Harry Lew made his debut playing basketball for the Pawtucketville Athletic Club on Nov. 2, 1902.
He was the first African-American to play the sport for a professional league — 11 years after the sport was invented.
The 18-year-old point guard wore U.S. Rubber-branded sneakers on the court, and the label’s “Original Baller” shoe, released last year, celebrates his honor.
“He’s the unknown Jackie Robinson in basketball; he was beaten by his own players and opposing players,” said Gary Pifer, a sneaker historian and owner of the Colchester and U.S. Rubber brands.
“I wanted it to equal that of the Chuck Taylor that Converse made,” Pifer explained. “I conceived the style ‘Original Baller’ for a shoe that could compete with Nike and Converse for the African-American market.”
The sneakers retail for $58 online.
Lew played for the Pawtucketville Athletic Club in the New England Professional Basketball League for three years after joining in 1902, and his sports career lasted for more than 20 years.
The NBA was formed in 1949, and the Boston Celtics drafted the league’s first African-American player, Chuck Cooper, one year later.
Lew died in 1963, and his contributions to sports history and racial equality have been largely overlooked, said Pifer, who added that Lew has not been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Pifer sees the shoe as an apt tribute.
“In 1964 his daughters tried to get him in, and it fell on deaf ears,” Pifer said. “In the newspaper, they gave him a tiny obit in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, next to juniors sections.”
Pifer acquired the U.S. Rubber and Colchester brands in 2005. The heritage story was revived through reproductions of the first basketball sneaker, of which U.S. Rubber originated under Colchester, he said, adding that the company manufactured sneakers for multiple private labels, including Keds, before shuttering. “They were the Prada of rubber footwear,” he said. “The most expensive and highest prices to customers of the gilded age.”
The replica sneakers incorporate the color and style elements of the first design, which were produced in 1892 — one year after Dr. James Naismith invented basketball.
New features on the canvas fashion sneakers that nod to the original include safety bumps for traction, a toe guard and padding in the inner sole to enhance comfort. They’re available for $70 on Colchesters.com.
“We use modern foxing and a thinner slab,” he added. “They had no EPA rules, and they couldn’t make rubber pure back then.”