably, the game at Crescent was not competitive, and the Celtics won 51-22.

The lone bright spot for the local team was center Ted Kapala. His 10 points amounted to almost half of his team’s output and compared favorably to the 15 scored by Lapchick. Later, in a move that would not be possible today, after his pro career ended, Kapala would go on to study engineering and play basketball as an amateur at Lowell Textile School.

It has been rumored that another Hall-of-Famer, Nat Holman, faced Lew at the Crescent prior to Bucky’s retirement in 1926. However, no first-hand confirmation of such an event has been found.

Chris Boucher is the author of “The Original Bucky Lew: Basketball’s First Black Professional.” In his final talk for May, he will be speaking at the Parker Library in Dracut on Wednesday, May 24, at 6:30. The book is available in local bookstores and on Amazon here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *