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Jeron Lewis Dead: Dies After Collapsing During Southern Indiana Game

WILL GRAVES   01/15/10 06:06 PM ET   AP

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Kevin Gant couldn't quite believe it the first time he heard Southern Indiana teammate Jeron Lewis was finally getting into shape.

Lewis came to the Screaming Eagles two summers ago as a 6-foot-8, 300-pound center looking for a home after bouncing between junior colleges. He loved brownies and cracking up teammates with one-liners. Working hard wasn't always part of the plan.

Things changed last summer when Lewis shed 40 pounds through a self-imposed workout regimen, determined to make his senior season special.

"You just knew it was a different Jeron, that he was motivated," Gant said of his roommate.

That hard work and dedication made Lewis' death on Thursday night all the more shocking to one of the nation's top Division II programs.

The 21-year-old Lewis collapsed on the court with about 4 minutes to go in a game against rival Kentucky Wesleyan. He appeared to go through a series of convulsions before being taken to a hospital, where he died at about 10 p.m. He leaves behind a fiancee and a month-old son.

Daviess County, Ky., Coroner Bob Howe said preliminary results from an autopsy showed Lewis had an enlarged heart and may have died from a heart condition he may not have even known he had. Fans reported seeing Lewis hit his head in the fall, but the coroner said he saw no evidence that played a role.

"He didn't even bruise his head," Howe said. "It looks like it's going to be a heart-related death."

Howe said further testing remained to be done that would likely take about two weeks.

Hundreds of students, faculty and staff turned out to mourn Lewis on Friday at the school's gymnasium. The scoreboard flashed his picture while his white No. 40 jersey hung near a podium.

"Nothing can prepare you for anything like last night," university president Linda Bennett said.

His teammates remained in a state of shock a day later. Gant said he kept expecting Lewis to get up and walk back to the bench. Gant refused to sleep in the off-campus apartment the two shared with teammate Marvin Gray on Thursday night, and isn't sure when he'll be go back.

"It's too quiet without him," Gant said.

The Screaming Eagles postponed games on Saturday against Quincy and Monday against Drury. It's unclear when the games will be made up.

First-year coach Rodney Watson said Lewis showed no sign of trouble before collapsing, saying he "was in the best shape of his life" while blossoming into a force in the post.

Lewis was averaging 12.3 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds a game for Southern Indiana, which is 16-0 and has the longest active winning streak in DII. His leaner frame led to more minutes. He was playing about 22 minutes a contest, finally delivering on the promise he showed at Fort Wayne North, where he led the state in rebounding as a senior.

"It was a real great success story in the making," Watson said.

Assistant coach Derrick Tilmon said he talked to Lewis about trying to play in Europe next season, but Lewis appeared to have other plans.

He'd switched majors from physical education to business management recently, and Gant said his friend was thinking of becoming a sports agent.

Becoming a father also appeared to give Lewis more focus. Teammates say he even considered leaving school and remaining in Fort Wayne after the birth of his son, Jemel, on Dec. 8.

He missed two games the following weekend but opted to return to finish what he started. Still, Jemel was never far from his thoughts. Gant said he caught Lewis staring at a picture of his son on his cell phone before games.

"It's all that was on his mind was his son," Gant said. "Everything he said, he was doing it for his son. He'd look at his phone and he'd just smile. That's all he talked about."

Still, Lewis remained the team's go-to jokester. When the rest of his teammates would file onto the bus, spent after another draining road game, he would pipe up and talk all the way back to campus.

"He was the personality of our basketball team," Watson said. "If you saw us with a smile on our face it was because he said something."

Lewis' ebullient nature rubbed off on his teachers. Tilmon said he would regularly receive e-mails from professors talking about what a delight he was to have in class. His popularity transcended beyond the classroom. A Facebook page set up in honor of Lewis was nearing 5,000 members by Friday evening.

"It hasn't sunk in," said Abby Williams, a 21-year-old senior on the women's basketball team who recalled talking with Lewis in class. "It's not real to any of us. It's a terrible, tragic incident to happen and none of us can quite grip it."

Mike Novell, who coached Lewis at Fort Wayne North, said the high school of 1,600 students was stunned by his death. He said Lewis used to make six transfers on city buses from his home to get to school, but never used hardship as an excuse.

"What a great young man," Novell said. "Kind, gentle, compassionate, loving – you hardly ever saw Jeron without a smile on his face."

Lewis' death was reminiscent of Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers, who collapsed on the court during a West Coast Conference tournament game on March 4, 1990, and was pronounced dead about 1 1/2 hours later.

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Associated Press Writer Charles Wilson in Indianapolis contributed to this report.

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Filed by Whitney Snyder  |