Lou Hudson: Finding the Good Life, 1977

[While flipping through some old newspaper articles filed away in my office, I happened upon a dusty column from Jim Murray, the forever-fantastic sports columnist with the Los Angeles Times. The column was published on February 12, 1978, and Murray’s topic du jour was the great Lou Hudson, the long-time Atlanta Hawk who had been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Here’s a little of what Murray had to say about the man everybody called “Sweet Lou”:

“In the 1972-73 basketball season in the NBA, Walt Frazier of the New York Knicks made 15 magazine covers by actual count, three fashion layouts, and most of the 10-best lists from everything to the guy you would most like to be stranded on a desert island with to the three most-cool guys in the world. His nickname was “Clyde.” Walt Frazier had a good season in 1972-73. He was 16th in the league in scoring with 681 field goals, 286 free throws, and a 21.1 average.

“Down in Atlanta, Lou Hudson had a better one. He usually did. He had 816 field goals, 397 free throws, and a 27.1 average. His middle name really was Clyde. But nobody cared how many fur coats or Rolls Royces he had. He was fourth in the league in scoring. He was last in the league in ink. He couldn’t make a magazine cover if he put himself through the basket. The trouble with this Hudson was, he was west of it. He performed his magic too far from the RCA Building . . . “

“It was strange—because his team was a model of consistency. The Atlanta Hawks finished fifth in their division with monotonous regularity. Until it expanded to six. And then they finished sixth. The Atlanta Hawks were what every New Yorker thinks is West of the Hudson. Bush. 

“Still . . . Hudson was in some pretty elite company. Only five active players have scored more total NBA points than Lou Hudson. Only 18 have in the history of the game. And, if you put all of Lou’s baskets together, they might total more footage than any of the leaders. Lou did not get many layups or garbage points. Lou’s were from the perimeter. They were not cheap shots, they were 1-irons. If Lou got to the key with the ball, you might as well foul him. These were “gimmes.” Lou could score from 15 feet blindfolded and shackled. 

“Lou Hudson may be the only guy to make the All-Star team in back-to-back years, first as a forward and then as a guard. But even when he switched to guard, the other guard was Pete Maravich. This is like showing up at a party with Elizabeth Taylor or doing a movie scene with a dog. Hudson became The Other Guard—even though he outscored Pistol Pete in their three-year collaboration by 749 points. Lou scored 16,049 career points for the Hawks, which is like pouring money into condominiums in Siberia. 

But more than 40 years later, few people today remember Hudson and all the numbers above. Some of it has to do with Sweet Lou’s steady, no frills, play and demeanor. “Lou Hudson is a man always in control,” wrote Atlanta sportswriter Ron Hudspeth. “An easy rider. A man who does not make unnecessary waves. A man who seems comfortably at home with himself.”

In May 1977, the Atlanta Constitution launched a newspaper series titled “Superstar Lifestyles.” Hudson was the first installment (presented below), and writer Alan Greenberg does a really nice job capturing the “man who does not make unnecessary waves.” 

Also interesting is something we all frequently ponder: just how unpredictable the future can be. In this profile, the level-headed Hudson seemingly has his future by the tail: a new house, a loving wife, a newborn baby boy, a coveted career, and good health. None aged gracefully. Hudson would get traded to the Lakers a few months after this article ran. On paper, the trade was a blessing. It would allow Hudson to extend his career as a complimentary outside threat to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s inside dominance. But two seasons later, the Lakers cut him. “Lou has been a tremendous player throughout his entire career,” explained Lakers’ GM Bill Sharman, “and I think he still has more good years left. However, with Norm Nixon and rookies Magic Johnson, Brad Holland, and other young guards, our direction is toward youth.”

His NBA career now over, Hudson’s once-happy marriage ended in divorce. He remarried and moved with his new bride to Park City, Utah, where life was good for several years. In 1996, back in Atlanta, his son died at age 18 from a blood clot in his lungs. Then, in 2005 at the age of 60, Hudson suffered a serious stroke that greatly limited his mobility and speech. He rehabbed like a man possessed. Hudson moved back to Atlanta. But in April 2014, another major stroke felled him. A few days later, Hudson died. He was just 69 years old. 

And yet, despite these tragic twists of fate, Hudson stayed true to himself and remained a person beloved and respected by all. His was a wonderful life and an NBA career to be remembered for generations to come. Why Hudson isn’t in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame defies logic.]

Lou Hudson and wife Bernadette at home.

Lou Hudson reached into the trunk of his silver Mercedes sedan, hoisted a crib frame and mattress, and carried them into his house. It was 7:30 p.m., and Hudson had just gotten home after running around all day taking care of business and readying things for his and wife Bernadette’s first child, a boy, just back from the hospital. 

The day had been hectic. The night was muggy. But Hudson looked as if he’d just stepped from an air-conditioned department store window. His clothes were wrinkle-free, his brow untouched by the first bead of sweat. 

Lou Hudson leads a permanent-press life. He would need a microscope to unearth any problems he might have, and he won’t lend you one. “No one knows me better than I want them to,” he says. 

In an athletic age when superstars bounce around like so much hot buttered popcorn, Hudson has been a St. Louis/Atlanta Hawk for all of his 11 NBA seasons. Of all active NBA players, only Boston’s John Havlicek has remained longer with just one team. Hudson has made his mark with a textbook jump shot and the ability to run like a deer, through forests of bigger men. 

But unlike many of his contemporaries, Hudson plays the larger game of life as well as he plays the children’s game for which he is celebrated. No Boy Scout, he is always prepared. He has seen peers broken by money and fame, which disappear as abruptly as they came once the jump shots stopped falling and the legs give out. He’s determined to avoid a similar letdown.

“He is a realistic humanist,” says former Atlanta Falcon Lee Calland, now a coach at Morris Brown College and one of Hudson’s closest friends. “He’s not Lou Hudson, superstar, but Lou Hudson, person. He enjoys his life. But he knows himself. He knows his limits.”

His $70,000 home, located just outside the city limits to the southwest, is a prime example. It is tastefully done, with thick carpet and comfortable furniture, but it’s hardly worthy of a spread in PlayboyBetter Homes and Gardens, maybe. It has six rooms. Not bedrooms. Rooms. 

“The reason I haven’t gone overboard in my lifestyle is it comes down to—are you willing to take a step back?” Hudson says. “I’m living a lifestyle that, if I didn’t play basketball, I could still maintain.

“If you elevate your style of living to where it depends on making that big salary, you’re looking for trouble. Moving out of a $200,000 house into an apartment is something I wouldn’t want to do—so I don’t buy that $200,000 house. Taking a step up is easy: it’s taking a step back that hurts.”

Hudson, who will soon turn 33, is entering the twilight of his career, but he’s been making big money since the Hawks moved here from St. Louis in 1969, and his salary was raised from $35,000 to $80,000. 

He’s been making more than $100,000 a year since 1971. And he’s presently finishing the 4th year of a six-year contract worth $900,000. Even if he retires in 1979 when it expires, he’ll receive deferred payments through 1989. 

And—hold on, America—he’s done it without an agent’s help. Oh, Ed Cohen, a Minneapolis lawyer, advises him on occasion. But mostly, Hudson takes care of his own finances. Going it alone, he figures, has cost him money over the years, but Hudson feels they added peace of mind was worth it. 

He can’t understand why anyone who can add and subtract and write would trust someone else to manage their money. Also, Hudson doesn’t like the fact that almost all agents take their cut “off the top,” leaving only the athlete to suffer financially if he can’t live up to his contract. 

“If a guy gets me some money,” Hudson says, “I don’t mind him getting 15 percent of it. But I’m not giving him money that I got for myself. He’s gonna spend two or three days and get 15 percent. I’m gonna have to run for years. 

“My whole thing wasn’t money to begin with, anyway. To get what you want, you don’t need a whole lot of money. All you have to do is pay the monthly notes.”

Besides the monthly house payment, Hudson makes payments on the Mercedes and a purple Porsche Carerra. He also has a silver Corvette—paid for. Cars are Hudson’s passion. He has owned “about 10” since turning pro. 

He has plenty of clothes and a first-rate sound system, but is obsessed with neither. He and Bernadette go to dinner theaters, movies, and ballgames, but, all in all, he spends less money socially than when he was single. 

“When I was single, I did a lot more traveling,” Hudson says. “And if I’d been in a town for two days and hadn’t met a chick, I panicked.”

That ended when he married Bernadette in November 1975. A confirmed bachelor, he easily slipped into the role of husband. Nonetheless, Hudson’s friend Joe Forest, 35, single and an Eastern Airlines pilot, marvels at the transition. After all, the Forest-Hudson tandem had chased more than its share of skirts. 

“He has become more settled,” Forest says, “and he has already adapted to married life. It shocked me. In less than a month, it went from ‘I’ to ‘my’ or ‘we.‘  It seems like Lou has carefully thought out everything he’s done in his life and did it when he was prepared for it.”

One of seven children, Hudson grew up in a Greensboro, N.C. housing project. His father worked in a textile mill. His mother was a domestic. His first social contact with white people didn’t come until he was a University of Minnesota freshman. Before that, Hudson thought anyone who made $8,000 a year was rich. He didn’t know anyone who did. 

In 1966, he signed with the Hawks for $19,000 and an Olds Toronado. Basketball was his life, and he hustled. Today, he hustles nearly as much in the offseason, seeking ways to feather his retirement nest with more dollars. 

He’s a partner in many investments. Houses in his hometown. A toy factory and a truck company in Minnesota. Undeveloped land in Minnesota and Georgia. And more than $50,000 in the stock market. 

He does promotional work for Uniroyal, maker of Pro-Keds. He’s a once-a-week sports commentator for WAGA-TV, Channel 5. He plays golf, tennis, and runs 3-4 miles a day to stay in shape. 

And now, he’s learning to care for his lawn. Hudson feels the same way about lawn services as he does agents with a lot of clients. He wants his money’s worth. 

Two members of his family still live at or near the poverty level. Hudson helps them financially, but only to a point. You should lift people only so high, he reasons, even loved ones, because the fall is that much more painful when they can’t maintain that lifestyle on their own. 

It is a strict, but realistic, philosophy. And it carries over in Hudson’s dealings with “normal” people. “I’m better off than, not better than,” Hudson says, sitting alongside what amounts to a chessboard rug with nine-inch figures. “Money gives me the material things, but people are the same. I’m aware of where I am, but I don’t judge people by my position in life. I come from a poor background. My family is part of that background. How can I be honest with myself if I look down on people because of how much they have?”

Like so many public figures who are used to being pulled this way and that for who rather than what they are, Hudson keeps his guard up, even among friends. They are friends he has made since moving to Atlanta, and “they have not been down the road” with him. 

He’s a master diplomat. He is articulate on many subjects, punctuating his points with a subtle chuckle while a tight smile plays across his lips. You get the feeling he could converse with his best friend and his worst enemy and you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. 

If that is so, it is, like everything else Hudson does, by design. Time and money allow him to go where he wants and with whom. He doesn’t hanker for anything. His “name” will fade into oblivion once he retires—to that he has resigned. But whatever the outcome, being Lou Hudson “feels great.”

“Mostly,” he says, “you have the feeling when you’re by yourself. Or when you’re talking to people about their problems. And you have none. I play a game I love for money, but it’s still a job because sometimes I have to play when I don’t want to.”

Then he pauses, clasping his hands and leaning toward his listener like a man about to share the oldest of secrets. “But it’s been a ball,” he says, chuckling softly. “It’s really been a ball.”

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