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A City in Mourning
E.M. Swift
August 09, 1993
Boston turned out en masse to say goodbye to Celtic captain Reggie Lewis, whose death at age 27 has raised troubling questions
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August 09, 1993

A City In Mourning

Boston turned out en masse to say goodbye to Celtic captain Reggie Lewis, whose death at age 27 has raised troubling questions

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The News of 27-year-old Reggie Lewis's fatal heart attack on Tuesday, July 27, hit the citizens of Boston and The basketball community as a whole like a blow to the solar plexus—some kind of sudden pain that, in the days that followed, gave way to a gnawing emptiness brought on by memories and too many unanswered what-ifs. Three months after collapsing in a first-round playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets, Lewis, the quiet captain of the Celtics, died while casually shooting baskets at the Brandeis University gym in suburban Boston. Lewis knew something was wrong with him, but he wasn't certain what, or whether the defect that several doctors had found in his heart would allow him to play competitive basketball again.

Since his collapse on April 29, he had been examined by three teams of cardiologists, two in Boston and one in Los Angeles. Their conclusions ranged from Dr. Gilbert Kludge's optimistic assessment on May 10 that Lewis's heart was "a normal athlete's heart" and that he suffered from a relatively benign fainting condition called neurocardiogenic syncope, to the diagnosis by the so-called cardiological Dream Team assembled by the Celtics' team doctor, Arnold Scheller. According to the Dream Team, Lewis's heart was susceptible to ventricular arrhythmia, a potentially lethal condition that, in 1990, had led to the death of Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers. It was Gathers whom Lewis first thought of after his initial collapse. A third team of four cardiologists, from L.A., had agreed with parts of both diagnoses and determined that further tests were necessary before Lewis should be allowed to play basketball.

Even without the diagnoses, Lewis's death came wrapped in a warning—two warnings, if one includes the spell of dizziness and disorientation on March 24 that led to Lewis's being removed from a game in Boston against the Miami Heat—leaving friends, family, teammates, doctors and fans with the disquieting feeling that Lewis's fate might somehow have been averted. "It's not like Reggie was in a car accident." said Kevin McHale, Lewis's former Celtic teammate. "The real tragedy is that right now we should be sitting around saying, 'Reggie has a pacemaker and can't play basketball, and that's really sad.' Instead, we have to sit and mourn him."

On Monday 7,000 people, many waving fans to ward off the stifling 88° heat, attended an emotional memorial service held for Lewis in Northeastern University's Matthews Arena. For all the success he enjoyed with the Celtics, Lewis was always Northeastern's own, called by university president John A. Curry, "Northeastern's best athlete ever." He was the school's alltime leading scorer and had led the Huskies to four straight NCAA appearances between 1984 and '87. Lewis's number, 35, which was retired in 1989, already hung from the rafters, and for two hours before the service an estimated 15,000 fans filed past Lewis's open casket to pay their final respects. Thousands more—black and white, young and old—lined the streets along the 4.7-mile route to Forest Hills Cemetery. In a city that has had more than its share of racially divisive incidents in the past two decades, Lewis's funeral seemed like a bridge over a gulf. Said Celtic CEO Dave Gavitt in his eulogy, "Isn't it amazing that, here in conservative, staid New England, this soft-spoken, gentle young man from Baltimore had to leave us before we could feel it was O.K. to say that we love each other and care for each other?"

The funeral marked the end of a long, emotional week for the Celtic players, coaches, management and alumni, whose grief was palpable and public. Lewis, it seemed, was one of those rare individuals who never accumulated any enemies. At a press conference last Thursday afternoon, Celtics Rick Fox and Dec Brown spoke tearfully—when they could speak at all—of how much they had loved him and would miss him. When Celtic coach Chris Ford mentioned "2-up" and "Hawk-2," two plays in the team's playbook designed for Lewis, assistant coach Jon Jennings broke down. Jennings then recalled how he had taken Lewis and Lewis's wife, Donna, to the Boston Pops Christmas concert last December and how Reggie had whispered to Jennings during the performance, "Next year I'll bring Reggie Jr. with me." Jennings, in tears, vowed, "Next year, I'll take Reggie Jr."

Northeastern officials spoke of how Lewis had passed out 1,200 turkeys to the poor during each of the last three Thanksgiving holidays. Others remembered how Lewis had an amazing way with kids. Many brought up his humility. "A great player and a better person," said Northeastern coach Karl Fogel. Nearly everyone mentioned Lewis's smile.

Surely all who knew him must have wondered, as did McHale, whether Lewis's death was preventable. If Lewis had not been a professional athlete, would his treatment and prognosis have been the same? Had doctors worked too hard to keep him on the basketball court? Were questions by some of his doctors about possible cocaine usage, which he denied, simply routine? Would Lewis be alive today if he had had a defibrillator—a device that can often correct an irregular heartbeat—installed in his chest, as had been suggested by Scheller as early as May 7? What medication was he taking and how much? (As of Monday evening neither Mudge nor Donna had agreed to any interview requests. The autopsy results on Lewis were expected to be released this week.)

Or had all parties exercised reasonable caution? Was no one to blame but cruel fate? According to Jerome Stanley, one of Lewis's two agents, who served as the family's spokesman last week, that is what Donna believes. Stanley said it was Donna who comforted a distraught Mudge after her husband's death, telling him that it wasn't his fault and that Reggie's time had simply come, that there was nothing anyone could have done to save him. Stanley himself saw a kind of blessing in the tact that Lewis had died on a basketball court—not just because he was doing what he loved to do, but also because he just as easily could have died while frolicking with his infant son. "Can you imagine how awful that would have been for Reggie Jr.?" asks Stanley.

But if the family doesn't seem to be bitter, there is little question that certain aspects of the Lewis case were poorly handled by both the Celtics and the medical community. "I hope that I never again witness a process like this," said Charles Grantham, executive director of the NBA players association. "I am concerned about a system that puts medical teams into adversarial positions, a process that puts a private, personal issue into the public arena. It was one set of egos battling another set of egos instead of working together. You can be sure this will be an issue that will be raised with the teams and the league very soon."

Grantham was referring to the first two radically different diagnoses (SI, May 24) that Lewis received in the two weeks following his collapse against Charlotte and the publicity that each received. Through the newspapers Bostonians seemed to be kept as well informed about Lewis's condition as Lewis was himself. On May 3, a day after the Dream Team had reached its diagnosis. Scheller, apparently milled that Lewis had left his care before more tests could be done, went on television and, without Lewis's permission, revealed his diagnosis and asserted that there was "a strong probability" that Lewis could never play again. He accused the Lewis family of going through a state "of denial."

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