Twenty years ago today, folks picked up their morning Globe and saw a front-page headline that read, “Celtics captain Lewis dies after collapse while shooting.’’
It was the story of the death of Reggie Lewis at the age of 27. It was a story that was as tragic as the premature deaths of Harry Agganis, Tony Conigliaro, and Len Bias. Until last month, when a star Patriots player was arrested for murder, the death of Reggie Lewis was perhaps the worst story involving a Boston athlete.
In the days, months, and years after Lewis died, there were follow-up stories on a regular basis. None of them were good.
There was the estrangement between Reggie’s wife and mother. There was the arrogant doctor who defied a “dream team” of 12 cardiologists who insisted that Reggie had a damaged heart and should cease all basketball activity. There were multiple reports that Reggie damaged his heart with recreational cocaine use. There was a lawsuit filed against the arrogant doctor by the widow, which resulted in mistrial. There was a threat of a $100 million lawsuit (never filed) by the Paul Gaston Celtics after an exhaustive investigative and damning report by the Wall Street Journal. And there is still the haunting spectre of Reggie Lewis’s unmarked gravesite at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.
This was always a story with no good days. Only bad days. And so many of the people who wrote the stories and were part of the saga — Dave Gavitt, Dr. Thomas Nessa, Red Auerbach, Dennis Johnson, Will McDonough — are no longer with us.
Sunday night at 8, Comcast SportsNet will air a spectacular 90-minute documentary on the life and death of Reggie Lewis. Near the end of the program, Jackie MacMullan, who was a young basketball reporter with the Globe in 1993, notes the sad reality that there are kids today playing at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center who know nothing about the man whose name adorns the building. Twenty years will do that.
Reggie was from Baltimore. He played on a 29-0 Dunbar High School team that featured four future NBA players. Jim Calhoun, coach at Northeastern back in the 1980s, was first to offer Reggie a scholarship. Lewis became the greatest player in Huskies’ history before he was drafted by the Celtics in 1987, one year after Bias dropped dead from cocaine intoxication.
It took Reggie a while to earn playing time in the NBA, but by 1993 he was an All-Star and Celtics captain. On the night of the Celtics’ first playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets at the Old Garden in April 1993, Lewis collapsed while merely running up the floor. He was examined by team physician Arnold Scheller, but returned to the game briefly, before taking himself off the court for good. He never played another minute for the Celtics. In May of ’93, the “dream team” of cardiology disclosed that Lewis suffered from cardiomyopathy and told him his career was over. Within hours, Lewis ripped out his IVs, bolted from New England Baptist, and went to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where Reggie’s wife once worked in human resources. Shopping for a better diagnosis they found Dr. Gilbert Mudge, who concluded that Lewis had a “normal athlete’s heart” and could resume playing under medical supervision.
On July 27, while casually shooting hoops at the Celtics’ practice facility at Brandeis University, Lewis collapsed. He was taken to Waltham-Weston Hospital and pronounced dead a couple of hours later.
Our region went into shock. Lewis’s funeral services were among the largest ever held in Boston. In a sweltering two-hour service at Matthews Arena, Calhoun delivered an emotional eulogy and longtime radio personality Jimmy Myers pledged to be “the guardian at the gate.” Senator Ted Kennedy and the Rev. Jesse Jackson were among the mourners paying respects to the newly pregnant Donna Harris-Lewis.
Thousands of people lined the streets of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Jamaica Plain to salute Reggie when his body was transported to Forest Hills.
But the story never ended. As the months unfolded, there were seedy disclosures, a lawsuit, and a threat of litigation. One of Lewis’s college teammates claimed he’d used cocaine with Lewis. At trial, Mudge said Lewis had told him he had used cocaine. Gaston defended the Celtics against the Wall Street Journal report and trotted out the race card. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts investigated Lewis’s autopsy and cause of death.
“It was the worst time for us,’’ remembered Jan Volk, who was Celtics’ general manager in 1993. “We had suffered two tragedies in a short period of time [Bias died in ’86], but this one was very different. Reggie was part of our team, part of the fabric of our professional family. We knew him well. It was a tremendous tragedy for us and a very complicated time. Nothing was simple, nothing was straightforward. Not that a tragedy of this magnitude would ever be easy, but there seemed to be continuing stories, whether they were substantive or not.’’
For those of us who cover sports in Boston, it was one of the worst stories ever.