Sports | Basketball

Columbia basketball legend Lou Bender dies at age 99

Just over a year ago, Lou “Lulu” Bender, at 98 years young, was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame. Bender, who led Columbia to two basketball championships and helped promulgate basketball in New York City during the Great Depression, passed away two weeks ago today at age 99. According to reports, Bender died from cancer at his home in Longboat Key, Fla.

Born on March 8, 1910, Bender grew up in the Bronx and attended DeWitt Clinton High School. The six-foot-one-inch Bender earned the nickname “Lulu” while playing basketball in high school after lobbing a long-range two-handed shot into the basket. A fan called out, “Now that was a lulu of a basket,” and the epithet would never be relinquished.

Bender entered Columbia College in 1930 and quickly became a force on the court as a forward. Bender, star forward Sam Schoenfeld, and fellow New York Basketball Hall of Famer George Gregory, Jr. proved a formidable threesome and led the Lions to back-to-back Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball League titles in 1930 and 1931. The Light Blue secured the conference title in 1930 with a 9-1 record (17-5 overall) and repeated the feat with an undefeated 12-0 record (21-2) in 1931. Bender led the EIBL in scoring both seasons with 98 and 96 points, respectively.

Bender and the Lions competed in a Great Depression unemployment relief tripleheader against Fordham University in 1931 at Madison Square Garden. St. John’s University defeated City College 17-9, and New York University fell to Manhattan College in a close 16-14 contest. Columbia emerged victorious over Fordham 26-18, and Bender led the entire event in points with eight. The event raised over $22,000 for unemployment relief and was a major catalyst for the rise of basketball in New York City. From this point forward, Madison Square Garden hosted annual doubleheader events featuring some of the nation’s top teams.

As team captain his senior year in 1932, Bender battled a knee injury while still managing to help Columbia tie Princeton for first place in the division with an 8-2 record (14-5 overall). However, the Tigers defeated the Lions in a tiebreaker game and claimed the league title. During his collegiate career, Bender was named All-Metropolitan thrice and All-American twice.

After graduating from Columbia College in 1932, Bender attended the Columbia University School of Law before playing basketball professionally. Bender played for several teams in the American Basketball League, including the Original Celtics in 1934, the Union City Reds in 1936, and the Boston Trojans in 1938. He finished his basketball career with the New York Whirlwinds in 1941.

Bender reverted back to a legal career following his final season in the ABL and, after serving as an assistant United States attorney and federal prosecutor, created a criminal defense law practice in the mid-1940s. Bender’s widow, Jean Waterman Bender, is a Barnard College graduate who married Lou in 1934 and currently resides in the couple’s home in Florida.

Bender was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 17, 2009 in a class that included Sam Perkins, Rod Strickland, Kenny Anderson, Eddie Younger, and former University of Virginia and Providence College coach Pete Gillen.

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