THE BLOG
07/24/2013 08:45 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

Boston's Lost Son

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Twenty years ago, Boston lost a son.

Reggie Lewis was the captain and leader of the Boston Celtics. He was a great basketball player -- a tenacious defender with a silky jump shot. With Larry Bird and Kevin McHale retiring, Lewis was to be the bridge to the next generation of Celtic champions.

Lewis was beloved in Boston because he was a different type of star. He was known as much for his smile as his rebounding. Few handled the ball like Lewis, even fewer did more for their community. He was shy, but thoughtful and genuine, a player who acted the same on the bench in high school as he did under the bright lights of the Boston Garden. The president of Northeastern University, his alma mater, called him "Superman on the basketball court and Clark Kent off it."

And then he fell.

Lewis fell twice, actually. The first was on April 29 against the Charlotte Hornets in the first game of the 1993 playoffs. He was on fire from the opening tip, scoring 10 points in the first three minutes. But as he grabbed a defensive rebound and started to run up the floor, he suddenly stumbled. He would return briefly in the second half, but again was forced from the game due to dizziness. It would be the last time that Lewis would play in an NBA game.

The second fall was 20 years ago July 27 at a gym in Waltham. Lewis was preparing to play pickup basketball with a group of former Northeastern teammates. Just past 5 p.m. on that warm, cloudy Tuesday afternoon, Lewis collapsed on the hardwood floor of Brandeis University's Shapiro Gym, where the Celtics practiced. He had no pulse. At 7:30 p.m., he was pronounced dead. The fan-favorite, soft-spoken shooting guard was 27 years old.

It was with the Celtics that Lewis had become a star. In his first-career start, he scored 33 points against Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Lewis was known for playing Jordan tough throughout his brief career, blocking four of "His Airness'" shots during a game in March, 1991. Jimmy Myers, a local sportscaster and a family friend, began referring to Lewis as "His Reggieness."

During the 1991-1992 season, Lewis became the first player in franchise history with at least 100 rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in one season. When Bird retired at the end of the season, Lewis was chosen to replace him as captain. "Reggie doesn't say a lot of words," Celtics legend Red Auerbach said of the decision. "He lets his game speak for him."

After the incident against the Hornets, it was the doctors who were doing the talking. The Celtics assembled a "dream team" of specialists to examine Lewis, and their diagnoses was troubling. He had cardiomyopathy, an irregularity of the heart that can cause it to beat erratically. Lewis' career, they said, was likely over.

Faced with giving up basketball or risking his death, Lewis and his wife, Donna Harris-Lewis, sought a second opinion. Dr. Gilbert Mudge, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, diagnosed Lewis with a benign fainting condition. Mudge told Lewis that with proper medical care and supervision, he would be able to play again.

Lewis, his family and the Celtics organization chose to believe Mudge.

"Reggie is very confident and comfortable with Dr. Mudge's diagnosis," David R. Gavitt, the Celtics' chief operating officer, told the Boston Globe several weeks before Lewis' death. "His prognosis is going forward. We accept that."

Mudge was proven tragically wrong on July 27.

That fateful afternoon, Lewis walked into the Brandeis athletics offices and asked for a basketball. The Brandeis staff was excited to see him back in action.

"The assumption was that he would not be here unless he felt that he was capable of taking part," Brandeis Athletic Director Jeff Cohen would later tell reporters.

Shortly after 5 p.m., Lewis slumped to the floor on the far side of the gym. Onlookers thought that he had simply lost his footing. Eventually, a nearby student checked on Lewis and noted that he did not have a pulse. The student called the police, who quickly radioed for an ambulance. Lewis was pronounced dead at 7:30 p.m. at what was then the Waltham-Weston Hospital, just a half-mile away from Brandeis.

After Lewis' death, allegations of drug abuse surfaced immediately. Doctors found dead tissue in Lewis' heart, generally found in elderly patients or in the case of a heart attack or drug usage. They suspected the latter. The student newspaper at Northeastern wrote that, "his memory has been dusted over in cocaine powder."

In March, 1995, a Wall Street Journal reporter named Ron Suskind wrote an article detailing Lewis' alleged cocaine usage, as well as the team and family's efforts to keep any mention of drug usage out of the limelight. Dr. Mudge spoke on the record about Lewis for the first time, telling Suskind that he had warned Lewis that cocaine "is the only thing that would explain what we are seeing."

No proof has ever been uncovered that Lewis used cocaine. Nobody has ever admitted to seeing Lewis use the drug. His family and friends both adamantly deny that Lewis had a drug problem. The toxicology test performed after his death came back negative.

Still, Suskind's article had some merit, and suspicions remain.

Rumors of cocaine usage brought a troubling comparison to another fallen Celtic: Len Bias. Bias was drafted by the Celtics with the second overall pick of the 1986 draft, but tragically died from a cocaine overdose just two days later. Lewis was drafted by the Celtics just one year later.

"I know a lot of people have Len Bias on their minds,'' Lewis had said after signing with Boston. ''I know people want to make sure the same thing won't happen to me."

Bias had been heralded as the next great Celtic. Lewis was already there.

Growing up in east Baltimore, Lewis was far from a basketball prodigy. Jordan was famously cut from his high school team as a freshman, but even as a senior, Lewis never started for Dunbar High School. On a squad that featured Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams and David Wingate, all future NBA players, Lewis was relegated to sixth man.

In spite of his limited playing time, Lewis earned a scholarship to Northeastern.

"How the hell the coach of Northeastern knew Reggie Lewis had the talent he did is beyond me," Tim Dawson, the starting center on the 1981 and 1982 Dunbar squads, once said. "Because Reggie Lewis never really played."

The coach of Northeastern happened to be hall of famer Jim Calhoun. Under Calhoun's tutelage, the 6-foot-7 Lewis quickly became one of the best players in the country. He led Northeastern into the NCAA Tournament four times, earning America East Conference player of the year honors three seasons in a row. Lewis shattered most of Northeastern's individual records, and still holds the mark for most points in a game, season and career for the Huskies.

Amongst a loaded 1987 draft class, Lewis fell back into relative obscurity. Headlining the group of draftees that season were future Hall of Famers David Robinson and Scottie Pippen, as well as Reggie Miller, Kevin Johnson, Kenny Smith, Horace Grant, Mark Jackson and Bogues. Lewis fell to the 22nd pick, and into the lap of the Celtics.

Lewis has been painted in many different lights since his death. Some view him as a cocaine addict who needlessly threw his life away. Others see the man who married his college sweetheart, the beloved star who never forgot where he came from. For years, Lewis handed out Thanksgiving turkeys at Northeastern and in Baltimore. He ran a free children's camp each summer, teaching not just basketball, but sportsmanship and how to handle peer pressure.

His death was similarly debated. Many labeled him as reckless and irresponsible for attempting a comeback. Others applauded his courage.

But no one can argue with the manner in which Lewis passed away. Lewis was shooting hoops with a group of friends. Medical issues, drugs and charitable contributions were all far from his mind that day. According to friends and teammates, Lewis was just excited to have a basketball back in his hands. He is the perfect embodiment of the cliché; he died doing what he loved.

"He was really enthusiastic about it, thinking he was going to be back," former Northeastern teammate Marcellus Anderson told the Boston Globe. "[The day he died] was going to be his comeback day."

For much of that hot, sweaty summer, Lewis had avoided speaking to the media about his situation. One last time, he let his game do the talking.