To those who knew Reggie Lewis best, fond memories are always front and center
‘He was one of the nicest people you could ever meet,’ Donna Harris Lewis told the Globe in an exclusive interview
The gravesite at Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain is unmarked, a patch of grass sandwiched between two large tombstones. It’s hardly a fitting memorial for someone held in such high esteem and so sorely missed, but it will remain that way until it’s time for Reggiena Lewis to say goodbye and hello.
The 24-year-old daughter of former Celtics great Reggie Lewis never met her father, born a few months after his tragic and untimely death 25 years ago. And until she’s ready to make that trip, the grave will remain as it is, without a tombstone.
“You know what that’s about, my children, you think about it, I was pregnant with my daughter and my son was 11 [months] and there’s been a lot from the time they were born and defending his honor and a whole lot of different things, but they really never got a chance to be a part of anything for him,” his wife, Donna Harris Lewis, now 53, said in an exclusive interview with the Globe. “The reason why it’s not there yet, my daughter, when she’s ready, that’s when we’re going to do it. It’s that simple. People make a big to-do and that was explained by the family and explained to everybody but you can’t fight what a lot of people say.”
It doesn’t seem like 2½ decades since Reggie Lewis collapsed on that Tuesday afternoon at Brandeis University. July 27, 1993 still stands as a day that changed the lives of those close to Reggie forever, and the day the Celtics lost their centerpiece.
Yet, what is fresh in the minds of those who loved him, coached him, played with him, and guided him is Reggie’s smile, Reggie’s humility, Reggie’s work ethic, Reggie’s generosity, Reggie’s confidence, Reggie’s passion. Those good feelings, those cherished memories, those 30-year-old stories, those depictions of a selfless man who was everyday people overshadow the circumstances surrounding his death.
Reggie told Donna he was going to Brandeis for a workout. There, on the floor of the small college gym in Waltham, he collapsed and died of heart failure at age 27, ending a remarkable life far too soon and beginning an ugly debate over Lewis’s health, his decision to ignore his diagnosis, and who was exactly responsible for this tragedy.
The reflections on Lewis are kind and thoughtful. Those who knew him describe a man who was fueled by a quiet confidence but never felt above the common man. Those involved in the black community of Boston describe a man whose charitableness was never-ending, who adopted Boston as his home and offered hope and happiness with his annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaways.
And the one who was closest to him, Donna, talks of the difficulty of moving forward, the uncertainty of his health at the time of his death. She has no regrets for their actions after he collapsed on the floor during an April 29, 1993 playoff game.
“It’s always yesterday for me and I think it always will be,” said Harris Lewis. . “Could things have been handled differently or better? Of course they could have. Everybody learned some valuable lessons. His life could have been saved. Of course you try to do all you can to save a person’s life but at the time he really didn’t know or I didn’t know really what was going on. You can’t for many, many years say a person has a normal athlete’s heart and all of a sudden, something happens. You just try to figure it out.”
The heir apparent
Lewis was the Celtics’ first-round draft pick out of Northeastern University in 1987, a year after the franchise tragically lost Maryland’s Len Bias to heart failure related to cocaine use just two days after he was drafted. Lewis flourished as a Celtic, and was tabbed the heir apparent cornerstone to Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish.
Lewis would eventually break into the starting lineup in his second season and the small forward earned All-Star honors in 1991-92 when he averaged 20.8 points and shot a career-best 50.3 percent. When Bird retired after that season, Lewis relished the added responsibility and led the team in scoring in 1992-93.
In Game 1 of the first-round series with the Charlotte Hornets, Lewis collapsed without contact during the first quarter. Looking disoriented and confused, Lewis was helped off the floor and given a series of tests by team trainers.
He was declared healthy enough to return and did eventually, finishing with 17 points before leaving the game midway through the third quarter with dizziness. That would be Lewis’s final NBA game.
A day later, the Celtics gathered a dozen heart specialists through New England Baptist Hospital, a group they tabbed the “dream team” and their diagnosis was that Lewis suffered from “focal cardiomyopathy,” a disease of the heart muscle that can cause irregular heartbeats and heart failure. The condition was considered to be career-ending.
But on the night of May 2, Lewis, Harris Lewis and his agent arranged for the Celtics player to be discharged from New England Baptist and moved to Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It was there that Dr. Gilbert H. Mudge, considered a renowned cardiologist, insisted that Lewis did not have a career-threatening heart ailment and instead diagnosed him with a nonfatal condition called “neurocardiogenic syncope,” which can cause a decrease in blood pressure and fainting spells because of high exertion.
Lewis was excited about the possibility of playing again and also annoyed that the Celtics not only quickly diagnosed his ailment as career-threatening but also went public with their findings quicker than Lewis wanted.
For the next several weeks, Lewis believed Mudge’s diagnosis and yet also received a third opinion in California, according to Harris Lewis.
“I remember once someone wrote he was doctor fishing,” Harris Lewis told the Globe. “No. Anybody who takes it seriously, a diagnosis, you get a first opinion, you get a second opinion, sometimes you get a third opinion. I kind of laugh when I see these books after he passed away about getting a second opinion, we were criticized for that. Whatever. You can’t win. You do your best. As far as he knows he left here in search of what was really going on with him.”
Legal battles continued after Lewis’s death. It took seven years for a jury to clear Mudge of wrongdoing in the Lewis case, as he intimated that Lewis revealed to him a history of cocaine use and said he never cleared Lewis to work out on his own. Also, Lewis didn’t reveal to the “dream team” a history of family heart issues, including a heart murmur of his own when he was a child.
Mudge, 73, who recently retired from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told the Globe, “It was a very complicated case. I dealt with other very complicated cases and I moved on after this complicated case and so did my career. That’s all I can say.”
When Lewis died, his relationship with the Celtics was damaged because he had questioned whether the franchise truly cared about his condition or took responsibility in case something more serious occurred. The franchise, led by former Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt and general manager Jan Volk, was perplexed about the situation because of its seriousness and the possibility that Lewis’s career was over.
Gavitt died in 2011. Volk said he is unsure what the Celtics could have done differently but the pain and heartbreak remains present.
“You had a young man in the prime of his life, the prime of his career who was an elite athlete,” Volk said. “One does not expect an elite athlete to be so vulnerable as he turned out to be. There’s a lot of conjecture as to the nature of the illness, the nature of the malady but whatever it was, it was inexplicable. There was no answers, there was no explanation. It happened.
“You don’t think of those things in that type of respect and I don’t think anybody could have predicted the ultimate tragedy there was in this case.’’
‘A special guy’
Reggie Lewis was just another skinny basketball hopeful when he was introduced to coach Bob Wade in the summer of 1981 after failing to make the varsity team at Patterson High School in Baltimore. Wade watched Lewis work out and invited him to transfer to Dunbar about 5 miles west, where he would join one of the most talented high school teams ever.
The Dunbar Poets featured future NBA players David Wingate, Reggie Williams, and Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues as well as three other Division 1 players. Williams, Bogues, and Lewis were all taken in the first round of the 1987 NBA Draft. Lewis never started a game in high school. He served as the sixth man, a talented player who would deliver in clutch moments.
“We had some outstanding student-athletes, and he would come to every practice and give his all,” Wade said. “He played in practice against Reggie Williams, Tim Dawson, he played against those guys every day in practice and he did a great job. They made him a better player and he made them better players. But when he got his opportunity, he took advantage of it.”
Lewis’s shining moment was when he was named MVP of the Johnstown Tournament in Pennsylvania as a senior, taking over when two of his teammates had fouled out. At 6 feet 6 inches and lean, Lewis had the ability to score from midrange and also the length and athleticism to drive to the basket.
Perhaps it was his lack of playing time that benefited Jim Calhoun and his Northeastern assistant coach Karl Fogel as they passionately recruited Lewis after seeing him at a basketball camp before his senior year. Of course, Lewis was overshadowed by his more heralded teammates, and Calhoun was aggressive in his pursuit.
“For Reggie, you could see some of those special things, the love for the game, incredible athletic talent and as he got stronger and better, he became a force,” Calhoun said. “Northeastern tried to recruit him not because of what he is but what he was going to be. I remember talking to people [about] Reggie; there’s no better first step in basketball. And he was a very good defensive player. You saw that ability. You saw that then but he was very thin, I’m talking about 155 pounds.
“That quiet confidence, I never knew where it came from, I really didn’t. But he had it and it was rare and once he got his opportunity. He was a unique, unique kid.”
Calhoun laughs loudly when asked for his favorite Reggie Lewis story. It occurred during his freshman year at Northeastern when he pulled his coach aside and asked him, “Coach, I have a serious question I want to ask you, can you not yell at me in front of the players? But you can say anything to me when it’s just the two of us.”
Calhoun didn’t exactly hold to that agreement, but he admired Lewis for his fortitude.
“The reason we’re doing this 25 years later is because he was a special guy and everybody who was around him I’m sure is going to come up with the same type of feelings about him,” Calhoun said. “He had his own quiet, humble way which made him so refreshing, which made him a beautiful person.
“In my office, whether it was at UConn or wherever, I got a big picture of him because he reminded me of the joy of the game, the joy of a kid who came up from Baltimore eastside and became a gentle, wonderful, competitive, loving father, loving friend. We all miss him.”
Lewis’s humility never wavered. On the day before he was drafted, he attended Donna’s graduation from Northeastern, wearing the same Filene’s Basement navy blue suit and tie he would wear to the Celtics draft press conference the next day.
And how did Reggie get to Boston Garden for his press conference? He took the train to North Station.
“He was a gentleman. He was transparent,” Harris Lewis said. “He was a quiet person and very reserved and there’s no major surprise factor.It’s interesting because I see a lot of his qualities through both of my kids. He was one of the nicest people you could ever meet.’’
A void in the game
The growth of Lewis as a player offered the Celtics hope and optimism for the post-Bird era. But then Lewis died suddenly, and the Celtics were sent reeling, making just one playoff appearance over the next eight years.
“I think it’s obvious to anyone who would look that this was a loss that created holes in our game, if you will, at every level,” said Volk, who resigned in May 1997, replaced by Rick Pitino. “Combined with the loss of Len Bias, that right there, the two of them would have been a dynamic duo, there’s no doubt about it. We can’t sit there and dwell on it. We couldn’t and we didn’t.’’
Without Lewis and Bias, the Celtics were missing two All-Star talents who would have at least helped the franchise compete with the Michael Jordan Bulls and other emerging clubs in the 1990s. Instead, they were relegated to using stopgap players and trying to recapture young prospects in the draft. The Celtics wouldn’t return to prominence for another 15 years.
Guard Dee Brown was forced into a more prominent role he wasn’t comfortable with.
“That happened [Reggie’s death] and all of a sudden I’m thrust into a franchise role and honestly I don’t remember the whole ’93-94 year — I played in a blur the whole year because I was thinking about Reggie,’’ Brown said. “A lot of guys got traded and through that whole process we had a lot of down years, but I was the only guy that was connected to the old Celtics and the Pitino era. So it was tough, because I knew my career could have been different. I did my best as captain to hold the franchise together, still make it respectable, be about the right things, respect the logo.”
The consensus amongst those who loved Lewis is that they have never gotten over what happened. This wasn’t supposed to happen to Reggie. He was too kind. He had too much left to accomplish. He had a son and daughter to raise, All-Star Games to play, more lives to change.
“You really haven’t completely digested losing him at such a young age,” Wade said. “It’s still weighs heavily on my heart, his passing, because he was so young and he was just reaching the mountaintop of his career. It still lingers with me, his passing.”
For Harris Lewis, who still lives in the Boston area and is active in several foundations, including the National Basketball Wives Association, she reflects on her husband with pride and admiration, but no regrets.
“I don’t have any regrets because I wasn’t a medical doctor,’’ she said. “We were trying to get the help, we were trying to seek help. I know blame has been shifted towards Reggie and towards me but we’re not . . . Everybody makes mistakes but you have to own up to them. Hindsight is 20-20, Reggie passed away trying to figure out what was wrong. We all were. Even when he was playing. He was instructed to be there because he was fine. That’s what he was told.
“Nothing was ever explained. He had a normal athlete’s heart. That’s it. He was fine. To be honest, he left here, when he passed away, he didn’t fully understand the scope of what really happened. He really didn’t. We all know now. But he really didn’t. He was trusting and trying to figure out what’s the best direction for him.
“You have to stop back on July 27, 1993, he was following the doctor’s instructions [Dr. Mudge] and trying to figure out what was going to happen. He was secured in his contract. He wasn’t worried about that. A lot of people always said, ‘Oh, he was worried more about basketball than his life.’ And that’s not true. Absolutely not true.”
Harris Lewis has moved forward. Reggie Jr. is 26, Reggiena is 24. Harris Lewis still roots for the Celtics. She’s active with the Reggie Lewis Center. She continues Lewis’s charity work. She is a full-time ordained minister.
“Human resources is my passion, too. So someday somebody will hire me somewhere,” she said. “But I’m OK. I do the best I can. Reggie and I were 11 months apart, for him to see his kids grow up, I think that would have been a joy. I remember when we used to ride in the car and I’d say when we’re older, we’re going to be like that, holding hands. You go through those moments and you’re kind of sad but at the same time, we are where we are and you do what you can do.”