Sixty years ago this month, Syracuse basketball star Lou "Sug" Sugarman, a New York City playground legend who made his way to the S.U. campus in 1907 for one special season as the Orange's first Jewish basketball scholarship player, passed away at the age of 61. Sugarman also played a key role in the development of the game of basketball in the first half of the 20th century, as a player, coach, manager, and referee.
The Swiftest Man In The Game
The year was 1906, and a young basketball phenom was turning heads and breaking ankles at University Settlement on New York City's Lower East Side. Austrian native and Columbia grad Harry Baum was coaching young Jewish players at University Settlement in the relatively new game of basketball. Known as the father of fundamental basketball tactics, Baum was the mastermind behind the success of this old-time basketball factory.
Baum's team, nicknamed the "Busy Izzies," utilized revolutionary hoops strategies (adopted from the game of lacrosse, which Baum played in college), including "man-to-man defense and an offense based on speed, quickness, and intelligence that emphasized short passes, backdoor cuts, and the ability to move with or without the ball." The "Busy Izzies" won the Inter-Settlement House championship that year.
Harry Baum's 1907 "Busy Izzies," the baddest hoops squad in NYC, the season after Sugarman left for S.U.
There was one player from Baum's stable of Big Apple roundball champions at that time who stood out from the rest; renowned for his dribbling skills, speed, quickness and scoring ability, 16-year-old Louis Sugarman was a bonafide star.
Meanwhile, the 1906-07 Syracuse basketball season ended with a whimper. Cuse clawed their way to a 4-2 start but with illness and injuries whittling the roster down to only five available players, they canceled their entire western road trip. The hobbling, depleted Orangemen would finish the season at 4-3 after a season-ending loss at Colgate, bringing the program's overall record to an unremarkable 36-35 over their first 7 campaigns.
In the fall of 1907, the fledgling Cuse hoops program would welcome the kid who was known as the best of the "Busy Izzies," a 5'7", 145-pound teenage ball-handling, high-scoring wizard out of the Bronx named Lou Sugarman.
So just how good was this young man they called "Sug?"
Sam Miller said this about Sweet Lou in the January 1910 'Physical Culture' monthly while describing the University Settlement basketball factory in NYC:
"Out of this same settlement a modern freak was developed by the game. Louis Sugarman, known far and wide as the swiftest man in the game...although he weighs but one hundred forty pounds, no man, big or little with the possible exception of (Samuel) Melitzer, who is a freak himself, has been able to cope with him in a game."
Whoa. Dudes couldn't even cope with the freaky Louie Sugar...
except possibly this Samuel Melitzer character:
Samuel Melitzer, supposedly the only man who could possibly
cope with Sug's freaky swiftness, and a bit of a ponce.
Miller wasn't the only contemporary to sing the praises of Sweet Lou. Basketball Hall of Famer Max "Marty" Friedman once called Sugarman "the greatest player ever developed on the Lower East Side."
More than three-quarters of a century before Derek Brower's haymakers of fury flattened a trio of well-groomed Cornell hoopsters across the Carrier Dome hardwood, Sugarman brought to the Orange campus a reputation for having a quick temper and for using his knuckles from time to time to get his point across. Once, Suggy even hospitalized a fella after a "post-game dust-up."
Still, it should be noted that many of Sug's fights were provoked by anti-Semetic comments from opposing players. Perhaps Lou wasn't as much a 'hothead' as he was a 'guy who played a very physical sport literally inside a cage while the other team repeatedly screamed racial epithets at him because he was the best player on the court until he occasionally popped some bigot square in the kisser.'
In the fall of 1907, Lou Sugarman packed his bags and hopped the Empire State Express north to Syracuse, where he would play his first season of college basketball for the Orange.
The 'Empire State Express' in Syracuse, circa 1905,
possibly the same danged train that later brought the Orange some Sugar
Syracuse Basketball 1907-1908: The Year Of The Sug
When Sugar came to the Salt City, the S.U. campus was in the midst of unprecedented expansion, with Bowne Hall, Carnegie Library, Lyman Hall, Machinery Hall, Sims Hall, and the modern concrete marvel Archbold Stadium all opening for business in 1907.
On December 12, 1907, Sug would make his Orange debut in a 26-20 home win over St. Lawrence. Sugar Man The Orange Man And The Orange Men would roll to 8 straight wins to open the year, highlighted by a 42-22 shellacking of RPI on the road (with Sweet Lou tallying 17 points) and a 25-21 overtime victory against Williams at home (13 points for Suggy).
SU campus circa 1908: That New-Building Smell In The Year Of The Sug
In a heated, bruising contest, the Orange opened up a 22-16 lead in the second half...but the referees were only calling fouls on Syracuse.
Fed up with the disgraceful officiating, Syracuse captain Eddie Dollard (yes, that Eddie Dollard) did what any team captain worth his salt in nineteen-oh-eight would have done:
"Dollard called a timeout to officially protest the officiating, and ask for a new referee. The referee then ruled that Syracuse had withdrawn from the game in protest and thus Syracuse had to forfeit the game (which is not what Syracuse had done). Dollard protested further, and stated that any person in the building, including the opposing coach could officiate the game, but the referee would not hear it, and the forfeit stood."
Legend has it that a young boy named Timmy Higgins was in the crowd at that fateful Wesleyan game. When the portly, impressionable Higgins child saw that an official could call a head-spinning number of fouls against one team and then decide the outcome of the game while becoming the center of attention, he reportedly dedicated his life to becoming a basketball referee.
This exclusive, unauthenticated photo may provide evidence of little Timmy Higgins' attendance at the 1908 Syracuse/Wesleyan basketball matchup. It appears to show a young Higgins leaving a bar with his father, Throbbington Buttwicke Higgins, a roundly despised local tax collector and village souse, and the rest of the Higgins clan on their way to the game. Notably, his parents have dressed young Timmy like a girl, which would explain a lot, if in fact this unauthenticated photograph has not been doctored.
After getting frickin' jobbed at Wesleyan, the shaken Orange dropped their next two games.
Thankfully, the squad would have a full week to recover and refocus before outlasting rival Colgate at home 19-12. On March 6, 1908, Lou Sugarman's final game as an Orangeman, they'd defeat Rochester on the road 27-21 to end the year a sparkling 10-3, the best winning percentage in the program's 8-year history.
Eight days later, the cornerstone would be laid for a new $400,000 athletic facility called Archbold Gymnasium, but Lou Sugarman wouldn't be around when it opened the following December.
For reasons that have been lost to the mists of time and probably made perfect sense in 1908, Sugarman would depart from The Hill and take his talents to South Bend, joining the Notre Dame basketball team for a season. With Louie Louie playing a key bench role, Notre Dame would end 1908-09 a gaudy 33-7, and Sug's collegiate career would come to a close.
Pro Some Sugar On Lou
His college days behind him, Lou embarked on a decade-long career playing professional basketball, logging time in the Eastern Basketball League (including stints with De Neri in Philly in 1913 and 1919 and Greystock in 1916), as well as the New York State League, where he was the leading scorer in 1914.
Sometime along the way, Lou decided that he wanted to be a dentist. So, he enrolled at Philadelphia Dental College and officially became a dentist in 1917, and just like that, he became Dr. Sugarman. Oh, Sweet Lou, what couldn't you do?
Some dentist in 1917 wishing he was Lou Sugarman
In 1920, Sugarman began teaching some of the top young intercollegiate baskeball players in the nation as the freshman team coach at Penn. Later that year, Louie Sugs accepted the head coaching job at Princeton.
On December 12, 1920, thirteen years to the day after his first game as an Orangeman, Lou came back to the Syracuse campus, this time as 3-1 Princeton's head coach for a game against his alma mater, the 1-0 Orange. Back in 1908, Lou and his Orange teammates thumped the Tigers at home 32-20.
This time around, with Dr. Lou prowling the sidelines, the first half was all Princeton until the Orange rallied to close to within two points at the break:
"The Tigers jumped into the lead at the start, but several times the Syracuse tossers looked threatening, especially in the closing minutes of the first half, when Coach Lou Sugarman's quintet dropped from a seven-point margin to a two-point lead."
In the second half against Sugarman's squad, Cuse collapsed.
"Syracuse suffered from bad breaks, particularly in the second half. Repeatedly the Orange forwards would toss the ball at the rim to have it roll around and then drop back into play. Once Parker tried three throws at the goal, but was unable to score, and Princeton carried the ball out of danger. Lavin was decidely off color on foul shooting, missing seven out of eleven tries from the foul line."
Princeton would hold on for a 27-21 victory, but all was not well in Tiger hoops land.
On February 17, 1921, midway through the season and with a record of 8-3 (or 11-4 or possibly 9-4), Dr. Sugarman resigned, telling Princeton officials that the players "needed a babysitter rather than a coach." Princeton released their own statement, wisely noting that:
"Dr. Sugarman showed the widest knowledge of modern basketball and unusual skill as a teacher of the technique of the game."
With his exit from Princeton, Lou Sugarman let the world know that Lou Sugarman didn't take guff from anybody, especially from a bunch of immature, snotty, elitist Princeton punks who didn't know how to listen.
The ugly, cluttered Princeton campus that Sug wished he'd never seen, circa 1921
Lou left Princeton and headed back to the pro ranks, joining the Camden Crusaders of the Eastern Basketball League fifty miles up the road.
By the mid-1920s, Sweet Lou scaled back on his court time and became a manager (and occasional player) for a number of pro teams, including stops in Washington, Rochester and Trenton.
Sugar 'n' Stripes
Dr. Sweet Louie Sugs would continue his basketball career primarily as a referee around the northeastern United States. A January 20, 1931 Utica Observer-Dispatch story about an upcoming hoops double-header indicates that Sugarman was well-known and respected by local hoops fans (albeit maybe a little too well-known):
"While Referee Lou Sugarman has done good work here in other contests, the fans are desirous of seeing some of the other officials in action."
Fair enough, early 1930s Utica-NY-area basketball fans, fair enough.
Dr. Sugar Lou would eventually take one more shot at coaching young players, in 1936 at St. Joseph's Prep in Philly. The team would finish 0-14. Let's move on.
Lou Sugar Hoops Magik
Toward the end of his life, Lou had garnered the respect of many who knew him as a player, manager and referee in the wild-and-wooly formative years of professional and college basketball. In a January 25, 1949 column for the Brooklyn Eagle entitled 'Some Reminiscences Of an Old Cage Fan,' Tommy Holmes wrote:
"Lou Sugarman, who became a referee, should have retired from the game with
a reputation as the cage sharpshooter of the New York State Professional Basketball League."
Then there was that time Lou Sugarman saved the hide of "oldtime court referee" Dick Meehan in Amsterdam, NY by lifting him to safety away from a mob of rock-throwing attackers. In a column by Tom Meany in the January 8, 1950 issue of Sporting News, Meehan spins quite the yarn about a "rhubarb in Amsterdam some time ago."
"I worked a game in Amsterdam, N.Y., one time where they had to keep both teams and the referee locked in the cage between the halves so the crowd couldn't get at us. When the game was over, some good-hearted citizens formed an alley through which we could run to the dressing room. Then, when we were dressed, we had to wait until the last minute to get the train out of town because we got word that the fans were waiting for us at the railroad station with rocks. And I mean rocks, not stones.
"I made the train just as it got in motion and Lou Sugarman gave me a lift up the steps just in time to win a photo finish from the mob.
"I stood on the platform, mopped my brow and lit a cigar. Sugarman removed his detachable collar, looked at it to see if it would be good for another night and then looked at me.
" 'Well, Dick.' he said, 'you fellows sure picked out a tough way to make a buck.'
"That I consider the greatest understatement in basketball history."
And that, Orange fans, is Lou Sugarman. Maybe he didn't suffer fools particularly well. Perhaps he was a bit of a 'loner.' He may not have had the patience to teach the game to youngsters.
But Lou Sugarman was a basketball guy...a lifer when there weren't many lifers around. Seems he really cared about the game (and even about the referees, who may have deserved to be run out of town). As a teenager, basketball was his ticket out of the tough Jewish neighborhoods of the the early 20th century Lower East Side, and he ended up giving his life back to the sport that had given so much to him.
Lou Sugarman was a year old when basketball was invented. He was a 16 year old cager when metal hoops with backboards became standard for the first time in organized basketball. He was 59 when the National Basketball Association was founded. Sug saw it all happen, and he was a part of it all, as it happened.
Here's to Lou Sugarman, Orangeman!