The telephone calls do not stop. it is a warm summer night, and I have my car radio tuned to the station that features talk about sports. These are not the usual sad souls on the line, suggesting trades that never can be made—"I think the Red Sox can win the pennant, Jimmy, if they just trade Carlos Quintana for Ken Griffey Jr."—or speaking just to speak, finding a paid listener when no other listener can be found. These are calls from ordinary, yet brokenhearted people.
"I worked two basketball games tonight, Jimmy," says Paul, a former NBA referee. "These games were in the city. Kids, they all think they're going to the NBA, but they'll never come close because they're wise guys. They'll never do anything. But tonight? Tonight these wise guys all showed up with the number 35 on their jerseys. It got tome, you know? They say they're all dedicating their season to Reggie. They're wearing his number on their jerseys for the rest of their season...."
"I have a poem." an obviously young girl says. "Is it O.K. if I read my poem, Jimmy?" She begins to read in a sad little voice.
I have never heard anything like this. Never. Reggie Lewis is dead, 27 years old, the captain of the Boston Celtics, felled by a faulty heart. There is a great swirl of controversy about the particulars, about what the doctors told him and about the decisions he made, about his shooting baskets out at Brandeis University, about the legal and ethical ramifications of his death. The calls mostly are not about these things. These are calls about grief. A window to the soul has been opened by this event. How much hurt do how many people feel?
August 8, 1993
"I have been touched by tragedy in my own life, Jimmy," a voice says. "I know what his wife and his mother must be going through...."
"The hard times are yet to come," Rita from Newton says. "There is all this attention now, but soon there will be quiet. This woman will have to raise Reggie Jr. and the child that will be born. I just want to say that my heart goes out to them...."
The stories in the newspapers also do not stop. How good was this guy? How—for the lack of a better word—nice? The stories about the turkeys are an obvious beginning. For three years, Lewis gave out turkeys two days before Thanksgiving to needy people in Boston. No one asked him to do this. He felt a need and responded from his heart. The photos had become almost a local clichè: Reggie Lewis at his alma mater, Northeastern University, handing out 550 turkeys with a smile, signing autographs, shaking hands.
There are stories about random meetings in random neighborhoods—Lewis simply appearing at the playground and talking with kids. There is the story about how he bought his first suit before the NBA draft, then wore it while traveling to the Celtic office on the Orange Line of the subway. There are stories everywhere about an athlete who gave to "the community," a euphemism for the ghetto, the athlete who plugged himself in to local society, who wasn't a Hessian appearing amid the noise and the glory of the season, taking the money and then going off to some other place. Twelve months a year. Quiet. Pleasant. Available. That was what Lewis was in this time when sports people have become distant gods or merchandisable cartoon figures. Available.
The death of any athlete is a shock. If the best of us, the fittest of our breed, are vulnerable, what does this say about the rest of us? The good nature of this athlete seemed to double the stakes. I think about my own dealings with him, friendly yet businesslike. I remember most a tournament when he was in college. He was easily named the most valuable player, but at the award presentation he called a kid named Andre LaFleur to the microphone. LaFleur was an ordinary guy in a college program. Lewis gave him the trophy, just like that.
"This is Joe from Watertown," a voice on the radio says. "I'd like to talk about Reggie."
Joe from Watertown? I know this voice. I know the guy. Maybe 15 years ago, maybe longer, I was at a party at his house. His kids went to the local library where my wife was the children's librarian. I know the things that have happened in his life since then.
"My own son died of a heart problem, Jimmy," Joe says. "He was a hockey player, 17 years old. He died on the ice. There is a parallel with Reggie. He was the captain of his team too. I know the heartbreak that is involved here."
The announcer is a guy named Jimmy Myers, another person I know. He was one of Lewis's best friends and biggest advocates. He always called Lewis "His Reggieness" and championed Lewis as the next great Celtic. Myers, in fact, broke the news to Lewis's wife, Donna, that her husband had been stricken at Brandeis. He says that his show is going to be a record, a tape for Lewis's children to listen to in the future, a testimony to the affection people had for their father. Myers is very nice with Joe. He is nice with everyone.
"One more thing," Joe says. "I want everyone to know, Jimmy, that Children's Hospital has a very good 'grief center. You just go there, and there are people who will help you. They are very good."
"I've been there, Joe," Jimmy says. "Thank you for letting people know."
I am alone in my car, listening to the radio. Tears come down my face. I suppose I am crying for Reggie Lewis, the tragedy at hand. I also suppose I am crying for all of us.