The Journal article quotes several doctors as ridiculing Kessler for identifying that virus as the cause of death rather than offering the more cautious conclusion that Lewis had a damaged heart of unknown cause. Some of those doctors appear to believe that cocaine had to be involved. But medical findings are not always unanimous. Joseph Ornato, a clinical cardiologist in Richmond, Va., who has published articles on cocaine-damaged hearts, told SI he finds Kessler's opinion credible. "It sounds like what happens with a virus," Ornato said. "It does not sound like a series of exposures to cocaine."
A dream-team member interviewed by SI also finds Kessler's conclusions plausible. "The autopsy was compatible with viral cardiomyopathy," says Beth Israel's Josephson. "That is important. Evidence of cocaine use can last for months. I know what the autopsy found, and it was not dissimilar to what happened to Hank Gathers [the Loyola Marymount basketball star who collapsed on a court and died in 1990]. Cocaine cardiomyopathy is rare. The Wall Street Journal reporter called me up, and I told him I didn't know how cocaine could be involved." Josephson was not quoted in the Journal story. Paul Steiger, the Journal's managing editor, says: "We remain confident that the article was fair and accurate."
Lewis did have a family history of drug abuse; his mother, Inez Ritch, has acknowledged being a recovering cocaine addict. But the most ignored medical aspect of the Lewis case is his family history of heart trouble. Lewis's brother, Jon, now 26, was born with a hole in his heart and had open-heart surgery when he was four years old. Ritch has suffered two heart attacks, the first when she was a teenager. Lewis himself was born with a heart murmur. "We considered the family history of heart trouble significant," says a dream-team doctor, who did not want to be identified.
And finally, there is a glaring absence of anecdotal evidence that Lewis was doing drugs. He was seldom if ever late for planes, buses or practice. He had an even temperament. His quality of play was going up and not, as often happens with cocaine users, down. SI could find no one in the Celtic organization who, even anonymously, would say they felt Lewis was a drug user. Like other old friends of Lewis's, Denver Nugget forward Reggie Williams, his high school teammate, says he never knew Lewis "to even think about drugs" and that he "wouldn't even drink a beer" when they went out together.
"I understand that drug use can be a factor in damaging one's heart," said Harris Lewis. "But there are other possibilities too. And I know what my husband was about, and I know what I'm about and what our life was about together. Reggie was a man who stood on principles and a code of ethics. They meant something."
And what will it mean on March 22 when Lewis's number is retired at halftime of a home game against the Chicago Bulls? Amid hometown boos, the Celtics, 24-37 at week's end, are limping toward the finish line in this, their 48th and final season in the Garden. A who's-in-charge-here atmosphere pervades the club, the consequences of which were evident in the disastrous press conference held in the wake of the Journal story. Gaston lost his cool, accusing the Journal of being racist and threatening a $100 million lawsuit. CEO Dave Gavitt, who is leaving the Celtics to become president of the NCAA Foundation, wasn't present at the press conference.
But Donna Harris Lewis is determined that only good thoughts will be on her mind when her husband's number 35 is raised to the rafters. Can she say from the depths of her soul that Reggie never used cocaine and that such use was not a contributing factor in his death? Perhaps not. She is haunted by the memory of that fateful week in July when she found out she was 10 weeks pregnant with their second child (who turned out to be a girl she named Reggiena) and then found out she was a widow. She also remembers the last words Reggie ever said to her: "Donna, I'm going to shoot some ball."