The news of 27-year-old Reggie Lewis's fatal heart attack on Tuesday, July 27, hit the citizens of Boston and the basketball community as a whole like a blow to the solar plexus—some kind of sudden pain that, in the days that followed, gave way to a gnawing emptiness brought on by memories and too many unanswered what-ifs. Three months after collapsing in a first-round playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets, Lewis, the quiet captain of the Celtics, died while casually shooting baskets at the Brandeis University gym in suburban Boston. Lewis knew something was wrong with him, but he wasn't certain what, or whether the defect that several doctors had found in his heart would allow him to play competitive basketball again.
Since his collapse on April 29, he had been examined by three teams of cardiologists, two in Boston and one in Los Angeles. Their conclusions ranged from Dr. Gilbert Kludge's optimistic assessment on May 10 that Lewis's heart was "a normal athlete's heart" and that he suffered from a relatively benign fainting condition called neurocardiogenic syncope, to the diagnosis by the so-called cardiological Dream Team assembled by the Celtics' team doctor, Arnold Scheller. According to the Dream Team, Lewis's heart was susceptible to ventricular arrhythmia, a potentially lethal condition that, in 1990, had led to the death of Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers. It was Gathers whom Lewis first thought of after his initial collapse. A third team of four cardiologists, from L.A., had agreed with parts of both diagnoses and determined that further tests were necessary before Lewis should be allowed to play basketball.
Even without the diagnoses, Lewis's death came wrapped in a warning—two warnings, if one includes the spell of dizziness and disorientation on March 24 that led to Lewis's being removed from a game in Boston against the Miami Heat—leaving friends, family, teammates, doctors and fans with the disquieting feeling that Lewis's fate might somehow have been averted. "It's not like Reggie was in a car accident." said Kevin McHale, Lewis's former Celtic teammate. "The real tragedy is that right now we should be sitting around saying, 'Reggie has a pacemaker and can't play basketball, and that's really sad.' Instead, we have to sit and mourn him."
On Monday 7,000 people, many waving fans to ward off the stifling 88° heat, attended an emotional memorial service held for Lewis in Northeastern University's Matthews Arena. For all the success he enjoyed with the Celtics, Lewis was always Northeastern's own, called by university president John A. Curry, "Northeastern's best athlete ever." He was the school's alltime leading scorer and had led the Huskies to four straight NCAA appearances between 1984 and '87. Lewis's number, 35, which was retired in 1989, already hung from the rafters, and for two hours before the service an estimated 15,000 fans filed past Lewis's open casket to pay their final respects. Thousands more—black and white, young and old—lined the streets along the 4.7-mile route to Forest Hills Cemetery. In a city that has had more than its share of racially divisive incidents in the past two decades, Lewis's funeral seemed like a bridge over a gulf. Said Celtic CEO Dave Gavitt in his eulogy, "Isn't it amazing that, here in conservative, staid New England, this soft-spoken, gentle young man from Baltimore had to leave us before we could feel it was O.K. to say that we love each other and care for each other?"
August 8, 1993
The funeral marked the end of a long, emotional week for the Celtic players, coaches, management and alumni, whose grief was palpable and public. Lewis, it seemed, was one of those rare individuals who never accumulated any enemies. At a press conference last Thursday afternoon, Celtics Rick Fox and Dec Brown spoke tearfully—when they could speak at all—of how much they had loved him and would miss him. When Celtic coach Chris Ford mentioned "2-up" and "Hawk-2," two plays in the team's playbook designed for Lewis, assistant coach Jon Jennings broke down. Jennings then recalled how he had taken Lewis and Lewis's wife, Donna, to the Boston Pops Christmas concert last December and how Reggie had whispered to Jennings during the performance, "Next year I'll bring Reggie Jr. with me." Jennings, in tears, vowed, "Next year, I'll take Reggie Jr."
Northeastern officials spoke of how Lewis had passed out 1,200 turkeys to the poor during each of the last three Thanksgiving holidays. Others remembered how Lewis had an amazing way with kids. Many brought up his humility. "A great player and a better person," said Northeastern coach Karl Fogel. Nearly everyone mentioned Lewis's smile.
Surely all who knew him must have wondered, as did McHale, whether Lewis's death was preventable. If Lewis had not been a professional athlete, would his treatment and prognosis have been the same? Had doctors worked too hard to keep him on the basketball court? Were questions by some of his doctors about possible cocaine usage, which he denied, simply routine? Would Lewis be alive today if he had had a defibrillator—a device that can often correct an irregular heartbeat—installed in his chest, as had been suggested by Scheller as early as May 7? What medication was he taking and how much? (As of Monday evening neither Mudge nor Donna had agreed to any interview requests. The autopsy results on Lewis were expected to be released this week.)
Or had all parties exercised reasonable caution? Was no one to blame but cruel fate? According to Jerome Stanley, one of Lewis's two agents, who served as the family's spokesman last week, that is what Donna believes. Stanley said it was Donna who comforted a distraught Mudge after her husband's death, telling him that it wasn't his fault and that Reggie's time had simply come, that there was nothing anyone could have done to save him. Stanley himself saw a kind of blessing in the tact that Lewis had died on a basketball court—not just because he was doing what he loved to do, but also because he just as easily could have died while frolicking with his infant son. "Can you imagine how awful that would have been for Reggie Jr.?" asks Stanley.
But if the family doesn't seem to be bitter, there is little question that certain aspects of the Lewis case were poorly handled by both the Celtics and the medical community. "I hope that I never again witness a process like this," said Charles Grantham, executive director of the NBA players association. "I am concerned about a system that puts medical teams into adversarial positions, a process that puts a private, personal issue into the public arena. It was one set of egos battling another set of egos instead of working together. You can be sure this will be an issue that will be raised with the teams and the league very soon."
Grantham was referring to the first two radically different diagnoses (SI, May 24) that Lewis received in the two weeks following his collapse against Charlotte and the publicity that each received. Through the newspapers Bostonians seemed to be kept as well informed about Lewis's condition as Lewis was himself. On May 3, a day after the Dream Team had reached its diagnosis. Scheller, apparently milled that Lewis had left his care before more tests could be done, went on television and, without Lewis's permission, revealed his diagnosis and asserted that there was "a strong probability" that Lewis could never play again. He accused the Lewis family of going through a state "of denial."
Eight days later it was the Celtics who went into the denial mode when Mudge—the highly respected chief of clinical cardiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital, where Donna had once worked as an administrator—stated that "there is no damage to the heart muscle" and predicted that Lewis could return to basketball "without limitation." Gavitt was elated and immediately embraced Mudge's diagnosis over Scheller's. "This is the best news I've had in a long time," said Gavitt. "I'm absolutely pleased for Reggie and Donna and, I guess, indirectly for us."
It was Stanley who arranged for the third opinion. Once Mudge went public with his diagnosis, Stanley, who lives in Los Angeles, called to offer his assistance in getting a third opinion in a setting removed from the media glare of Boston. "We can't have you dying out there on the court," Stanley kept telling Lewis, to the point where it became a family joke.
Stanley brought Lewis to the West Coast in June for tests under the auspices of Nicholas Diaco, Richard F. Wright and John Michael Criley, all of Saint John's Heart Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., and William G. Stevenson of the UCLA Medical Center. After a series of tests the California team determined that Lewis, indeed, had an abnormality at the bottom left corner, or apex, of his heart. The defect was so pronounced that one unidentified source told The Boston Globe last week, "Criley could feel it by placing his hand on Lewis's chest.... Criley believed, the source added, that Lewis's heart abnormality was serious enough that it was not safe for Lewis to return to competitive basketball." Criley could not be reached for comment.
According to a statement by Donna, read to the press last Thursday by Stanley, the California doctors were not certain if it was the heart defect that had caused Lewis to collapse against Charlotte in April or the neurocardiogenic syncope detected by Mudge. The California team, which had access to Mudge's test results as well as those of the Dream Team, recommended more tests be conducted under simulated game conditions.
By the time Diaco discussed his group's findings with Mudge, the certainty with which Mudge had trumpeted his original diagnosis seemed to have eroded. "He agreed that we needed more testing," says Diaco. "He had planned to do it, even though he still thought neurocardiogenic syncope was the cause."
The L.A. findings weren't good news for Lewis. He had hoped to participate in the Celtics' rookie camp in early July, but his advisers—Donna, Stanley and Mudge—suggested that he begin training in August in Baltimore, where Lewis had grown up, under Mudge's supervision. The plan was for Lewis to play a pickup game while hooked to a heart monitor, with a defibrillator at hand on the sideline.
If Lewis came through the pickup game without incident, he would continue to train with Mudge monitoring him. Donna's statement last Thursday asserted that if no further incidents took place, Reggie was prepared to play the 1993-94 season, if—and this may have proved to be a big if—the Celtics agreed to have a defibrillator and cardiologist at courtside for every practice and game.
Indeed, despite Gavin's initial enthusiasm for Mudge's diagnosis, "Reggie had the impression the Celtics were drawing away from him," says Grantham. One Celtic official, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the team and its front office personnel had been told not to discuss specifics of the case.
Lewis, under strict orders not to engage in any sort of stressful activity, began working out informally at least two weeks before he died at Brandeis, where the Celtics practice, shooting three-pointers and foul shots. However, those close to him detected a change since his return from California. Fogel remembers seeing Lewis at the Celtics" rookie camp—both were there to watch—and thinking that he was "like a different person. He appeared real preoccupied."
"Reggie never really said anything to me," said Jennings. "In fact, he said he was doing great. But for some reason I could tell he had some doubts about playing again."
On July 27, though, Lewis apparently was thinking about basketball. According to several current and former Northeastern athletes, Lewis had intended to play a full-court pickup game that night at Brandeis, in violation of his doctors' explicit instructions.
He arrived at the Brandeis gym with an unidentified friend at about 4 p.m. For about an hour Lewis worked on his shooting, as he had done three times in the past week, with his friend retrieving the balls for him. Lewis hadn't even broken a sweat. At one point several young girls in the gym came over to talk to him, and he held his hands up against theirs, comparing the size of their hands. About 20 students were in the gym.
At 5:07 Lewis collapsed near the three-point line. Within minutes two Brandeis security personnel were at the scene, one of whom, James Crowley, was EMT certified. "His eyes were open, but he was clearly unconscious," Crowley said of Lewis.
Crowley, by coincidence, had been a security guard at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge when Donna had given birth to Reggie Jr. last year. Crowley had ridden in the hospital elevator with the elated family. Now both of Lewis's palms were up, his hands were open and twitching slightly, and his head rocked back and forth like a rag doll's, lolling whichever way someone pushed it. Lewis wasn't breathing, and his pulse was almost undetectable.
Crowley tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while his partner, Paul Barstow, pumped at Lewis's chest. At 5:24 the paramedics arrived and worked for about 15 minutes to revive Lewis before rushing him to Waltham-Weston Hospital. Lewis never regained consciousness.
Crowley remained at Waltham-Weston for nearly two hours. He had no official business there. He just couldn't bring himself to leave. "I grew more attached to him in the five minutes I worked on him than you would ever have thought possible," he said. "When they wheeled him away, it was like they took my brother away. I remember seeing his wife coming into the hospital. I thought, She has no idea how serious this is. She identified herself like, "Hi, I'm Reggie Lewis's wife.' "
Jimmy Myers, the host of the Celtics' pregame and halftime shows on channel 25 and a WEEI radio talk-show personality, called Donna with the bad news after hearing the early reports of Lewis's collapse at Brandeis. A family friend, Myers initially got the answering machine. But as he began leaving a message, Donna picked up the phone and with giddy excitement said, "Wait, Jimmy, I've got something to tell you first.' "
Myers, taken aback, let her continue. How do you stop a woman who can't wait to share the news that she's 2½ months pregnant? Shaken, Myers asked her to brace herself. "We're living this night-marc again," he told her. "You're going to have to get over to Waltham-Weston Hospital."
Hours passed before the hospital announced that Lewis had died, at 7:30. The news had to wait until Lewis's mother in Baltimore was notified. Jennings was at his home in Watertown when he received word of his friend's death from the Celtics' trainer, Ed Lacerte. "I just didn't know what to do." says Jennings. "I sat there thinking about all the things we'd been through together. All the years. Donna and the baby. I just never thought he was going to die."
Jennings drove to the Celtics' offices on Merrimac Street in Boston, where the first person he saw was Scheller. "I walked up to him and hugged him," recalls Jennings. "And I said to him, 'Why does this have to happen?' He didn't say anything."
Jennings never really let go emotionally until, at one in the morning, he felt a need to go to Brandeis, the last place he had seen Lewis alive. He jumped into his red Saab convertible and drove. Like all the Celtic players, coaches and front office staff. Jennings had a key to the gym. He let himself in and climbed into the stands and sat there. In the darkness, alone, Jennings broke down. He cried and cried.
"I remembered the last time I saw him." he says. "He was with Reggie Jr., and I started playing with Reggie Jr. He knew how much I loved children. I remember him getting up and leaving. Reggie had Reggie Jr. in one arm and a baby bag in the other, and I just watched him walk away. I remember I was thinking—not that he was going to die—but there he goes. That was the last time.
"If the world could have known Reggie Lewis the way we knew Reggie Lewis, it would understand why the events of this week will forever change our lives. I remember Mary McGrory, when she was working for The Washington Star, talking about when President Kennedy died. She said to someone, 'You know, we're going to laugh and joke again, but we're never going to be young again.' I really think that's what Reggie's death has done for all of us."