He was the quiet Celtic with a smile that was infectious. He was reserved and somewhat shy, but his actions, both on and off the basketball court, spoke much louder than any words could ever do. He was the captain of the Boston Celtics and their leading scorer. He was a devoted husband, father and a friend to all who knew him well. He was the hope of a new Celtics generation. Reggie Lewis was only 27 years old when he died of a heart attack on Tuesday, July 27, 1993. We still tearfully remember him today, 17 years later.
Reggie Lewis was born in 1965. He was raised in a modest urban home in Baltimore, Maryland and lived with his mother, Peggy, and brothers, Irvin and Jon. At an early age, Reggie already loved basketball and was often found on a basketball court. Hist footprints appear in the cement outside of the court that he played on as a child.
Lewis enjoyed success and early fame as a key member of a 50-0 Dunbar High School basketball team that also featured future NBA players Reggie Williams, David Wingate and Tyrone "Mugsy" Bogues. His talent led him to Northeastern University, where he exceeded everyone's expectations as a starter for the Huskies. In his freshman year he averaged 17.8 points per game and by his senior year he was averaging 23.3 points per game. Lewis lead his team to 4 National Atlantic Conference Titles and ultimately NCAA Tournaments. The Huskies captain graduated as the team's all-time leading scorer, ninth-best in NCAA history, and in ceremonies on January 21, 1989 had his familiar number 35 retired to the Matthews Arena rafters.
Reggie was drafted by the Celtics with the next to the last pick in the first round of the 1987 draft. Like most rookies in Celtics history, his first year was a learning one and Reggie mostly watched and learned. He observed and learned and pushed himself in year two and appeared in 81 of the 82 regular season games and finished his sophomore season averaging 18.5 points per game. More importantly, he stepped in and comforted Celtics fans' fears and worries, after Larry Bird missed almost the entire season due to surgery.
Celtics fans witnessed true flashes of brilliance in Reggie's game during 1991-92, as he averaged a career-best 20.8 points per game (he averaged the same figure the following season) while playing in all 82 games. He posted a spectacular career-high 28.0 points per game in the 1992 playoffs and was the lone Celtic to be named the NBA Eastern Conference All-Star Team. Reggie was named the team's captain after Bird's retirement in 1992.
On April 29, 1993, the Celtics began a first-round playoff series with the Charlotte Hornets. The setting was the old Boston Garden. The Boston Garden at the time was the only arena in professional sports that did not have air conditioning. Opposing teams would profess that the Celtics intentionally turned up the temperature as a way to create an edge over the unsuspecting and unconditioned. Several opponents throughout the years had fallen victim to dehydration and related nausea. The Garden created perhaps the greatest home edge in all of sports. This night, the Garden was hot and humid as usual. The Celtics were on their way to a blowout victory and it was still early in the first quarter. Their captain, Reggie Lewis, could not miss a shot and had already scored ten points within the first three minutes.
After going to the basket and grabbing a rebound through several defenders, Lewis began to head back down the court. Suddenly, his body slumped forward towards the court. Although the fall was sudden, it did not initially appear to be concerning because Lewis returned to his feet within a few seconds and checked himself out of the game. Complaining of dizziness and a black out, Lewis sat out the remainder of the first half while team doctor Dr. Arnold Scheller attempted to diagnose the cause of the black out. At halftime, Lewis mentioned that he had some grapefruit juice just before the game that tasted too bitter. With the high degree of humidity in the Garden coupled with the possibility of bad juice, Scheller, an orthopedic specialist, recommended that Lewis be allowed to continue to play in the second half. In that half, teammates noticed that Lewis' legs were very wobbly and he came back out of the game almost immediately.
After the game, Lewis was sent to New England Baptist hospital where he underwent a battery of tests that were supervised by a "dream team" team of 12 of the most respected cardiologists in the Boston area. After thorough testing, the team of doctors diagnosed Lewis to be suffering from ventricular tachycardia, the most dangerous form of arrhythmia. They concluded that Lewis was lucky that his first symptom was not sudden cardiac death and merely a fainting episode.
Reggie was frustrated because the diagnosis meant an end to his basketball career, but he became angry with the doctors because they kept pursuing whether cocaine could have been an explanation. Lewis checked himself out of the care at New
Dr. Gilbert Mudge had been following the story and even prior to Reggie's contacting him, Dr Mudge claimed to have been suspicious of the Dream Team diagnosis due to what he believed to be inconsistencies and discrepancies in Lewis' test results. After performing his own battery of tests, Mudge called a press conference in early May of 1993 and stated that Lewis was not suffering from cardiomyopathy but merely from a curable neurocardiogenic fainting disorder. Mudge prescribed beta blockers as treatment and pronounced Reggie physically fit to return to playing professional basketball the following fall.
On July 27, 1993, Lewis entered the Brandeis arena with a friend to prepare for a fullcourt pickup game that night. After about an hour on the court without even working up a sweat, Lewis crumpled near the 3-point line. It is ironic that the police officer in the news recently for the arrest of the Cambridge professsor is the same person who was first on the scene when Reggie collapsed and who tried to resuscitate Reggie on the site. Nearly two hours after he collapsed at 5:07 p.m. on July 27, 1993, the hospital announced that Reggie Lewis was dead at age 27. In the wake of his death, the heart wrenching news came out that earlier in the day, Reggie's wife Donna had just found out that she was pregnant with their second child. She never got to give Reggie the news.
Then, over subsequent months and years, it became very ugly. There were unconfirmed reports that cocaine had been at least partly responsible for the tragedy, and a debate arose among doctors whether the death could have been prevented. "The real tragedy is that right now we should be saying, 'Reggie has a pacemaker and can't play basketball anymore,' " Kevin McHale said after Lewis' death. "Instead we have to mourn him."
After his death, still reeling from the personal loss of their captain as well as the previous loss of Len Bias, the Celtics tried to pick up the pieces and go on. They petitioned the league for relief from his salary but were denied. It seemed the franchise was given one blow after another and it took them 22 years to recover from this devastating series of events. Since then, the league has given injury exceptions to several teams. The Blazers had gotten relief from Darius Miles' contract because of his knee injury and as is well known to most Celtics fans, they were put back on the hook for it when he returned to play for the Ccltics in the preseason two years ago. The Rockets were given cap relief for Yao Ming's injury last year, even if he returns to play this season. But the Celtics were given no cap relief for the death of their captain.
The Celtics retired #35 in Reggies's honor on March 22, 1995. Reggie's accomplishments on the court are well documented. He is only player in the history of the Celtics to have registered 100 rebounds, 100 assists, 100 steals and 100 blocked shots in a single season which he did in the 1991/92 season with 394 rebounds, 185 assists, 125 steals and 105 blocks. Reggie once blocked four shots from Michael Jordan in one game.
Reggie Lewis left fans around the nation with memories of his basketball accomplishments. But also memorable was what he did off the court. His contributions to the community were just as consistent as his jump shots. Reggie began an annual giveaway where he purchased hundreds of turkeys and gave them to underprivileged families in the area, without any media or fanfare surrounding it. He was always seen with a smile and was a genuine caring person. Reggie's widow, Donna Harris-Lewis, has continued her husbands legacy of kindness through the Reggie Lewis Foundation, which still annually sponsors the turkey giveaway that Reggie began.
After his death, The Reggie Lewis Track and Field Center, was opened in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The center was funded partially by Lewis and routinely hosts major track and field competitions as well as home basketball games for Roxbury Community College. Reggie's greatest influence on people occurred off of the basketball court. Reggie had strong morals, humility and compassion which is why the cocaine rumors that were started were particularly heart wrenching for those who knew him. Today, 17 years after his death, we remember Reggie and can only think of what might have been. There will never be a clear method of telling just how good Reggie Lewis would have been. We caught a brief moment. We have many memories. Rest in peace, Reggie. We love you and miss you.
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