Reggie Lewis, we hardly knew ye.
That’s an old form of tribute, spawned by a 19th Century British song that sardonically mourned the loss in war of a soldier who died, obviously, too young. Later, more somberly, it was famously applied to John F. Kennedy, whose Presidency and life were snuffed by an assassin’s bullet to the world’s shock and dismay.
But in the case of Lewis, the Boston Celtics guard who collapsed and died on July 27, 1993, from a confusing and ultimately lethal heart condition, the construction literally is true. As sad as Lewis’ death was to those throughout the NBA and across the sports world, its sheer impact was buffered by several factors.
First, the element of surprise was absent. Lewis had exhibited symptoms of a heart ailment – the eventual cause of death was deemed to be hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – in the preceding months, including his collapse in Game 1 of Boston’s 1993 first-round playoff series against Charlotte. He had been advised to retire, then got cleared for a return to the Celtics and had been shooting baskets at the team’s practice facility at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., when he collapsed and died.
This wasn’t Len Bias, the Celtics’ first-round selection and No. 2 pick overall in 1986, who died just two days after the Draft from a cocaine overdose. The franchise and Boston’s sports fans still were reeling from that when they tabbed Lewis the following spring at No. 22.
This wasn’t Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount forward who died in the middle of a WCC tournament game from the same conditions as ESPN cameras rolled. Gathers had shown symptoms, too, and had been prescribed medication, but largely was an unknown until his dramatic and public death (with current Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra on the floor that day, a point guard for the University of Portland).
A search for context, and an understanding of why Lewis’ death didn’t resonate nationally the way it might have or should have or, certainly, would have now in a world of 24/7 Internet and social media, yields only guesses. It doesn’t soothe the pain of a young family man dying so young, no matter if he’d poured in points for the Celtics on their parquet floor or picked up towels in their locker room.
That pain remains for those who knew Lewis, loved him and followed his career most closely. Veteran NBA writer Jackie MacMullan‘s tribute piece on ESPN.com covers so much of that because she and the people she interviewed about Lewis were a part of the Baltimore native’s life and premature death. Such as:
Brian Shaw and Reggie Lewis planned to grow up in the NBA together. They shared an agent, bought their houses at the same time, picked out new BMWs just days apart. They even went out and bought life insurance policies together.
“I miss him,” Shaw said. “I miss the closeness of having a friend who was going through the same things as me.
“We used to talk all the time about how we wanted to be the breakout tandem, the Celtics backcourt to be reckoned with for a long, long time.”
Lewis was on his way. At the time of his death, he had averaged more than 20 points a game and led the Celtics in scoring for two consecutive seasons. He had played in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game.
But there was so much going on at that time for Boston and in the league, and frankly so many deaths and setbacks, that Lewis’ tragic tale wound up muted for a lot of NBA and sports fans.
Besides Bias and Gathers, there was James Jordan, the father of Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan. He went missing on July 22, 1993 – just five days before Lewis collapsed – and soon was found dead under first mysterious, then sinister circumstances that grabbed headlines for weeks afterward (a pair of young armed robbers shot and killed Jordan while he slept in his car alongside a country road).
Just 21 months before Lewis died, in November 1991, Lakers star Magic Johnson had been given what figured to be his own death sentence, announcing he had contracted the HIV virus and immediately retiring. His Boston counterpart, Larry Bird, was dying only an athletic death, but still – Bird played in only 45 games in 1991-92 and just four of 10 in the playoffs due to a worsening back injury that forced his retirement after that season.
The Celtics were in transition-slash-decline, still thought of nationally for what they were and who’d they be losing rather than any bounce they’d get from Lewis, Shaw or anyone else. They played in the 1987 Finals before Lewis arrived, then didn’t get back until 21 years later. In 1988, they lost the Eastern Conference title to Detroit, and from there, NBA casual fans shifted their attention to the “Bad Boy” Pistons, to Jordan’s quest for rings and to wannabes such as the Knicks and the Jazz.
Lewis wasn’t exactly his own greatest press agent, either. He had star talent but a role player’s personality, deferring to Boston’s legendary veterans personally even as the arc of their games crossed; in his final season, he played about as many minutes and took as many shots as Kevin McHale and Robert Parish combined. Fans at Boston Garden and league insiders recognized the budding star before them, but even at his best, he never cracked the Top 10 in scoring (15th in 1991-92, 16th in 1992-93).
The Celtics, their opponents and MacMullan knew how good Lewis was – and was becoming – even if his national profile was low. Having written about him when he was at Northeastern, having known him as a rookie, MacMullan – a longtime Boston Globe reporter – saw the evolution in Lewis’ game. She revisited it in her ESPN.com piece, focusing on a 1991 matchup against the Bulls and Jordan:
In that March 31 game, as Jordan pulled up for his patented fallaway — one of the most feared weapons in basketball — Lewis waited patiently for MJ to launch himself, then stretched his arms and timed it so he deflected the ball just as Jordan released.
The block surprised Jordan, whose otherworldly elevation usually negated any chance of a rejected shot.
Most players weren’t athletic enough to literally “hang” with Jordan. Lewis was one of the exceptions.
“He was a tough matchup,” Jordan said. “He had those long arms that really bothered me.
“I was trying to be aggressive with him. I was trying to take advantage of his passive demeanor, but he didn’t back down. He never relinquished his own aggressiveness.
“He shocked me a little bit.”
MJ dismissed Reggie’s initial block as an anomaly. When it happened again, this time on a pull-up jumper, Jordan became irked. The next time, he became concerned. And by the fourth time, on a lefty drive to the hoop, Jordan was irritated — and somewhat spooked.
“His length confused me,” Jordan conceded. “Every time I thought I had him beat, he’d recover and get up on me. When you have the skills to break someone down on defense and you can’t, it makes you tentative offensively.”
Here’s where we pause for a moment to understand the magnitude of what Jordan is saying. The most dynamic scorer in NBA history is now admitting two decades later that he was shocked by what Reggie Lewis did to him, confused by his length and made tentative offensively.
How many other NBA players can lay claim to making Michael Jordan feel that way?
The answer: Too damn few. One of whom was gone way too soon.