by Steve Corey
September 9, 2020
A Special Talent
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following column on Lewis Mack first saw the light of day on March 19, 1975. As one of the finest basketball players to ever come out of Chautauqua County, it was deemed appropriate to run the story again.
“I remember the first time I ever played basketball. I was 7 years old. I remember I went over to a friend’s house and asked him if I could take some shots at the hoop he had. He let me use his ball and I shot around for a while. I really liked it.”
It’s been a long time since Lewis Mack “took to the court” for the first time in an obscure neighborhood in Silver Creek, but there’s at least one thing which the years haven’t changed: Lew still really likes the game of basketball.
In fact, he likes it so much that he plays every day of the year. During the Jamestown Community College season, he played before practice, during practice and after practice. He played on the weekends, too, when there wasn’t any official practice.
During the offseason, Mack plays and runs every single day. At preseason time, he added extra running to go along with Coach Nick Creola’s grueling workouts. In the two weeks prior to the Region 3 Tournament, he ran an extra two miles per day to make sure that he would be in absolutely top shape.
Has hard work paid off?
Well, two seasons ago Lew didn’t even make the first string all-star team as a senior in the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Interscholastic Athletic Conference. Last week, he was named a member of the first string NJCAA All-Region 3 team, an honor never before accorded to a JCC ballplayer.
JCC’s Jesse Thomas made that CCIAC all-star team two years ago, and “The Jet” appears headed on to a medium-sized four-year school to continue his basketball career. The other four players on that CCIAC team? Well, chances are you’re never going to hear much of anything about them again, at least in terms of basketball.
Lew doesn’t have any intentions of slacking off in the future. He senses that he still has a long way to go before he reaches his peak potential, and he intends to do everything possible to improve his game to the limits.
A glance at Lew’s history hardly reveals any startling portents of the tremendous improvements he has shown in the past few years. Born in Virginia, he moved with his family to Silver Creek when he was 3 years old.
That northern Chautauqua County city was Lew’s home for most of his youth, and it was there that he learned the fundamentals of the basketball.
Organized ball started in the eight grade, when Lew warmed the bench for the Creekers. By the next season he had earned a starting role with the Knights’ junior varsity, and as a sophomore he was first string varsity under Coach Curt Raymond.
Lew considers Raymond to be one of the prime influences on his game, because, “he and his assistant worked really hard with me on the basics of the game.”
In his junior campaign, Mack’s roundball prowess continued to grow at a faster-than-normal pace. At the season’s end, he was named to the Class BB all-star team as a first-string backcourter.
The following summer brought a move to the city of Dunkirk, which was bad news for Coach Raymond, but excellent news for Marauder coach Mike Tramuta. Teamed with Thomas, Jack VandeVelde, and Dave Szwejbka, Mack helped Dunkirk to a Section VI title win over Cleveland Hill in Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium.
This reporter had a chance to see that championship contest, and I’ve never forgotten the impression which Lew left with my basketball sensibilities: Here was a high school kid doing the things the pros were supposed to do — passes behind the back and between the legs at a dead run, super shots and super moves and more.
“(Creola) was around Dunkirk looking at Szwejbka, but he thought Jesse and I were already taken,” Mack said. “I told him I was looking for someplace to go and he was able to arrange it. Jesse was supposed to be going to Canisius, but the school backed out on him over the summer. I talked to Coach and he was able to get Jesse to come here, too.”
Those were two mighty big catches by Creola’s scouting net. In the 1973-74 season, Mack and Thomas led JCC to a 26-2 record and a trip to the Region 3 Tournament. In the season just ended, as most everyone recalls, the Jayhawks captured the regional title, but lost out in the inter-regional action against Housatonic CC of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
How good is Lew Mac on the basketball court? An impossible question, no doubt, but a few facts and observations may help us to at least approximate an answer:
During the 1974-75 season, Mack broke at least five JCC all-time records (official school statistics were not yet available as of press time, so there may be others I’ve missed. Also, figures given here are unofficial, but nearly correct).
¯ Most career points: The smashing of the record here is staggering. Mack totaled 1,317 points (21.2 ppg) over two years, erasing Jack Titus’ old mark of 977 points. (Thomas also topped Titus record, closing with 1,192 points).
¯ Most points in one season: Mack’s 765 this campaign broke Thomas’ record of 672 established last year. “The Jet” scored his in fewer games, however, averaging 24.0 as compared to Mack’s 22.5 this year.
¯ Most free throws: 169, demolishing Thomas’ record of 116.
¯ Most field goals: 298, the old pinnacle being 278, once again by Thomas.
¯ Most assists: Mack set the record of 168 last year and broke it again this year, but the exact figure is not available at this time.
As with any truly outstanding ballplayer, Lew’s importance to the Jayhawks extended far beyond these statistics. As co-captain with Thomas, Mack had the duty of calling the team’s defensive alignments during the games. He was the one who kept the other players together, getting them into position when they were crossed up and calming them down when they were upset. When JCC got into trouble or had to protect a lead going down to the wire, Mack was the player they went to; his ball-handling expertise and his clutch scoring ability made him Region 3’s best “game saver.”
“We had some troubles early in the season,” Mack said, “because some of the new players resented me and Jesse being the leaders. After a while, though, they learned that they really did need me in the game, and things worked out OK after that.”
One possible indicator of Mack’s crucial role in JCC’s game plan is this: JCC lost only four games this past season. In three of those four games (Alfred Tech, Mercyhurst Junior Varsity and Housantonic), Mack fouled out with considerable time left in the second half. In the fourth (Sinclair Junior College), he sat out most of the second half with four personals.
Lew was vital to JCC’s success because, frankly, he was the one on the team who could do literally everything. His deadly outside shooting and his vast array of inside moves made him the top player. Add his ability to hold the ball almost eternally in a stalling situation, plus his often outstanding defensive work, including several steals per game, and you’ve got quite a ballplayer.
Yes, quite a ballplayer. But a professional-caliber performer?
We’ve already noted that Middle Tennessee’s John Ferguson definitely thinks so. Lew is heavily leaning toward accepting a full scholarship at that school, which recently won the tough Ohio Valley Conference championship before getting knocked off in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Middle Tennessee has offered Lew a starting point-guard position. That means, should he accept the offer, he’ll be bringing the ball upcourt next season against teams like Alabama (No. 10 in the country this season), Tennessee, Jacksonville and many others. Local fans could well see “The Dr.” on nationwide television during the season and, quite possibly, in the postseason championships as well.
That’s pretty heavy company to be running in, but those most closely associated with Lew believe he’ll be every bit equal to the task.
“I’m sure Mack will rise to the occasion,” Creola said, “and with continued improvement and hard work I think he has a chance at making the pros.”
How does Mack feel about playing pro basketball?
“I can’t really say whether or not I think I can make it. … If I work hard, I’d say there’s an outside chance.”
What if he doesn’t make it. Where will the future take him then?
“Maybe I would try one of the European leagues, then come back and have another shot at the pros here. If that didn’t work out, I’d like to get into teaching basketball to kids. I love working with kids.”
If you’ve ever seen Lew play ball, you’ve got to believe that he’s going to make it somewhere. Without a doubt, he’s the best player JCC has ever turned out and by all odds the best all-around player in Region 3 this past season. Lew is in the running for NJCAA All-American honors. He’s already been listed among the top 50 junior college players in the nation and, more recently, an NJCAA bulletin put him among the “10 hottest junior college players prospects” in the country.