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Hoop hoax from 1950s featured Deep Cove

Deep Cove’s Len Schwartz is the greatest North Shore basketball player who never lived. That’s right – never lived. Well, almost never lived.
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Deep Cove’s Len Schwartz is the greatest North Shore basketball player who never lived. That’s right – never lived. Well, almost never lived.

He did have a short – yet very significant – month-long “life” during the 1951-1952 hoop season thanks to the biggest hoax ever created in the history of Canadian sports.

Schwartz, and the Howe Sound intermediate “B” basketball league that featured Deep Cove, Horseshoe Bay, Gibsons and Sechelt, was the figment of the imaginative mind of Vancouver Province sportswriter Hugh Watson.

As Jim Kearney, longtime Vancouver sports scribe who died in 2008, explained to me years ago, “Hughie and Erwin Swangard (who eventually became managing editor of the Vancouver Sun and the one for whom Swangard Stadium is named) had an ongoing war. When Erwin jumped from the Province over to the Sun to become sports editor, Hughie took this as an opportunity to get his revenge and invented the Howe Sound basketball league.”

Since the Sun staff would know Hughie’s voice, he cajoled Don McPhail, a rookie Province sportswriter, to phone in league results. An unsuspecting Sun reporter Pat Slattery (who later became a North Vancouver district alderman) dutifully took down the particulars and wrote little accounts about the games and especially about its star Len Schwartz.

The first of these “exclusive” stories appeared Dec. 4, 1951, headlined “Deep Cove Hits Fifth Straight Win” and noted that Schwartz scored 17 points in the team’s 32-23 win at Sechelt the previous night.

Buoyed by the success of getting his fabrication in print, Watson gave Schwartz an even bigger profile. On Dec. 22, the Sun announced “Len Swartz Paces Deep Cove Victory.”

Despite the wrong spelling of Schwartz, the story claimed, “Len Swartz was in a class by himself last night when Deep Cove defeated Horseshoe Bay 57-38 in a Howe Sound Basketball League game in Deep Cove. Swartz ran up 31 points, leading the club to an intermediate “B” victory. This was Deep Cove’s tenth straight victory.”

The most extensive and final piece appeared in the Sun’s sports pages on Jan. 4, 1952, under the headline “Len Paces Deep Cove.”

Schwartz, the story marvelled, was leading the league with a 24.5 points per-game average after 12 games. The accompanying detailed list showed the league’s top seven players including Deep Cove teammates Art Allams and Pierre Cotre who were second and third with averages of 16.8 and 16.5. Deep Cove (12-0) was atop the standings, followed by Sechelt (9-4), Gibsons (2-10) and Horseshoe Bay (2-11).

Kearney remembered that Norm Gloag, then the affable organizer of basketball in the Lower Mainland, would ask him what he knew about the Howe Sound league.

“Gloag said, ‘They’re not registered with us and I’m getting flack from people in the east who want to know more about this guy Schwartz because of all the points he’s scoring.’ The people in the east, of course, were those looking to assemble a team for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.”

Kearney then learned the truth. “Somebody at the Province told me Hughie was orchestrating it all. I let Bill Fletcher (in the Sun’s editorial department) know. He went right to managing editor Hal Straight and Swangard was almost fired.”

Confessing to me his unveiling of Watson’s hoax to the Sun’s management, Kearney lamented, “Apparently, I spoiled a wonderful ending Hughie had planned. It seems he was going to rent the Deep Cove Community Hall for the league’s awards ceremony. I guess every sportswriter in town was going to be lying in the bushes when Erwin turned up at this darkened hall to make the presentations.”

Yes, the story of Len Schwartz and the Howe Sound basketball league is unquestionably one of Deep Cove’s most intriguing tales.

North Vancouver journalist and author Len Corben is one of B.C.’s premier sports historians.

 

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