Two decades later, we remember Reggie Lewis.
By: Scott LaCascia
It's not his soft yet deadly jumper, which lofted in a perfect arch and found the bottom of the net with such regularity. It's not his lightning quick first step, one that allowed him to breeze by his defender for hundreds of easy layups. It's not his underappreciated defense, when he would position himself perfectly, time his leap perfectly, and casually swat shots away (who else has blocked Michael Jordan four times in one game?). It isn't charitable work, how he gave away hundreds of turkeys to impoverished families every Thanksgiving, or his work with the local Boys and Girls Clubs. Reggie Lewis isn't remembered for any of those things, even though he should be. Reggie Lewis is remembered for running up the court progressively slower in a 1993 playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets, then falling to the floor in a heap, and slowly walking to the bench, never to play again.
Reggie Lewis died twenty years ago this Saturday, on July 27, 1993. It remains the saddest day in the history of the Boston sports scene. This wasn't a ball going through Bill Buckner's legs, this wasn't the Patriots losing a perfect season, this wasn't losing a draft lottery in which Tim Duncan was the ultimate prize. This was the death of a human being who had made such a big impact in Boston, both on and off the court. Such athletes are a rare breed today, but it was just another day in the life for Reggie. Boston had lost athletes before- Harry Agganis, "The Golden Greek," passed away in 1955 at the age of 26 from a pulmonary embolism. Prior to playing first base for the Boston Red Sox, Agganis, a Lynn, Massachusetts native, starred at Boston University at quarterback. It's somewhat difficult to include Len Bias in this group, as he was a Celtic for less than 48 hours before his self-inflicted demise from cocaine intoxication. However, his death still casts a dark cloud over the history of the Celtics, the ultimate "what might have been." We never had to wonder what might have been with Reggie Lewis, which in retrospect, makes his untimely death the most painful of all.
Reggie was born in Baltimore in 1965. He attended Baltimore's Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, where he played basketball alongside future NBA players Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, Reggie Williams, and David Wingate. The 1981-82 Dunbar Poets finished the season at 29-0 during Lewis' junior season and finished 31-0 during his senior season. Ironically, Reggie Lewis didn't start on those teams. "How the hell the coach of Northeastern knew Reggie Lewis had the talent is beyond me," said Tim Dawson, a starter center on the '81 and '82 Poets. "Because Reggie Lewis never really played." Lewis didn't get the recognition in high school that his teammates received, but was arguably the best player to come out of the powerhouse Dunbar basketball program. "Everybody is going to remember Reggie," David Wingate said. "Reggie was one of the ones who was most successful in the NBA, out of our group in high school." Reggie's high school career wasn't straight out of a Hollywood script, but he caught the eye of Northeastern head basketball coach, Jim Calhoun, who would later win three NCAA Championships at the University of Connecticut. He wasn't with the big club yet, but Reggie was destined for greatness in Boston.
Reggie came to Boston in the fall of 1983. He averaged 18 points per game as a freshman and lead the Huskies to a 14-0 America East record and an overall record of 27-5. Northeastern won the 1984 America East Conference tournament and earned a berth in the NCAA tournament, and Lewis was named the America East Rookie of the Year. He was named the conference's Player of the Year in each of his final three seasons, and finished his college career with the most points in Northeastern history, and ranked second in points per game, field goals and free throws. "Reggie Lewis was the epitome of why we coach and why we play,'' Calhoun once said of Lewis. “He’d be the last guy to ever look over at you (for a foul call). You could knock Reggie down, and a play later he’d dunk on you. That’s how he answered any questions.”
The Boston Celtics drafted Reggie in the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft. Red Auerbach had an immaculate track record for scouting and drafting NBA talent, and he liked what he saw in Lewis. "We've watched him quite a bit, but not only because he's local," Auerbach said. "He can play a big guard; he knows where the hoop is. He drives very well towards the basket. He gives us a dimension that we need in case Danny Ainge or Dennis Johnson gets hurt. We got another big guard." He played sparingly in just over eight minutes a game in his rookie season, averaging 4.5 points a game. Reggie got his chance during the 1988-89 season, when Larry Bird was lost for the year due to double achilles surgery. The sophomore guard responded by averaging 18.5 points per game in 81 games. Reggie got better every season, and there wasn't much pressure on him to be "the guy" with Bird, McHale and Parish by his side, although he was being groomed for that role. The Big Three were on the decline, and Reggie was starting to rise. He was a great shooter, a big and versatile two guard who could take you off the dribble and drive to the hoop or pull up and stick a jumper in your face. He was a great athlete who became just the second Celtic after Dave Cowens to reach triple figures in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals in a season. The Celtics remained competitive during Reggie's tenure in Boston, but were unable to reach the heights that the team reached in the 1980s. Bird retired after the 1992 season, and the 27-year-old Lewis was named the Captain of the Celtics. Reggie was involved in several charities during his time in Boston, including working with the local Boys and Girls Club and conducting basketball camps in the summer. Of all of Lewis’ charity work, he was most known for his Turkey Giveaway for Thanksgiving in both Boston and in his hometown of Baltimore, working with the athletics department at Northeastern and the Boston Celtics to do the event each year. Reggie could have just punched the clock after games and gone home but he wanted to use his notoriety for the better good to improve the lives of people in the community.
The Celtics opened the 1993 NBA Playoffs at home against the Charlotte Hornets at the old Boston Garden. Reggie came out for the game firing, scoring ten points in the first five minutes. After a Charlotte miss and a Parish rebound, the Celtics were running up the court when Reggie slowed down and fell. He laid on the court for a few seconds before sitting up and standing slowly. He sat out the rest of the first half, and actually came back for a few minutes in the second half before feeling dizzy again when he left the game for good. The next morning, Reggie went to New England Baptist Hospital for dozens of tests to determine the cause of his collapse. What was found was alarming. Using a thalium stress test, which shows how blood flows through the heart, three spots of dead tissue were discovered on the left venticle of Reggie's heart. The cause of those dead spots were mysterious, basically because they were usually the result of viruses, drug use, or a past heart attack. Nobody had ever suspected Reggie of using drugs, but suspicion grew when Lewis refused to submit a urine sample. The Celtics and team doctor Arnold Scheller assembled local cardiologists, a group that he called "the Dream Team," to determine the extent of the damage to Reggie's heart. Dr. Mark Estes, a cardiologist at New England Medical Center, said that the Dream Team was "very unified in our view that he had a life-threatening risk profile." Reggie was told of the team's findings and, seeking a second opinion, checked himself out of his New England Baptist and went to Brigham and Women's Hospital later that night.
Gilbert Mudge was the chief of clinical cardiology at Brigham and Women's. Reggie was supervised under his care for over a week, and Dr. Mudge said after dozens of tests that Lewis had a relatively benign fainting condition. He added that Reggie could resume his playing career "without limitation," and he would personally monitor Reggie over the next several months. This diagnosis was met with predictable shock in the sports world, as just ten days earlier a group of the most renowned cardiologists in New England told Reggie that his career was over and that his heart was severely damaged. Reggie and his camp accepted and endorsed Mudge's diagnosis, and why wouldn't they? Even if they had some doubts in the back of their minds, it allowed Reggie to resume his career. It was met with a wave of skepticism, and it came to a head on the afternoon of July 27th. Reggie drove over to Brandeis University in Waltham to shoot around in what was termed as a "light workout." After a few jump shots, Reggie fell to the court again. He was initially short of breath, then keeled over and stopped breathing. When paramedics arrived Reggie had no pulse, and he was pronounced dead less than two hours later. All of Boston was in shock, and the entire city mourned. The curious nature of Reggie's death centered around an issue that was dodged well after his collapse: did Reggie Lewis use cocaine?
The cocaine issue with Reggie was a sensitive issue for the Celtics in light of the Len Bias tragedy seven years earlier. It was suspected by his doctors that cocaine use was responsible for the scar tissue on his heart, but since he refused to be tested for drugs, we will never know the truth. However, he did submit a urine and blood sample with the assurance that he would not be tested for drugs. Instead, he was tested for other viruses that could have possibly caused the damage, and none were found. This makes the possiblity that Reggie Lewis used cocaine very plausible. After his death, some former acquaintances came out of the woodwork claiming that Reggie had, in fact, used the drug. One such acquaintance was Derrick Lewis (no relation), a former teammate of Reggie's. Derrick Lewis claimed that he, Reggie and Len Bias did cocaine together in 1985 while the three were working as counselors at Red Auerbach's basketball camp. "We went into the McDonald's. It was real late, so nobody was there," he said. "Len went into the bathroom, took a toot, then me, then Reggie, then the next guy. We'd make sure nobody was coming. Then we went and had a couple of beers at another place and got real toasted. Then we went home. After that, we never talked about it." Derrick Lewis also claimed that Reggie told him he tested positive for cocaine in 1987 during his senior season at Northeastern. That leaves us to wonder not only did Reggie use cocaine, but how long was he using it? It's a question that we will never have an answer to.
The drug allegations cast a pall over the retirement of Reggie's # 35 in 1995. The saddest thing of all is that Reggie has been all but forgotten. Reggie was at his peak during the end of a generation is Celtics history, the final stages of the last great era of the franchise. After Lewis' death, the Celtics suffered seven straight losing seasons. Many kids grew up during a time when the Celtics were irrelevant for the better part of a decade, and had no clue who Reggie Lewis was. Sure, they probably heard his name, but his name didn't immediately come to mind for a golden age of Celtics basketball the way that Bird, McHale, and Parish would have. His name certainly doesn't have the same impact to "newer" fans that Pierce, Garnett, Allen and Rondo do. In many ways, Reggie has become the forgotten one in Celtics history. It shouldn't be that way. Reggie was just entering his prime and had several great seasons in front of him at the time of his death. His passing was and is the saddest day in the history of Boston sports, and it's sad that twenty years have passed since his death and he has gone virtually ignored. On the other hand, many fans do remember. They remember the smooth jumper, the lightning quick drives to the lane, the community work which was endless, the smile which was forever. Reggie Lewis was a living example for what an athlete and a person should be. It was a pleasure to watch him, a regret to not have known him, and a tragedy to have lost him.
November 21, 1965 - July 27, 1993