Remembering Reggie Lewis

by July 17, 2013
reggie lewis

Originally published in SLAM 170

by Tzvi Twersky | @ttwersky

Boil life down to its essence, strip away the externalities and impurities, and all that’s left are events—events and punctuation marks. Events that are memorable, and events that are mundane; events that resonate like a 42-point breakout performance, and events that pass by unnoticed like a mid-season blowout; events that mark beginnings, and events that mark ends.

These events are, ultimately, the sum of a man. For the late Reggie Lewis, the first big event, at least as far as basketball is concerned, came when he was a senior at Dunbar High.

Some background: In 1982, long before The Wire was even a twinkle in David Simon’s eye, Lewis came of age in the multitude of PJs and rowhouses that made up East Baltimore. Amidst the constant crimes in commission and bouncing balls in mid-flight position, Reggie clung to Irving, his older-but-smaller brother. When it was time for the younger Lewis, who was then 6-4 and 150 pounds after a heavy meal, to play varsity ball, he wanted to join Irv at nearby Patterson High. That dream would not be realized, though, as Reggie was cut.

“I don’t understand how he was assessed,” says Bob Wade. “But of course, Patterson’s loss was our gain.”

Facing the prospect of not playing alongside his brother, Reggie summarily switched to nearby powerhouse Dunbar, where a spittle-spraying, player-molding Wade was the coach, and where an all-time great prep roster—including future first-round picks Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams and David Wingate—was already assembled.

At the time, according to Jim Calhoun, his future collegiate coach at Northeast, Lewis “didn’t know what he was, except that he was explosive.” That explosiveness though, coupled with a stringy frame and the toughness of a younger brother, was enough to earn a spot on Wade’s team of stars—as a substitute.

“The big fella could’ve started in any other school,” remembers Bogues, whose NBA career spanned three decades before he embarked on a coaching career of his own, “but he sacrificed and knew that being a starter wasn’t everything.”

In the winter of Lewis’ senior season (’82-83), the Dunbar Poets were participating in a holiday tournament in a snowy Johnstown, PA. With a small cohort of scouts in the rickety stands, and with foul trouble hampering Dunbar’s starting unit, the usually reserved Lewis went out and flaunted his first-step and improved jumper. The next day, with Williams and Tim Dawson beset by fouls, the locally known, nationally slept-on slasher put on an encore performance and was named First-Team All-Tournament.

“I think he came into his own in Johnstown,” says Bogues. “He never looked back after that.”

“After that, a lot of schools tried to come in late,” says Wade, who remembers having to coax words but never hard work out of Lewis. “But he stayed with his commitment [to Northeastern] because Coach Calhoun had shown an interest from Day One.”

One year, a scenic, eight-hour trip from Baltimore to Boston, MA, and thousands of jumpers later, another memorable but innocuous event marked Lewis’ basketball career.

Despite spurning spring offers from more prominent DI schools, Lewis arrived at Northeastern without much fanfare. In fact, as a member of a freshman class that dubbed itself the Dream Team, little pressure was placed on Lewis. “I thought he was about the third-best player in that particular class,” chuckles Calhoun.

The joke was on everyone else, as Lewis quickly established himself as a made-to-order scorer. “If he were a freshman in college now, he would’ve been one-and-done,” says Andre LaFleur. A member of that same recruiting class, LaFleur noticed in one of the first fall practices that Lewis had not only the offensive repertoire, but also a deceptive toughness, to make an immediate impact at Northeastern.

Recalls LaFleur, “Reggie was having a game in practice with one of our veterans, and the player was physically imposing. At one point he squared up to Reggie like he was gonna fight him. Reggie just put his hands up, like, ‘Bring it on,’ and the guy backed down.”

“He’d be the last guy to ever look over at you [for a foul call],” Calhoun admires. “You could knock Reggie down, and a play later he’d dunk on you. That’s how he answered any questions.”

Before long, Lewis was a local sensation. And over the next four years, by posting cumulative averages of 22.2 ppg and 7.9 rpg, he would play his way into the first round—where he was taken 22nd overall by the Boston Celtics—of the ’87 NBA Draft. Before all that though, before earning immediate respect on campus, before wetting so many of his mid-range “Praying Mantis” jumpers (Calhoun’s term for his awkward but unstoppable release) in games, a freshman Lewis would make a major point in a nearly empty gym.

As Calhoun, now a legend but then an upstart, remembers, it was late in the evening when he went back to campus for a long-forgotten reason. What he saw once there, though, is as clear in his mind now as it was nearly 30 years ago. Coach had walked in on LaFleur and Lewis—fast friends, who bonded over weekly Sunday sessions filled with cheap karate flicks taken in at the Combat Zone—sweating up a full-court one-on-one. Calhoun watched, mesmerized for a time, until he decided that his players would have stayed all night if he didn’t kick them out.

“I didn’t see many kids ever play one-one-one full court in my 40 years of coaching,” says Calhoun. “You just didn’t see two guys work to that extent with that joy.”

Speaking from his office at Providence College, where he’s now an assistant coach, LaFleur recalls those late-night full-court games fondly. Aside from filling LaFleur’s basketball jones, they helped prepare Lewis for the shift from small forward to shooting guard that he would make in the NBA.

“I think that one of the advantages was, [Reggie] had to play against me,” says LaFleur, who was drafted in the fifth round of the ’87 Draft before embarking on a long career in the CBA and overseas. “He had to play against a quicker guy and be able to make moves on the perimeter. I think it really helped his game develop into a guard.”

Whether those nightly sessions helped morph Lewis from a forward into a guard, from a great mid-major player into a first-round pick, is debatable. What they do unquestionably testify to, though, is Lewis’ undying love for the game.

“Reggie had a true joy playing basketball that gave comfort to people,” says Calhoun. “The picture of the two of them playing together will never fade away.”

As the ’80s gave way to the ’90s, and as Larry Bird and Kevin McHale faced down their NBA mortality, there was a changing of the guard manifesting itself on the Boston Garden parquet. That guard was the 6-7, 195-pound Lewis, and he was guiding the transition into a new Celtics era.

“He didn’t want to try to be the next Larry Bird, the next Dennis Johnson,” recalls Jeff Twiss, the Celtics veteran PR mainstay. “Reggie wanted, and was starting to carve, his own place inside the Celtics’ lore.”

In the 17th game of his second season, after playing sparsely as a rookie, Lewis rolled out the red carpet for his own arrival. Going head to head with Michael Jordan, Lewis had 33 points to go with 6 rebounds and 4 assists. “I remember talking to [MJ] about him,” chimes in Calhoun. “Michael said Reggie’s first step was the best in the League. That’s pretty high praise.”

For Dee Brown, Boston’s first-round pick in ’90, another one of Lewis’ big moments took place against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 of the second round of the ’92 Playoffs. In that contest, after dropping 36 in Game 3, Lewis finished with 42 points, 6 assists and 5 steals. Just as remarkably, he held Craig Ehlo to 1 point in 45 minutes.

“By that point, he was our quiet superstar,” recalls Brown, who says every time he watches Kevin Durant he can’t help but see Lewis, who played in the ’92 All-Star Game. “He was the guy, he was the captain, he was the superstar.”

Lewis’ ascension came to a screeching halt on April 29, ’93, during Game 1 of a first-round Playoff matchup between the Celtics and the visiting Charlotte Hornets. Midway through the first quarter at the Garden, Lewis already had 11 points. Feverish dreams of a 50 spot for the two-time All-Star hung realistically in the loge level air. Then, on a routine trip up the court, Lewis stumbled as if his Reeboks were tied together and crumbled to the floor.

“Reggie is hurt on the other end of the court,” Tommy Heinson, the Celtics long-time color commentator, said on TV. “I’m not sure exactly what happened, but boy, he was down and writhing in pain.”

“I remember I was broadcasting the game when he went down,” Heinsohn says now from his home, “and he was playing so great at the time. I just thought he dropped because of his own adrenaline, because he was playing so hard.”

“I see him fall every day,” says Bogues, the Hornets PG at the time, who was mere feet away. “I thought somebody had tripped him, and [Charlotte forward] Johnny Newman was trying to pick him up as he was falling. Then we went back down the other end, not even knowing how serious it was.”

“During the game, I didn’t think anything of it,” Kevin Gamble, one of Lewis’ closest confidantes on that team, says. “I just thought he was lightheaded or didn’t eat—we didn’t know he had the health problem that he had.”

After being checked on by the training staff, Lewis would return to the game having only missed three minutes of action. He would play less than two more minutes, scoring six additional points, before leaving the game for good. After being diagnosed with a cardiac abnormality, the extent of which was not immediately clear, Lewis would not return for the rest of the series.

“I remember it every time I get on the court,” says Brown. “We didn’t know what was going on against Charlotte. We lost the series, but that wasn’t the important thing. Reggie was down—was he OK?”

Lewis would never play again.

On July 27, ’93, less than three months after the tumble at the Garden, Lewis died while shooting around on campus at Brandeis University.

Lewis’ death would ultimately be attributed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic heart defect that he was diagnosed with in the spring. At the time, controversially, different doctors had given him varying prognoses as to his basketball-playing future. No matter, the 27-year-old Lewis was gone and nothing could bring him back.

“I was 15, 20 feet down the hall in the hospital and heard them working on Reggie,” says Twiss, who considered Lewis a good Celtic but a great friend. “I saw [then-teammate] Rick Fox come in with tears in his eyes, and I knew we had lost Reggie.”

Says Gamble, “I remember going home and knowing something was wrong because my message machine was full. I remember I had 32 messages. Thirty-two messages.”

“The GM at the time, Jan Volk, called me and said, ‘You’ve got to get back to Boston.’ From that call, I don’t remember one thing,” says Brown. “The next season, I don’t remember. I can’t tell you a highlight I had. I can’t tell you a play I played in. I can’t tell you my teammates, because the one that I wanted to be playing with wasn’t there anymore.”

Lewis’ untimely death reverberated around the city that had become his second home. Tens of thousands of Bostonians lined up to catch and hold on to moments of the procession that snaked through all quarters of the city, and thousands more attended the sullen service at Matthews Arena where Lewis honed his game at Northeastern.

Though he was playing in Australia at the time, after receiving a call from Lewis’ wife requesting that he deliver a eulogy, LaFleur made the long journey back to Boston to wish his fallen friend a final farewell.

“I had written something with my mother on the flight over,” says LaFleur. He pauses to let fresh tears that mark old pain pass. “When I walked in and saw how many friends he had, I thought it would be selfish to say he was just my best friend. So I changed it when I got up there and said he had many best friends—and he did.”

The event that ended Reggie Lewis’ brief life left us with good memories, overarching sadness and many questions. As a basketball magazine, we had to ask: How good was Lewis going to be?

“He was gonna be a great Celtic,” says Heinsohn, a legend in his own right. “He was just about to crack into true stardom.”

“He was just scratching the surface,” agrees Gamble. “He was just coming into his own.”

“We saw a great player,” says Calhoun, “but I think he was on his way to the Hall of Fame. I think he was that good.”

Though Reggie passed on 20 years ago this summer, his legacy lives within his teammates. Bogues and Wade both have mementos hanging in their homes; Calhoun has a picture in his UConn office; Brown, Gamble and Twiss have their own prized Lewis keepsakes. And LaFleur has all of those, plus more.

“I have a friend who I hadn’t connected with since probably 1997,” whispers a watery LaFleur. “When he got my number, he said I’m going to send you something right now, and he texted me a card of Reggie Lewis on the wall of his son’s bed. I texted him right back—with the picture of Reggie on my wall.”