Reggie Lewis, We Hardly Knew Ye

Boston Celtics v Sacramento Kings

Many believe the Celtics’ Reggie Lewis was on the path to NBA superstardom. (Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

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.”

And:

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.

36 Comments

  1. MrBasketball says:

    James Herring – you are a crazy person. you better look up MJ’s shooting percentages. one season he average 55 percent shooting as a shooting Guard. He was ungaurdable – Stopping MJ was holding him to 25 points.

    Know before you blow bro.

    rhymes intended.

  2. Old School nba Fan says:

    Another great player life cut short. Definitely ESPN should do a 20/20 video

  3. nba fan says:

    I remember reggie. I was young in his day. He was something special and just coming into his own. A few More years, he’d have been one of the great and a for sure hall of famer. I remember how well he could shoot. On a team that had guys like bird, and ainge I believe…. wow. Another guy, mid 90′s, Richard dumas…. he didn’t die…. but I believe he would’ve been special had he laid off the drugs. I’m glad the nba put safeguards in place for drug use though…. R.I.P. Reggie .

  4. painter33 says:

    Jordan make contemporaneous comments about Reggie Lewis after a game in which Reggie not only “held” Jordan to fewer than normal points, but I believe Reggie also was the Celtics leading scorer that night, draining a series of pull-up jump shots over Jordan. Jordan couldn’t stop Reggie’s outside shots nor his drives. Jordan’s lack of defensive ability to contain Reggie shouldn’t be overlooked. I remember one sequence when Reggie drove right, went under the hoop and laid it in left-handed on the left side. Jordan yelled for help but no one could recover fast enough. That was one of Reggie’s breakout games. So MJ isn’t commenting long after the fact; he talked about it, post-game, long ago.

    Reggie seemed to elevate his game against Chicago and Jordan, but in a quiet way. He never talked trash or talked much at all. He just did his job, and did it very well. Seeing his jumper in my mind – thin arms and legs seemingly going in four directions but having them all come together, ending with a high-release and smooth shot. I would guess that he was probably the last NBA player to always follow his shot, as Bird did. Now when most outside shots are taken, the shooter poses in an exaggerated shooting hand followthrough and then “runs” downcourt having made or missed. Ah, but he made sure to get that pose in.

  5. Malono says:

    The man who blocks to His Airness 4 times in a game!!!!!!!!
    Reggie ‘The Master of Defense’ Lewis

  6. John Zapetis says:

    I met Reggie twice at autograph signings. I had the privilege of meeting his wife, Donna Harris and mother-in-law also. At one of the signings, I presented him with his All Star Card, which surprised him as he had not seen it yet. He was a true gentleman both on and off the court. My heart goes out to his family during the anniversary of his death. RIP my hero, my friend.

  7. Bob Ellison says:

    CORRECTION: CHECKED WIKIPEDIA, HERE’S THEIR INFO: “Maravich died suddenly at age 40 during a pick-up game as a consequence of a previously undetected congenital heart defect.”

    Had it close, at first — but no cigar. Ah, memory. Guess shoulda listened to my Ma, & stopped guzzlin’ Ripple!

  8. Bob Ellison says:

    As always, a superb extremely engrossing piece. BTW, Pistol Pete, @ 44, if memory serves, shooting hoops in his backyard, suddenly died. Another strange heart problem that had never been diagnosed ‘fore his death. Always look forward to your byline . . . Best Regards, B.

  9. larry says:

    Dang. You just dropped knowledge.

  10. James Herring says:

    Why is that every Boston sports writer try to make every Boston athlete something mythical. I saw Reggie play in college and pro he was going to be special but the plays against Jordan give me a break. Micheal Jordan didn’t score on everybody everytime he touched the ball he shot poorly some games and his playoff percentages were average at best

  11. D Walsh says:

    If you are an Investigative Journalist you may want to retract your statement regarding the two teens that you indicated were responsible for James Jordan’s death because it simply IS NOT TRUE !

  12. Christophe says:

    All these big names… But one in missing: Drazen Petrovic, who also died in the summer of 1993, at the age of 28… He was (and still is) the greated non-US player all time.

  13. Joe says:

    Awesome article. Looking forward to the 90 minute documentary on Lewis tonight at 8 PM. I grew up watching my dad root for the Boston Celtics and I liked Bird and his crew just fine but just because of my age and my relationship with my father I felt like Reggie Lewis and the younger Celtics back then like Kevin Gamble, Brian Shaw, Dee Brown, Ed Pickney and others were “my” Celtics and I had high hopes they would continue the winning tradition in Boston. Lewis’ death was a huge loss for basketball and I’m glad to finally see an article like this and a documentary about it.

  14. D-Fence says:

    That is somewhat confusing, it kinda means, if Reggie Lewis lived Jordan would have a lot of problems with this young man and may not have won as many championships being shut down by Reggie

  15. chandler says:

    Amazing story…. and to phillip…. go hate some wear else

  16. Rest in peace, what a lose. Great person and player.

  17. keithmon says:

    Great story, another scary fact is Reggie and Len Bias were counselors together at the Celtics rookie camp at Camp Millbrook in the summer of 1985. These untimely deaths proved to stymie the Celtics from championship contention for 20 years.

  18. bu says:

    Didn’t know about the MJ comments…. wow! It’s always unfortunate to see a good person leave like that. The ball game is one thing but a caring person.

  19. John says:

    Sad thing is most so called basketball fans today don’t have any clue who Reggie Lewis was!

    • ryan says:

      this is true I had not heard of him till I read this article but I am thankful for the chance this article gave me to now learn about him. they should do a 30 for 30 on him.by the way I was born in 1987 and have never heard him once mentioned on T.v that’s why I don’t know who he was

  20. Mitra says:

    Thanks, Steve for such a nice tribute to Reggie. When I read your piece, I really became sad. You articulated the entire thing so well.

    What an unfortunate end to a great basketball talent!

    Mitra

  21. Mike says:

    I remember watching that playoff game on TV when Reggie collapsed. He was just becoming really dangerous on the court, but his personality and committed to the community of Boston was even more impressive. I think his family still gives out turkeys on Thanksgiving to the homeless. He was a special man, and as a Celtics fan I can only ask “What would have been?”

  22. phillip says:

    why do you all always use jordan as a measuring stick he was not the best scorer over looking oscar robinson lulius erving, he made the league commercially thats it and changed the league rules crying to go to the euro league thats the way he won three championships then later another three not six in a row russell won eleven of which eight in a row so let the dead horse or bull in this case stay dead

    • Gaorge says:

      Because Reggie Lewis did not defend or play against Russel, Robinson or erving. he did against Jordan, the best basketball player in history of NBA. But this article is not about Jordan in case you have not notice mate

    • Marcus A says:

      “Jordan was not the best scorer”? Seriously? Are you a comedian? Really, are you a comedian? That was kinda funny. Pretty good material. Lol! “Jordan was not the…” I suppose Robert Parrish was? Lol. You’re very funny. Seriously, where are you performing next?, what comedy club?

      • glennrobinsonbigdog13 says:

        He is absolutely right.. jordan was not the beat scorer in the NBA… anyways… Reggie was a beast, but people also forget that i believe the same year Drazen Petrovick died…. if you do not know who Drazen was google him… the croatian was a 6’4 version of Nowitzki…

    • Justin says:

      You must be a jazz or Knicks fan. Clearly you have a bias against Jordan. I’ve heard alot of reasons why Jordan isn’t the greatest but those are the worse ones ever.

  23. levent says:

    Thanks for the rememberence of the late Reggie Lewis. I still remember his playing style and moves. He was a great player. RIP.

  24. E.Balnik-ZaValee says:

    Getting that comment on him from His Airness himself? Dude must’ve played out of this world D to get that one. I don’t remember much about Lewis except for one thing, he hasn’t played even the full season as a rook, got like 10 mins a game and averaged something like 3-5 points, but by the end of the next season he notched 18+ ppg and had seen 30+ mins per contest. Talk about cinderella story with a tragic end here?

    • Kei says:

      I remember Jordan said Mitch richmond and Bobby phills(RIP) both are great defender on him. Nice read Steve, keep this kind of article alive!

  25. LabMonkey says:

    The award doesn’t exist but, unofficially, Steve Aschburner is my MVE. Most Valuable Editor. Thanks for another nice read :-)

    • agreeing says:

      agree. Great article, runnign to see more of yours.

    • TheStarMiddleschooler says:

      RIP Reggie Lewis, And Nice job sharing my name

    • Another Heat Fan says:

      Reggie Lewis suffered from an unfortunate heart condition, however he was diagnosed with it and underwent stress testing and was cleared to keep playing. What doctors did not account for was the added stress of cocaine use, which pushed his heart condition over the limit leading to sudden cardiac death.

      I’m not saying he was a bad guy. We all know about cocaine use by celebrities, but we don’t look up to celebrities as much as we look up to athletes. And unfortunately, more athletes than we would like to know about use drugs ranging from weed to cocaine and LSD.

      If you were to ban every NBA player that has used an illicit drug at least once (AKA just tried it), I don’t know if there would be 10 players left in the league…

      • Marcus A says:

        What u really want to say is ‘because the league is mostly black, its drug ridden’. What you need to understand is a lot of leagues are, in particularly hockey, be it narcotic or steroids. Racist…