A Closer Look: Fred Lewis

Freddy was a nightmare for opponents

Emerging from Bronx, Lewis builds a legacy of skill, consistency

Lewis consults with Ken Smolack at Palmer Park in the late 1960s.

By Marc Penick

In the USHA Hall of Fame is a list of all-time great players, ranging from Al Banuet and Joe Platak in 1954 to Vince Munoz and David Chapman in 2019. This is a special group of champions in our sport.  In 1993, Fred Lewis was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Many of us recall his six national singles titles and watching his precision-based game, which put his opponents on the run while he remained in center court.

Fredrick Stanton Lewis was born in the Bronx, N.Y. He graduated in 1964 from James Monroe High School, where he was a member of the swimming and handball teams. Fred’s parents, Bob and Irene, retired and moved to Miami Beach in 1964.

Fred attended the University of Miami, graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. Bob Lewis was athletic, running track and playing basketball for his high school.  Eventually, he became a successful boxer, but he quit boxing at Irene’s insistence.  Bob became a fireman, retiring after being injured while fighting a fire.  Irene and Bob enjoyed playing handball at the Castle Hill Beach Club, where they met.

Fred’s brother, Jack, is a retired attorney living in South Florida. He was a champion age-group swimmer in New York and a terrific paddleball player. He also played handball and won the USHA collegiate doubles title with Joel Galpern in 1969. 

The Lewises were members of the Castle Hill Beach Club in its heyday. Castle Hill had 32 one-wall courts and three four-wall courts — and 7,500 members at the time. The club became known as the Cradle of Champions. Hall of Famers who were members of Castle Hill include Ken Schneider, Jimmy Jacobs, Oscar Obert, Paul Haber, Sam Haber, Marty Decatur, Fred Lewis, Lou Russo, Joel Wisotsky and John Bike Jr. That’s quite the honor roll.

Fred was coached by his father as well as by Bob Davidson, who ran a juniors clinic at the Bronx Union YMCA. Davidson also retired to Miami Beach and continued to coach Fred at the handball courts in Flamingo Park. Davidson, a member of the USHA Hall of Fame as a contributor, served for many years as rules and referees chairman as well as writing a column for the magazine called “From the Observation Tower.”

Fred lives and works in Tucson, where he is the senior vice president and chief financial officer for a real estate development company. He also manages the Fred Lewis Foundation.

In addition to his family and handball history, Fred offers a unique perspective on the game from his pro tour years and from his years with his foundation. We asked him to share his thoughts about the game then and now:

Parents Bob and Irene Lewis’ wedding photo.

Your dad was a talented handball player. Did you guys win events together?
We never got to play together because he hurt himself fighting a fire. He was my idol growing up as I watched him win many tournaments at the club.

What other sports did you play?
I was a competitive youth swimmer and competed in high school. My swimming career was undistinguished, but it taught me the meaning of hard work and helped me develop a strong cardio system.

How did you come to be invited into the USHA pro tour?
The USHA pro tour began in the fall of 1973. The first stop was at the St. Paul Athletic Club. It featured the top eight players from the 1973 four-wall nationals at the University of Texas. The other players besides me were Paul Haber, Lou Russo, Stuffy Singer, Terry Muck, Dr. Steve August, Gordy Pfeifer and Dave Graybill.

You were one of the winningest players ever on the tour. How did you achieve such success playing other extraordinary players?
Winning builds confidence, and confidence leads to winning. My game evolved over the years. I trained very hard, and as a result, I was able to play a driving game that forced my opponents to chase down shots. Back then we played two out of three to 21 points. I won many three-game matches because of a strong cardiovascular system.

Did you serve the same way, no matter who you played? Or did you prepare a different serve strategy based on the opponent?
I preferred to serve Paul Haber’s right hand because his underhand punch to the ceiling with his left hand was almost automatic. I would serve to my opponent’s off hand if I felt they couldn’t hurt me with their returns.

What was your favorite serve when you wanted to score a point?
Either a slider down the right wall or crotch left side wall.

Who coined the nickname Steady Freddy?   
My good friend Mort Leve, former editor of Handball magazine, first gave me the name. I guess it was because I made very few unforced errors and liked to keep the ball in play. I would pass up kill-shot opportunities to drive the ball and keep my opponents running.

How did the competitors get along in the court? How about socially when not competing?
We had some very heated rivalries and lots of on-court banter. As you can imagine, most of it involved Paul Haber. Our guys for the most part were in their 30s and successful professionals. Paul liked to rile guys up, and they would retaliate. It was fun to watch. For some reason, he never got into it with me.
After the matches we would go out to dinner and socialize with local players.

Two true legends: Naty Alvarado with Lewis.

Who were your toughest opponents?
I consider Naty Alvarado the GOAT. He was extremely difficult to solve because he set up very quickly.  He created offensive opportunities when it appeared they weren’t there with either hand.  Naty put me on the defensive when he was serving. He hooked the ball both ways down either wall with great velocity.  He was very difficult to read.

Dennis Hofflander was No. 2.  He was Naty Alvarado without the great serves.  Dennis had the best left-handed kill shot from deep court I have ever witnessed. 

Stuffy Singer was very difficult to handle when he wanted to play hard.  He had as much talent as anyone and was very intelligent.

And of course, there was Haber. There were 11 years’ difference in our ages. I would have loved to have competed against him in his prime.  I consider Paul’s victory over Dr. Bud Muelheisen in a hands-vs.-racket match as the greatest on-court achievement in handball history.

Lou Russo was my toughest opponent in three-wall. Lou was one of the greatest all-around players, winning national championships in one-, three- and four-wall.

A word about Jimmy Jacobs. We were a generation apart. In the summer of 1970, I played Jimmy once a week at the 92nd Street YMHA and never beat him.

Partner Steve Lott with Lewis after winning the 1971 New York Athletic Club Invitational doubles.

Who were your favorite doubles partners?
Gordy Pfeifer was the best partner.  He was the perfect right-side player. Gordy had a cannon right arm, made very few errors and was a tremendous front-court retriever.  We won a couple of national invitational doubles tournaments where the top singles players teamed up for doubles only.

Steve Lott was my good friend from New York.  We were runners-up twice for the national title.  Mort Leve dubbed us the “Whiz Kids” because we were 22 and 20.

Name a few favorite wins.
Defeating Dennis Hofflander in a three-game, four-hour match to win the national title in Las Vegas in 1975 is probably my favorite. Winning a pro stop at the University of Texas in 1981 two weeks after my dad passed away is a close second. Defeating Naty Alvarado a few months later in Chicago to win my sixth title is a close third.

Did you compete in one-wall venues when you were a pro?
I played in an AAU one-wall tournament one year because I was spending the summer in New York. Other than that, only one-wall junior nationals and PSAL handball.

What game did you prefer to play, four-wall or three-wall?
I like them both. Each is unique. There is more thinking in four-wall because of the variety of different shots. Three-wall is more physical because you are playing behind the 40-foot long line much of the time, the surface is concrete and the venue is outdoors.

Your pro career lasted longer than most. When did you decide it was time to stop competing as a pro?
After my son David was born, I decided to make a change.

How do today’s pro handball players compare with your generation? Any contrasts in approach to the game?  
I can write a book about that topic. For one, the ball used on the WPH Race 4 Eight pro tour is much faster than the ball we played with. It would have been interesting to see the greatest ceiling shot master of all time, Paul Haber, trying to keep this ball from setting up off the back wall.
It is a different game today and hard to compare. I will say the athletes of today compare very favorably with those of my generation.

Today you are seen as a leader in the sport for training and encouraging young players to get involved in the game. Why do you do it?
I was very fortunate to have my dad and Bob Davidson as coaches and wanted to emulate them. I have great insight into the methodology of teaching handball. In addition, I feel very strongly about giving young people opportunities to succeed in life, especially those who may not have access to mainstream facilities. What we do is more than teach handball. It is very important for our kids to interact with adults. It has produced all kinds of benefits outside the world of handball.

How much time do you spend teaching handball these days?
Not as much as I used to. The Fred Lewis Foundation operates as a business. Basically my role is to raise funds to support the activities of the foundation. Abraham Montijo is the head coach and chief recruiter. Luis Estrella has recently moved back to Tucson from Portland and has assumed his role as assistant head coach. When Sean Lenning is in town he also spends a lot of time coaching our kids. The bottom line is I’m 72 and the coaches are all in their early 30s. They all have great rapport with our kids. It is my intention to leave the foundation in good financial condition when I depart this earth.

Lewis and his team of youth players circa 2006. He founded and operates the Fred Lewis Foundation.

Please share with us some of the advice you offer to up-and-coming players.

  • Hit the ball hard. Don’t be a dart thrower.
  • Don’t lose to the floor. Hit the front wall.
  • Learn how to play defense and get yourself out of trouble.
  • Watch the top players and learn from them.
  • Train, work hard, go all out and never give up.

Name some of your favorite women players you have coached or observed.
My favorite female player was my mother. I played handball with her and her friends when I was very young. There were probably 50 adult women at Castle Hill who played handball.
I loved watching Rosemary Bellini when she was champion. She was dominant for so many years. Also Anna Engele — she had fire in her eyes when she competed. Lisa Fraser hit the ball a ton and was a dominant player. Priscilla Shumate had tremendous ability and was great at one-wall, three-wall and four-wall.
Today I enjoy watching the battles between Martina McMahon and Catriona Casey. I like the way Martina levels off when she goes for a kill shot. Catriona has great anticipation and knows how to play defense.

Do you like big ball? Is big ball real handball?
Any ball, any wall, as the saying goes. I admire the top big-ball players. They have amazing skill sets. Big ball is a great game outdoors.

Do you still play?
I try to play three times a week, mostly doubles. Injuries prevent me from playing much singles. I have a group of friends who are my age that I play with regularly. There is lots of banter and trash talk back and forth. After the game, we head out for lunch or dinner. The banter continues.
Tucson has more than its share of handball talent in every age group.  How do you rate the Tucson handball players?
In the early to late ’80s, Tucson had the finest stable of players in the country. On any given day Vern Roberts, Pat Kirby, Dave Lynch, Frank Postillion, Bo Blinski, Mike Gardner, Rene Zamorano and Tom Natale could be seen gracing the Tucson Athletic Club courts. Today we have many players in different age groups, including some of our kids who have aspirations of becoming pros. The pros at our club are David Fink, whom I greatly admire for the way he has stayed in shape into his 40s; Shorty Ruiz; Abe Montijo, and Sean Lenning.

You have been a contributor and supporter of the USHA and WPH for many years. Please share your insights about the organizations.
To be truthful, I have been a supporter and critic of both organizations, which has been well documented. I like the fact both organizations are cooperating with one another for the good of the sport. Having a pro stop at last year’s four-wall junior nationals was an absolute winner. We need the pro tour to showcase the sport, and the WPH has been out front with its innovative technology. I’m sure as technology improves we will be sitting in our living rooms someday and watching the finals on a Sunday afternoon on a major network. I’m disappointed that the USHA membership has declined since its heights back in the ’80s and ’90s. The USHA does a lot to promote junior and collegiate handball. The problem is that once kids graduate from college, they seem to lose interest.

How do you think we can induce growth in handball player ranks in today’s electronic age?
I have floated the idea in the past of having an employee dedicated to retention of junior and college players. One of the main reasons kids play handball is because they receive mentorship from adult coaches. After they graduate they have no one to turn to, so they quit playing. The USHA needs a mentor in the home office who is very into social media. That is what today’s generation is all about.  I believe that person is Abraham Montijo, and I am throwing his hat in the ring. Abe has over 1,500 followers on Facebook and commands respect from young and old alike.

Will the U.S. players compete well with the Irish players in the coming years? 
If you mean on the pro level, I believe so. When Sean Lenning trains, he can beat anyone.  The Cordova brothers have shown vast improvement in the last few years and have the potential to step up even further. If we assume Paul Brady is retired, then Ireland’s top three are Killian Carroll, Martin Mulkerrins and Robbie McCarthy.  Killian has some unresolved issues related to injuries.  Martin is at the top of his game right now.  Robbie looked terrific at the world tournament but has commitments with the Irish Navy.

What can we learn from Ireland’s handball system?
They have a system that is extremely regimented and well organized. They have coaches and programs in just about every county. Also the kids cross-train by playing field sports and as a result have great legs.

Please name some of the most important contributors to handball over your career. Many of us believe you are one of those important players and contributors.
First and foremost was Bob Kendler, the founder and president of the USHA for over 30 years. Next, my three compadres who helped jump-start the new USHA in 1982 ­— Carl Porter, Joe McDonald and Ron Emberg.  Carl was president for 10 years and came up with the slogan “Save Handball,” which resurrected the USHA from bankruptcy.  Joe was the third president of the USHA and was instrumental in increasing the membership to its greatest heights. Ron had amazing fundraising ideas and was instrumental in creating the Grand Club, the Development Fund and the President’s Club.  Bob Hickman insisted on protecting our eyes, and as a result eyeguards are now required.

Next, I will name individuals who started junior programs that have withstood the test of time: the late Tony Huante, Don Quinlan, Paul Williams, James Coronado and my coach, Bob Davidson.

College coaches: Pete Tyson, Mike Dau, Tommy Burnett, Lance Lowy and Mike Wells.

Local handball promoters: Charlie and Joan Wicker, Dr. James Tanner, Tom Gilbert, Murray Marcus, Sid Semel, Kenny “Meatball” Smolack, George Miller, Gary Cruz, Neal Nordlund, Al Schilling, Naty Alvarado, Albert Apuzzi, Chatten Hayes, Jake “The Snake” Plummer, Lenny “The King” Tieman, Lon “Thank God for Garbage” Stalsberg. 
Financial contributors: Fred Banfield, Bill Smithburg and Bruce FaBrizio.

Glove manufacturers: Kenny Konkol, John Fabry and Tom Kopp.

WPH: Dave Vincent, Dave Fink and Jeff Kastner.

USHA: Mort Leve, Bob Peters, Vern Roberts and Matt Krueger.

I apologize if I left anyone off who is deserving of the term contributor.

Any closing thoughts for our readers to consider?
Lou Russo once stated in an interview that handball was the toughest non-contact sport. Given that fact, be proud that you play handball. You are truly a member of a very elite fraternity.


A ‘steady’ record tells Lewis’ Hall of Fame tale

Fred Lewis was inducted into the USHA Hall of Fame in 1993.  The inscription on his plaque reads: “Steady” Freddy won his first national title in 1972, and it was considered an upset at the time.  But Lewis pulled off five more singles wins to become one of the game’s most durable champions.  Fred dominated the action on the early pro handball tour, which started in 1974.  Lewis topped the all-time prize money list for more than a decade.  Fred personified the “percentage handball” game and coupled that with the ability to defend from deep court and convert any rally-ending opportunities.

Lewis’ national titles

Collegiates     Open singles
Collegiates     Open singles
Four-wall         Open singles
Four-wall         Pro singles
Three-wall     Open singles
Four-wall         Pro singles
Four-wall         Pro singles
Four-wall         Pro singles
Three-wall     Open singles
Four-wall         Pro singles
Four-wall         35+ doubles
Masters Singles     45+ singles
Masters Doubles     35+ doubles
Masters Singles     45+ singles
Four-wall         35+ doubles
Masters Singles     50+ singles
Masters Doubles     50+ doubles

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