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Fair or Foul?
Jack McCallum
March 20, 1995
A story linking Reggie Lewis's death to possible cocaine use raises a storm of angry denials
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March 20, 1995

Fair Or Foul?

A story linking Reggie Lewis's death to possible cocaine use raises a storm of angry denials

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Reggie Lewis was the quietest of athletes, a man who kept his own counsel off the basketball court and allowed his seamless grace to do the talking when he was on it. It is sadly ironic, then, that in death he is making headlines that rarely came his way when he was starring at Northeastern University and, later, with the Boston Celtics. Almost two years after the 27-year-old Lewis died while casually shooting baskets in a gymnasium at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., pieces of his private life are being scattered about like so much confetti, as his young widow grieves and a Celtic franchise in disarray struggles to repair the damage.

Some of the questions about Lewis raised by an exhaustive but highly speculative Page One article written by Ron Suskind in the March 9 issue of The Wall Street Journal—a publication in which Lewis's name seldom if ever appeared when he was alive—may never be fully answered. Unless someone comes forward, for example, and furnishes persuasive evidence that he or she did drugs with Lewis or saw him doing drugs, we may never know if, as the Journal story suggests, he was a cocaine user and if cocaine might have been a contributing cause of his death. But there are other far-reaching issues raised in the Journal article. The most serious are these: that the Celtics may have allowed financial and public-relations concerns to take precedence over Lewis's medical care; that the supposedly enlightened NBA drug policy helped prevent an accurate assessment of Lewis's condition; and that Donna Harris Lewis, the woman who shared Lewis's life from the day they met at Northeastern, in 1983, until his death on July 27, 1993, not only endangered her husband by steamrollering a team of doctors administering his care but also intimidated the state of Massachusetts into officially declaring a bogus cause of death.

Harris Lewis, 30, has been largely silent since her husband's death. But in an effort, she said, to clarify some of the issues, she talked to SI on Sunday. Her attorneys, Susan Shapiro and Joan McPhee, were present but did not contribute to the interview. Harris Lewis has heard various adjectives used by her detractors to describe her, and none of them, with the exception of intelligent," is flattering. "But I want to emphasize one thing," she said, alluding to one of the adjectives. "I was not "controlling' when it came to Reggie. I was 'concerned.' "

Concern was what she felt on the evening of April 29, 1993, when, in the early minutes of the Game 1 Eastern Conference first-round playoff matchup between the Celtics and the Charlotte Hornets at Boston Garden, she saw her husband "move as if in slow motion," then crumple to the floor. Harris Lewis was sitting in her customary seat behind the Celtic bench and shouted, "Chris...Reggie"—meaning that she felt that Celtic coach Chris Ford should check on his shooting guard. Lewis sat dazed for a moment, left the game, returned for six minutes in the third period, then was removed from the game by Ford after teammates pointed out Lewis's wobbly legs. Those turned out to be the final moments of a splendid six-year NBA career that, had it continued, might have lifted Lewis into the pantheon of Celtic deities.

Early the next morning Lewis checked into Boston's New England Baptist Hospital and, over the next 48 hours, underwent a battery of sophisticated tests. Administering them was a group of 12 doctors assembled by Arnold Scheller, the Celtic physician, who called them "the dream team." According to the Journal, the possibility that Lewis had used cocaine was an important issue with the medical team from the outset; through tests, the doctors detected scars on the heart that they thought could be consistent with cocaine use. The Journal says that Lewis was asked repeatedly if he was a user and was asked—and refused—to take a drug test. But Harris Lewis told SI that while her husband was asked about drugs and denied being a user, he was never asked to take a test.

"If they would've sat us down and told us this was something that had to be done, Reggie would've complied," said Harris Lewis. "He only wanted one thing—to get back playing. He did everything they asked him, and he would've done that, too."

Although it doesn't necessarily prove Lewis was clean at the time he was stricken, Harris Lewis is able to show that her husband had been perfectly willing to be tested for drugs in the past. For example, she says that a couple of years before he died, he submitted to a test in order to take out a $2 million life insurance policy with the Prudential Insurance Company. Armen Carapetian, the Prudential agent who sold Lewis the policy, told SI that Lewis was indeed tested twice, in August and December 1990—and was drug-free. In addition, insurance-industry and NBA sources say that Lewis almost certainly would have had to be tested in connection with the multimillion-dollar policy that the Celtics took out on his life in 1991.

According to the Journal, when Lewis was being evaluated by the dream team, Thomas Nessa, the cardiologist leading the team, "pressed" Lewis to take a drug test. The Journal said that, according to both Nessa and Charles Munn, Baptist's staff radiologist, Lewis declined. Munn, however, told SI that he did not tell the Journal Lewis refused to take the test. Munn said that he believes Nessa met with Lewis alone, but only to ask about drug use and not to request a test. Munn did say, however, that weeks later Nessa did make reference to Lewis's refusing testing. By that time, Lewis was no longer at Baptist and Munn was not sure how Nessa knew that information.

At least two other dream-team members, requesting anonymity, said that a drug test was not an issue, as did a third, Mark Josephson, an electrophysiologist at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital. "We [the dream-team members] were not told that Lewis refused a drug test," said Josephson. "The only person who would know whether he refused a drug test was Dr. Nessa." And Nessa died of a heart attack in January.

One of the doctors who requested anonymity put it this way: "You've got to remember that Reggie was a known entity to many of us. He was not an athlete you thought of as being a drug user. Yes, we asked him about it, and, yes, after further tests and ruling out this and ruling out that, we may [in the future] have come back to the drug question. But we were not yet at that point."

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