Reggie Lewis was my favorite athlete growing up. And his death was fully preventable. Those are the only two things I’m sure of. Everything else concerning his tragic death 24 years ago (July 27, 1993) is one big unknown, shrouded in confusion, rumor, and speculation. The excellent new 30 for 30 documentary that aired last night on ESPN, “Baltimore Boys,” about the powerhouse Dunbar High School teams (of which Reggie Lewis was a member) that dominated in the early 1980s, brought all of those emotions back to the forefront and made it clear that almost a quarter century after his tragic death, there are still more questions than answers.
A quick recap: in the spring of 1993, Lewis was a rising star, coming off of back-to-back 20+ PPG seasons, when he collapsed during a first-round playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets. For some reason, he was allowed to go back in the game, not once, but twice, before he eventually pulled himself out with chest discomfort. The next day he went to New England Baptist hospital – located just a few jump shots from his alma mater Northeastern University – where he underwent a battery of tests.
Those tests were then studied by a group of 12 leading cardiologists – dubbed the “Dream Team” at the time – assembled by Celtics team physician Arnold Scheller. In short order the team of cardiologists diagnosed Lewis with cardiomyopathy – a serious threat to the heart – and strongly suggested that he move immediately to get a pacemaker installed and retire from basketball. This is where the details get sketchy, but they also pressed him on whether he had ever used cocaine, as past use of the drug is a common cause of cardiomyopathy, especially in young people.
Later that night, Lewis and his wife Donna checked him out of the hospital and moved him down the street to Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Depending on whom you believe, the reasons for the move were either:
- Lewis was convinced that further cooperation with the “Dream Team” would unveil his past cocaine use, causing him great public embarrassment and nullifying insurance policies that would kick in for career-ending injuries.
- Lewis was disappointed in the diagnosis and requested at least one more opinion before he allowed his chest to be opened up and his career prematurely cut short.
- Both Reggie and Donna were upset that none of the “Dream Team” would meet with Reggie in person and explain the diagnosis.
- Donna Lewis felt more comfortable at Brigham and Women’s, both because she used to work there and because they had (and still have) a greater reputation than New England Baptist when it comes to cardiology.
- Or, most likely, a combination of some or all of these.
Whatever the reason, Reggie ended up being treated by renowned cardiologist Dr. Gilbert Mudge, who soon after, in a legendarily arrogant press conference, not only declared that Reggie had a “normal athlete’s heart,” but that he could prove that he wasn’t suffering from cardiomyopathy. He also suggested that Reggie would be fine continuing his career, albeit with further monitoring and testing. At the time, and in subsequent interviews, members of the “Dream Team” made it clear that they disagreed with Mudge and were more or less horrified by his conclusions.
Two months and two weeks later, Lewis was dead after collapsing while shooting baskets at the Celtics practice facility. The cause: a scarred, damaged heart. In other words, cardiomyopathy. The “Dream Team” was right all along. Lewis had no business playing basketball and clearly took extreme risk in ignoring the advice from 12 of the world’s leading cardiologists. On the other hand, he had another leading cardiologist telling him he was fine to continue with his career. Still, why take the risk? He was already rich, and married with one child and another on the way.
In the days, weeks, months, and years following his death, much of the speculation centered on whether or not Lewis ever did cocaine, how often he did it, whether it contributed to his death, whether a fear of being found out caused him to ignore the “Dream Team’s” initial diagnosis, and whether the Celtics played a role in any sort of cover-up.
Most circumstantial evidence – both medical and otherwise – points to the fact that Lewis did in fact do cocaine and that it most likely contributed to his heart issues. It isn’t definitive, just more likely than not. There were financial and reputational reasons (for the player, the team, and the league) why this point so was so fiercely debated at the time, but personally, I don’t really care. Reggie Lewis was a great basketball player and a better person. Whether or not he occasionally deposited white powder up his nose doesn’t change that. The fact that so many people refused to believe that a good guy like Reggie would be a drug user just goes to show the widespread ignorance about drug use that existed at the time (and still does).
A few lines of cocaine – or even more than few – doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t overshadow a life that saw Lewis become captain of the Boston Celtics, a committed family man, and a pillar in the inner-city community that Boston hasn’t seen since (with the possible exception of Mo Vaughn), all by the age of 27. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean he deserved to die.
24 years is a long time. Memories get blurred, facts get jumbled, and feelings so intense you can taste them fade away. The one thing about Reggie’s tragic death that I took away from “Baltimore Boys” – and that I’d forgotten about over the years, perhaps because I was eight years old when he died – was how goddamn preventable it all was. As the great Jackie MacMullan said near the end of the documentary, while quoting a doctor close to the case, “We should all be lamenting the fact that Reggie Lewis had to retire early, not that Reggie Lewis died.”
After all these years, I still don’t know much.
But this much I do know: I miss Reggie.