Lew Massey was a star on the Charlotte 49ers' greatest basketball team. And there was a reason he was called "Sweet Lew."
"It was a most telling nickname," said former 49ers coach Lee Rose. "It all goes to how he played basketball. He had such a sweet shot. He was pure."
Massey, the 49ers' second-leading career scorer, died Thursday at his home in Charlotte. He was 57. Tijuana Baker, Massey's daughter, said he died of natural causes.
Massey, a 6-foot-4 forward, arrived on the UNC Charlotte campus in 1975 from Pineville, where he had played at South Mecklenburg High. He quickly developed into one of college basketball's most feared shooters, helping the 49ers to the finals of the National Invitation Tournament in 1976.
But it was the following season that Charlotte barged into the national sports headlines. Led on the inside by dynamic center Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell and on the outside by the sweet-shooting Massey, the 49ers made it all the way to the Final Four in Atlanta, where they lost in the semifinals to Marquette.
"We wouldn't have gotten to the Final Four or the NIT finals if it hadn't been for Lew Massey," Maxwell said. "You weren't going to double-team me, because Lew was standing out there. You couldn't double-team Lew, because that left me open.
"He was the kind of guy that could carry a team. We'd just get on his back."
Massey was always ready to uncork that accurate jumper.
"He had that quick release, especially from the corner, that was always his shot," said Kevin King, a forward on those 49er teams. "We'd always joke with him that he was that black hole: once it went to him, it wasn't coming back out. If you wanted to see the ball again, don't pass it to Lew. But he had that shooter's instinct."
Massey left Charlotte as the program's career-scoring leader with 2,149 points (he's now second behind Henry Williams). His four-year scoring average of 19.4 is fourth in school history. He was also an iron man, averaging 35.2 minutes per game.
"He never lacked confidence," said backup guard Jeff Gruber. "He always thought it was going in."
The 49ers' 1977 season ended in controversy in the national semifinals against Marquette, when a last-second tip-in by Jerome Whitehead gave the Warriors a 51-49 victory.
Although most in Charlotte's camp have always claimed Whitehead's shot shouldn't have counted, Massey had his own view from midcourt.
"I still see that play like it was two hours ago," Massey told the Observer in 2007. "I thought the play was good."
Massey also was a star at South Mecklenburg and the nephew of another former Sabres standout, Walter Davis (who would play in that same 1977 Final Four with North Carolina).
Massey was a second-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1978, but he never played in the NBA. He played overseas for several seasons and reportedly had a 43.4-point career average in the Philippine Basketball Association, once scoring 85 points in a game.
Massey struggled with drug addiction after retiring from basketball, but had been clean for 12 years, Gruber said. Massey was also diabetic and lost a leg to the disease.
He owned a successful plumbing supplies business in Charlotte. Maxwell said Massey told him business was booming.
"Lew had his demons and there were different things that happened in his life that put him down," said Maxwell. "But he was a phoenix; he redefined himself."
Massey is the second starter off the 1977 team who has died. Guard Chad Kinch passed away in 1994.
"We are deeply saddened by the news about Lew," 49ers athletics director Judy Rose said in a statement. "He was not only a great player … but an avid fan. He loved this university and the basketball program in particular. He really enjoyed attending the annual basketball alumni event and reconnecting with his former teammates. He will be sorely missed but not forgotten."
Lee Rose said he had lost touch with Massey since their days with the 49ers, but saw him at a recent alumni basketball game at Halton Arena.
"He looked marvelous," said Rose, who said he couldn't tell Massey had a prosthetic leg. "He'd always been a little heavy, but he looked slim and trim. You couldn't distinguish anything in his walk. We sat next to each other and had a great visit."
Massey also regularly attended an annual summer reunion at current 49ers coach Alan Major's home.
"He always had a huge smile and a hug for me," said Major. "He had such a warm spirit. It's a sad day in Niner Nation when you lose a winner like Lew. He was a special person.'
Massey stayed in touch with his former teammates. King, Gruber and Maxwell all said Massey would conclude his telephone conversations with them with a simple phrase: "I love you, man."
• A memorial service for Lew Massey will be held Feb. 1 (time to be determined) at H.O. Graham Metropolitan Church, 2926 Old Steele Creek Rd, Charlotte, NC 28208. Alexander Funeral Home is in charge.
Alexander Funeral Home, Inc.
1424 Statesville Avenue
Charlotte, NC 28236-6468
Published in Charlotte Observer from Jan. 25 to Feb. 23, 2014