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Remembering Reggie Lewis

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Three greats cut down in their prime forged lifelong memories and lessons

Reggie Lewis

On July 27th, 1993, I was a few days shy of my 15th birthday. We had just finished a summer league basketball game and my Mom picked up my friends and me to chauffer us home. The plan was to stop and get pizza or McDonald’s or possibly both. We were typical teenage boys and ate everything in sight. Four sweaty, boisterous, happy teenagers, fresh of a win over a rival high school in a meaningless summer league game, loaded into the car. In the time it took to make the 20 minute or so drive to my house, our lives were forever changed.

We got in the car and my Mom, an avid news radio listener, had the radio tuned to WBZ or something like that. A bit after the cursory “Quiet down!” from Mom, which we all summarily ignored, the radio blared its “Breaking News” music and broke in with a report. Reggie Lewis had collapsed on the court at Brandeis University in Waltham during a summer workout.

We all remembered Reggie collapsing earlier in the spring on the court in a playoff game vs the Charlotte Hornets in Game 1 of their first round playoff series. He missed the rest of the series and, despite winning Game 1, Boston fell to Charlotte 3-1. But at the time, reports were that Reggie would be ok with some treatment. News of him practicing a few short months later was encouraging and important, as Boston needed him.

The Celtics in the 1992-1993 season were very much in transition. Larry Bird had retired that summer, following an Olympic gold medal with The Dream Team. Kevin McHale wasn’t the same guy after foot and leg injuries and was rumored to be on his way out too. Robert Parish was already 39 with 16 years in the league. The Big Three was breaking up. But, despite our heroes fading, Boston would be ok because they had Reggie Lewis.

In 1991-1992, with Bird only able to play 45 games and McHale limited to just 56, the torch had silently passed to Lewis as the team’s best player. He played in all 82 games, averaged 20.8 points per game, shot over 50 percent from the floor and dominated defensively with over a block per game and 1.5 steals per game. It would end up being Lewis’ lone All-Star season.

In 92-93, with more of a burden to shoulder with Bird retired and McHale gutting through his last year, Lewis was just as good. No All-Star accolades would come, many suspected this was due to Celtics fatigue, but Lewis was firmly established as one of the NBA’s best players. No less an authority than Michael Jordan called Lewis “the toughest guy to go against in the league”. In a game in 1991, Lewis did this to MJ:

Now, remember, no one really blocked Jordan’s jump shot. Whether it be his hanging jumper, his turnaround fade-away or any other crazy shot Jordan could come up with. Lewis got him four times in one game. For good measure, Lewis also buried a huge triple late in the game.

Back to that game in the ’93 playoffs. The Celtics had managed 48 wins behind Lewis’ brilliance. McHale and Parish were still productive, but limited. Xavier McDaniel had been added to replace Bird, but no one could really do that. Kevin Gamble, Dee Brown and Rick Fox were all good players, but not equipped to handle the added responsibility to keep Boston at the top of the conference. But Lewis was. He had taken the step the season prior and cemented his status in 1992-93 as one of the league’s best.

Boston grabbed the fourth seed and home court advantage against the upstart Hornets led by Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson and Muggsy Bogues. It was going to be tight and many were pulling for the young Charlotte squad to pull the upset. Just 13 minutes into his night, Lewis collapsed on the court. At the time it seemed innocent enough, if someone collapsing can be termed innocent. Lewis sat up almost immediately. He left the court, but seemed to be ok. We never saw him play for the Celtics again.

Back to that night in July, four rowdy teenagers and my Mom had just heard that Reggie had collapsed again. We speculated wildly, while reassuring each other that he would be fine. Maybe he forgot to take his heart medicine or something. But he’d be fine. They told us he would be back to play at the start of the next year in the fall.

In the midst of that rapid fire conversation, the “Breaking News” alert chimed again, just a few minutes after the original. It sprung us to attention as almost nothing else could. Surely, this was them telling us “Precautionary. No big deal.” Instead, we got something different and I remember the words as clear 24 years later as when I heard them that first time:

“Reggie Lewis has died after collapsing on the court at Brandeis University during a workout”

Silence. No more speculating. No more reassurances.

“Reggie Lewis has died…”

Stunned. No celebrating our win. No trip to get pizza.

“Reggie Lewis has died…”

We rush into my house. The radio guy has to be wrong. He just got some bad information. We turn the TV on and whatever summertime repeats are on are pre-empted with local news reports from the hospital and from Brandeis and from in front of the Boston Garden. But none of them say anything different and none of them say anything we want to hear.

“Reggie Lewis has died…”

Whenever I think about this moment, it links in with two other moments for me. The first was in 1986. I was a month or so shy of turning eight years old. At the age of seven, sports were my entire world, along with G.I. Joe and riding my bike. It was my connection to my Dad. He traveled a lot for work, but sports were how we connected. I played soccer and baseball growing up, but basketball was forming a grip on me like none of the sports had. Bird was my idol, as he was for almost every other kid in New England, but the Celtics now had a guy who could run and jump like that Jordan guy the Bulls had. Len Bias was coming and as a seven, almost eight, year old, that was amazing. I remember watching the news for days around the NBA Draft to catch highlights of Bias. Dunks were the coolest thing ever and man could this guy dunk!

On June 17th, 1986, little more than a week after winning their 16th NBA championship, the Boston Celtics drafted Len Bias with the 2nd pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. Red Auerbach would later say “I planned for three years to draft Len Bias.” If Red planned to get someone, like he did with Bird and McHale, you knew that guy was going to be good.

On the morning of June 19th, I shuffled to the kitchen to get breakfast. The paper was sitting on the table with a picture of Bias being introduced as a Celtics draftee. I picked it up and my Dad, home for a change, put his hand on it. Apparently the radio had just aired a report that Bias had been rushed to the hospital. Forgive a hazy memory here, but I think what Dad said was “He’s sick.”

OK. People get sick all the time. No big deal. They’ll give him medicine and he’ll be fine. I went off to do whatever I went off to do. Later that morning, or maybe early afternoon, we hear “This just in to (whatever station we were listening to), Len Bias has died. Bias’ death is believed to be related to the use of cocaine.”

Wait. Died? The guy who can run and jump and dunk?

“Len Bias has died…”

What is cocaine? Why would he do that? He was just in Boston. How was he back in Maryland the same day?

“Len Bias has died…”

Seven, almost eight year old me, is left with a lot of questions and my parents are left with trying to figure out how to answer them.

“Len Bias has died…”

Back to the summer of 1993. The Celtics were my team, but a non-Celtic had my heart. The previous summer everyone was swept up in The Dream Team, myself included, but a tough, good-shooting guard for Croatia had captured my imagination. Drazen Petrovic had become a favorite in rather short order. He seemingly came out of nowhere, his rise mimicking that of Reggie Lewis’. He was a dominating scorer for a Nets team that was having success and had made back-to-back playoff appearances. There was reportedly a contract squabble and Petrovic was considering leaving the NBA for Greece, but no one really left the NBA.

In the summer of 1992, Petrovic led Croatia, playing independently for the first time, to the gold medal game. They fell to the United States, only their second loss of the Olympics (both to the US), and they claimed the silver medal. Petrovic played so well that the Croatians even briefly took the lead around the middle of the first half. His will to win and shooting ability were inspiring to a kid who just wanted to play, shoot and win.

The morning of June 8th, 1993, I wake up and flip on ESPN and start watching SportsCenter, as did most teenage boys in America. While eating breakfast before heading off to school on that Tuesday morning, SportsCenter airs a report: “Drazen Petrovic of the New Jersey Nets and the Croatian National Team has died following a car accident in Germany yesterday afternoon.”

Car accident? Germany? Petrovic?

“Drazen Petrovic of the New Jersey Nets and the Croatian National Team has died…”

Wasn’t there just some big tournament in Europe? Wasn’t he trying to get a new deal?

“Drazen Petrovic of the New Jersey Nets and the Croatian National Team has died…”

No DVR to rewind and play it back. No need. The words are burned in my head.

“Drazen Petrovic of the New Jersey Nets and the Croatian National Team has died…”

24 years later for Reggie and Drazen and 31 after Len, all the details of those days are as fresh as can be. I’m a few days short of my 39th birthday now and I’ve forgotten countless things over the year, but I will never forget those three, forever linked together moments in my mind.

More importantly, I will never forget Lewis and Bias and Petrovic. I didn’t have the chance to get to know Bias on and off the court. Far too few of us did. But Petrovic was renowned as a fierce competitor and a blossoming global basketball superstar.

Reggie was different. He grew up in Baltimore, but over his time at Northeastern University and with the Celtics, he had become a Bostonian through and through. He and his family had become legendary for their charitable efforts to help the less fortunate throughout the Boston area. The Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center hosts numerous athletic events in Boston, funded in part by Lewis. Despite just six years as a Celtic, Lewis’ #35 jersey hangs in the rafters. We don’t always make outsiders our own, but we did with Reggie, in part because of his sheer force of will to get there.

I’ll remember Reggie for everything he did for Boston on and off the court, but I’ll remember him most for teaching me a valuable lesson in the midst of his tragic death. Don’t take time for granted. We are guaranteed none of it. Love the people who are important to you and make sure they know. Do good things. Help others. Be a good person. There is a saying that goes “We aren’t here for a long time, let’s be here for a good time.” Take advantage when you can to lead a good, full life.

On July 27th, 1993, I started to learn that lesson. As I’ve gotten older, it has become ingrained in me. I lose focus sometimes, as we all do. But every July 27th, I am reminded to re-focus on what is important. 24 years later and the lesson is even more valuable to me as a husband, father, son, brother and friend.

Rest well Reggie. We remember you fondly and with love.

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