Posts Tagged ‘Reggie Lewis’

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.

NBA TV Plans Slate Of Playoff Gems

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – What do you get when you take the most extensive library of NBA footage, a room full of creative and inquisitive hoops heads and the simple directive of helping fill the basketball void so many of us have been feeling the past two months?

You get “Playoff Gems on NBA TV,” 10 crucial postseason matchups that will make their NBA TV premiers this week as Hardwood Classics.  Our good friends at NBA TV will air three games a day starting Tuesday and running through Thursday with the 10th and final game airing Friday, Sept. 2. As a bonus they’ll re-air all of the games throughout Labor Day weekend, just in case you miss one the first time.

Here’s a quick rundown of the games, including the date and times (ET) they will air on NBA TV, with a few of our notes to help refresh your memory:

Tuesday, Aug. 30

Bullets vs. Warriors, 1975 Finals: Game 3 — 8 p.m. ET

Any game featuring Rick Barry at his best is worth your time. One of the game’s all-time great scorers, Barry was at his best in this game. He lit up the Bullets for 38 points and Jamaal Wilkes put the defensive clamps, as best any man could, on Elvin Hayes to help the Warriors to what would be an insurmountable 3-0 series lead. The underdog Warriors finished the Bullets off in Game 4 to complete their magical run. There hasn’t been a Finals game played in the Bay Area since this one.

Suns vs. SuperSonics, 1979 Western Conference finals: Game 7 — 10 p.m. ET

The Sonics’ first and only NBA title doesn’t happen without them grinding through this rugged conference final against the rival Suns. Game 7 was played before 37,000-plus fans at The Kingdome. The final and thrilling seconds of this one still gets the juices flowing for Sonics fans who were worried they might not get a chance for a Finals rematch against the Bullets after losing in 1978. Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens and his point guard, Dennis Johnson, did a masterful job of managing the game down the stretch.

Knicks vs. Nets, 1983 Eastern Conference first round: Game 1 — Midnight ET

For those of us with an appreciation for the artist known as Bernard King, this game will be a treat. King turned the Hudson River Rivalry into a rout with a 40-point explosion as the Hubie Brown-coached Knicks dumped the Nets in two games to advance to a conference semifinal date with the Philadelphia 76ers. HT fave Truck Robinson was on this Knicks team as well, as were Rory Sparrow and a young Bill Cartwright (seriously).

Wednesday, Aug. 31

Spurs vs. Nuggets, 1985 Western Conference first round: Game 2 — 8 p.m. ET

With the “Iceman,” George Gervin showing off all of his silky smooth moves, the Spurs and Nuggets played a classic. Gervin outgunned high-scoring Nuggets guard Alex English in a series that marked the end of the “Ice Age” in San Antonio — Gervin was traded to the Chicago Bulls after the season.

Celtics vs. Pistons, 1985 Eastern Conference semifinals: Game 4 — 10 p.m. ET

The heated Celtics-Pistons rivalry that colored much of the mid to late 1980s took its first major postseason turn in this series. Isiah Thomas had Joe Dumars (via the draft) and Rick Mahorn (courtesy of a trade with Washington) on his side for the first time in the 1985 postseason. But it was “The Microwave” Vinnie Johnson that stole the show in Game 4. The Pistons’ surprising showing in this series — which they lost 4-2 — was a statement that they would be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.

Sixers vs. Bucks, 1986 Eastern Conference semifinals: Game 1 — Midnight ET

With All-World big man Moses Malone sidelined with an injury a young Charles Barkley — that’s right TNT’s very own! — went to work against the Bucks and posted a monster 31-point, 20-rebound night as the Sixers rallied for the comeback win. This was just Barkley’s second season in the league but it served as his breakout year, as he earned second-team All-NBA honors. Malone was traded to the Bullets before the start of the next season and Barkley became the face of the franchise.

Thursday, Sept. 1

Bulls vs. Sixers, 1990 Eastern Conference semifinals: Game 4 — 8 p.m. ET

You didn’t really think this project would be completed without at least one dose of MJ, did you? Michael Jordan was at his versatile best in this game, and did it without Scottie Pippen (who missed the game to attend his father’s funeral). MJ’s 45 points, 11 assists, six rebounds and two steals only tell part of the story. You need to watch the way he dictated the action from end to end to truly appreciate his performance.

Bulls vs. Pistons, 1991 Eastern Conference finals: Game 3 — 10 p.m. ET

In what turned out to be not only the defining game of this series but the turning point in this rivalry, the Bulls were on the verge of erasing three straight years of postseason frustration at the hands of their fierce rivals. MJ went off, scoring 14 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter in what was one of the defining moments of his early career, this was just his seventh season in the league. He added seven rebounds, seven assists, five blocks and two steals in the breakthrough game that set the stage for the Bulls’ series sweep of the Pistons and their first Finals appearance.

Celtics vs. Pacers, 1992 Eastern Conference first round: Game 3 — Midnight ET

In a battle of Reggies (Indy’s Reggie Miller vs. Boston’s Reggie Lewis), Lewis shined brightest with a 32-point effort to lead the Celtics to victory and a series sweep of a Pacers team that gave them fits a year earlier in a five-game, first-round playoff series. Even with aging and wounded stars Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish still grinding, there was no doubt that Lewis was asserting himself as the heir apparent in Boston. He, and not Bird or McHale, led the Celtics in scoring that season. In 10 playoff games that year, Lewis averaged 28 points on 53 percent shooting from the floor.

Friday, Sept. 2

Suns vs. Rockets, 1994 Western Conference semifinals: Game 7 — 10 p.m. ET

Hakeem Olajuwon was at the height of his powers in this one, destroying the Suns with 37 points and 17 rebounds as the Rockets eventually moved onto the NBA Finals and the first of their back-to-back titles. If you need a refresher course to remind you just how dominant Olajuwon was that season, here is your cheat sheet. If first-person testimonials are needed, just check with Clyde Drexler, Barkley, Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing. All of those superstars saw  their title dreams end that season because of Dream and the Rockets.

Do yourself a favor and tune in this week. You’ll be glad you did!