FAIR OR FOUL? A STORY LINKING REGGIE LEWIS'S DEATH TO POSSIBLE COCAINE USE RAISES A STORM OF ANGRY DENIALS

March 20, 1995

REGGIE LEWIS was the quietest of athletes, a man who kept his own
counsel off the basketball court and allowed his seamless grace to
do the talking when he was on it. It is sadly ironic, then, that
in death he is making headlines that rarely came his way when he
was starring at Northeastern University and, later, with the
Boston Celtics. Almost two years after the 27- year-old Lewis died
while casually shooting baskets in a gymnasium at Brandeis
University in Waltham, Mass., pieces of his private life are being
scattered about like so much confetti, as his young widow grieves
and a Celtic franchise in disarray struggles to repair the damage.

Some of the questions about Lewis raised by an exhaustive but
highly speculative Page One article written by Ron Suskind in the
March 9 issue of The Wall Street Journal -- a publication in which
Lewis's name seldom if ever appeared when he was alive -- may
never be fully answered. Unless someone comes forward, for
example, and furnishes persuasive evidence that he or she did
drugs with Lewis or saw him doing drugs, we may never know if, as
the Journal story suggests, he was a cocaine user and if cocaine
might have been a contributing cause of his death. But there are
other far-reaching issues raised in the Journal article. The most
serious are these: that the Celtics may have allowed financial and
public-relations concerns to take precedence over Lewis's medical
care; that the supposedly enlightened NBA drug policy helped
prevent an accurate assessment of Lewis's condition; and that
Donna Harris Lewis, the woman who shared Lewis's life from the day
they met at Northeastern, in 1983, until his death on July 27,
1993, not only endangered her husband by steamrollering a team of
doctors administering his care but also intimidated the state of
Massachusetts into officially declaring a bogus cause of death.

Harris Lewis, 30, has been largely silent since her husband's
death. But in an effort, she said, to clarify some of the issues,
she talked to SI on Sunday. Her attorneys, Susan Shapiro and Joan
McPhee, were present but did not contribute to the interview.
Harris Lewis has heard various adjectives used by her detractors
to describe her, and none of them, with the exception of
``intelligent,'' is flattering. ``But I want to emphasize one
thing,'' she said, alluding to one of the adjectives. ``I was not
`controlling' when it came to Reggie. I was `concerned.' ''

Concern was what she felt on the evening of April 29, 1993, when,
in the early minutes of the Game 1 Eastern Conference first-round
playoff matchup between the Celtics and the Charlotte Hornets at
Boston Garden, she saw her husband ``move as if in slow motion,''
then crumple to the floor. Harris Lewis was sitting in her
customary seat behind the Celtic bench and shouted, ``Chris . . .
Reggie'' -- meaning that she felt that Celtic coach Chris Ford
should check on his shooting guard. Lewis sat dazed for a moment,
left the game, returned for six minutes in the third period, then
was removed from the game by Ford after teammates pointed out
Lewis's wobbly legs. Those turned out to be the final moments of a
splendid six-year NBA career that, had it continued, might have
lifted Lewis into the pantheon of Celtic deities.

Early the next morning Lewis checked into Boston's New England
Baptist Hospital and, over the next 48 hours, underwent a battery
of sophisticated tests. Administering them was a group of 12
doctors assembled by Arnold Scheller, the Celtic physician, who
called them ``the dream team.'' According to the Journal, the
possibility that Lewis had used cocaine was an important issue
with the medical team from the outset; through tests, the doctors
detected scars on the heart that they thought could be consistent
with cocaine use. The Journal says that Lewis was asked repeatedly
if he was a user and was asked -- and refused -- to take a drug
test. But Harris Lewis told SI that while her husband was asked
about drugs and denied being a user, he was never asked to take a
test.

``If they would've sat us down and told us this was something that
had to be done, Reggie would've complied,'' said Harris Lewis.
``He only wanted one thing -- to get back playing. He did
everything they asked him, and he would've done that, too.''

Although it doesn't necessarily prove Lewis was clean at the time
he was stricken, Harris Lewis is able to show that her husband had
been perfectly willing to be tested for drugs in the past. For
example, she says that a couple of years before he died, he
submitted to a test in order to take out a $2 million life
insurance policy with the Prudential Insurance Company. Armen
Carapetian, the Prudential agent who sold Lewis the policy, told
SI that Lewis was indeed tested twice, in August and December 1990
-- and was drug- free. In addition, insurance-industry and NBA
sources say that Lewis almost certainly would have had to be
tested in connection with the multimillion- dollar policy that the
Celtics took out on his life in 1991.

According to the Journal, when Lewis was being evaluated by the
dream team, Thomas Nessa, the cardiologist leading the team,
``pressed'' Lewis to take a drug test. The Journal said that,
according to both Nessa and Charles Munn, Baptist's staff
radiologist, Lewis declined. Munn, however, told SI that he did
not tell the Journal Lewis refused to take the test. Munn said
that he believes Nessa met with Lewis alone, but only to ask about
drug use and not to request a test. Munn did say, however, that
weeks later Nessa did make reference to Lewis's refusing testing.
By that time, Lewis was no longer at Baptist and Munn was not sure
how Nessa knew that information.

At least two other dream-team members, requesting anonymity, said
that a drug test was not an issue, as did a third, Mark Josephson,
an electrophysiologist at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital. ``We [the
dream-team members] were not told that Lewis refused a drug
test,'' said Josephson. ``The only person who would know whether
he refused a drug test was Dr. Nessa.'' And Nessa died of a heart
attack in January.

One of the doctors who requested anonymity put it this way:
``You've got to remember that Reggie was a known entity to many of
us. He was not an athlete you thought of as being a drug user.
Yes, we asked him about it, and, yes, after further tests and
ruling out this and ruling out that, we may [in the future] have
come back to the drug question. But we were not yet at that
point.''

The Journal also says that the Celtics repeatedly balked at urging
Lewis to be tested, a contention denied by the club. Under the
NBA's drug policy, no veteran player can be forced to take a drug
test unless the team demonstrates to a league- appointed expert
that there is ``reasonable cause'' for such a test; should the
expert order a test, the player can be suspended for refusing.
``We were asked once whether we thought Reggie was a drug user,
and we said no,'' Celtic executive vice president and general
manager Jan Volk said last week. ``We were asked once if he could
be forced to be tested, and we said, well, there are privacy
issues involved and issues with the Players' Association. But --
and I cannot say this strongly enough -- the idea that Reggie's
life was in danger if he did not submit to a drug test was never
emphasized. The issue of drugs was never presented strongly to us.
If it had been, we would've made certain that Reggie understood
it, and we would've made certain that he took the test.''

The Journal suggests that both before Lewis's death and afterward,
the Celtics ducked the issue of possible involvement by Lewis with
cocaine, not only for the sake of the team's image -- remember
that it was a Celtic first- round draft pick named Len Bias who,
only seven years before, had become the sports world's most famous
cocaine casualty -- but also for financial reasons. The Journal
says that in the summer of '93 the club's parent company, the
Boston Celtics Limited Partnership, was negotiating the sale to
Fox Television of an option to buy a TV station it owned;
according to the Journal, the team may have feared that ``a drug
scandal might have endangered the negotiations.'' Also, says the
Journal, the Celtics wanted to avoid a squabble over Harris
Lewis's and the team's ability to collect more than $15 million in
insurance. ``Any hint of drugs would have jeopardized the
Celtics's huge life-insurance policy on Mr. Lewis,'' writes
Suskind.

But Celtic officials insist the negotiations with Fox didn't
influence their thinking. The Celtics also say that Equitable
Cos., the lead insurer, had no drug exclusion in the life policy
it sold to the Celtics in 1991. Club officials say a finding of
drug use would have precluded payment of the millions only if
there had been proof of misrepresentations on the application for
insurance (i.e., if Lewis had said he was not a drug user when in
fact he was). Further, the Celtics say that if Lewis had been
proved after his death to have been a drug user, the Celtics' $10
million obligation to the Lewis estate from his contract would
have been voided. Volk says the team would have met the financial
obligation anyway, but as owner Paul Gaston puts it, ``If we were
the greedy bastards they say we are, we would have pursued the
possibility [that Lewis did drugs] aggressively and refused to pay
until it was proven drugs were not a factor.'' Officials at
Equitable would not comment.

Eventually the dream team reached the depressing conclusion that
Lewis had a life-threatening risk profile and would probably never
play again. It was on May 2, after the Lewises were informed of
that diagnosis by Scheller, that they left Baptist, literally
under cover of darkness, and checked into Brigham and Women's, a
prestigious teaching hospital less than a mile away. (Harris Lewis
formerly worked in the personnel department of that hospital.) The
Journal article suggests strongly that the move was made in
response to pressure for a drug test by doctors at Baptist. On
Sunday, Harris Lewis disputed that assertion and offered other
reasons for the switch.

``When Dr. Scheller gave us the diagnosis, we said, `Can we speak
to a cardiologist?' '' said Harris Lewis. ``It's not that we
distrusted Dr. Scheller or even the diagnosis, but we just wanted
another opinion. We felt shut off from the process. This was
overwhelming news for us. Also, Dr. Scheller handed us a press
release and said, `This is what we're sending out to the media.'
It all seemed so quick to us. We needed to digest it but weren't
given the time.''

All this will sound familiar to anyone who has dealt with doctors
and hospitals at times of stress. At the same time, the doctors,
from their perspective, had worked very promptly to administer a
battery of tests to Lewis and were confident in their diagnosis.
Was it a mistake for the Lewises to leave? Maybe. Were they upset
at repeated questions about drugs? Absolutely. Were they put off
by what seemed to them to be high-handed treatment by the dream
team? Certainly. But did the Lewises leave Baptist to escape a
drug test or because Reggie wanted to hide a history that included
drug use? The Journal's implication to that effect is not
supported by hard proof.

After a week of tests at Brigham, Dr. Gilbert Mudge, the
hospital's chief of clinical cardiology, convened a press
conference and announced, in the presence of a smiling Lewis and
his wife, a startling medical conclusion: Lewis suffered from a
relatively benign fainting condition called neurocardiogenic
syncope and would, in all probability, be back in a Celtic uniform
for the 1993-94 season. It seems amazing now, in hindsight, that
anyone would so readily accede to a diagnosis that was nearly 180
degrees from that of the dream team's. Harris Lewis says that she
and her husband were merely seeking a second opinion and, though
they appeared to endorse the Mudge diagnosis, did not embrace it
without reservation. As for the Celtics' position, Volk explains
it this way: ``You've got to understand that Brigham is a leading
teaching institution and Dr. Mudge is a highly respected
cardiologist. We weren't checking in at some health stop. Sure, we
wanted to believe there was hope. But that hope was coming from
respected people.''

Over the next few weeks, however, Mudge ran Lewis through tests
and, according to the Journal, eventually directed him to consult
a third team of specialists, in California. Lewis flew to Los
Angeles in June for tests. After the results came back, Mudge,
according to the Journal, reached a pessimistic conclusion. Lewis
apparently had both a damaged heart and a fainting condition that,
together, did indeed put his playing career in peril. The Journal
describes a meeting in mid-July between Mudge and Lewis in Lewis's
car during which the doctor told Lewis that ``cocaine is the only
thing that would explain what we're seeing.'' Harris Lewis says
that if such a conversation occurred, she was not told about it by
her husband. Mudge would not discuss the case with SI.

In the two weeks before his death, Lewis began shooting baskets on
his own. At about 5:15 p.m. on July 27, while engaged in a
nonstrenuous workout at Brandeis, he collapsed. Emergency medical
personnel took him to nearby Waltham-Weston Hospital, where he was
pronounced dead at 7:30 p.m.

The death certificate was not filed until Nov. 19, nearly four
months later. It listed the cause of death as adenovirus 2, a
virus that can be associated with the common cold as well as
more serious ailments. The certificate said that the virus had
led to inflammation of Lewis's heart, widespread scarring of
tissue and, ultimately, cardiac arrest. The Journal says that
the Lewis family pressured pathologists and Massachusetts deputy
medical examiner Stanton Kessler to omit any reference to
possible drug use from their postmortem findings and threatened
to sue if this wish wasn't granted. Both Harris Lewis and her
lawyers deny that such pressure was applied.

The Journal article quotes several doctors as ridiculing Kessler
for identifying that virus as the cause of death rather than
offering the more cautious conclusion that Lewis had a damaged
heart of unknown cause. Some of those doctors appear to believe
that cocaine had to be involved. But medical findings are not
always unanimous. Joseph Ornato, a clinical cardiologist in
Richmond, Va., who has published articles on cocaine-damaged
hearts, told SI he finds Kessler's opinion credible. ``It sounds
like what happens with a virus,'' Ornato said. ``It does not sound
like a series of exposures to cocaine.''

A dream-team member interviewed by SI also finds Kessler's
conclusions plausible. ``The autopsy was compatible with viral
cardiomyopathy,'' says Beth Israel's Josephson. ``That is
important. Evidence of cocaine use can last for months. I know
what the autopsy found, and it was not dissimilar to what happened
to Hank Gathers [the Loyola Marymount basketball star who
collapsed on a court and died in 1990]. Cocaine cardiomyopathy is
rare. The Wall Street Journal reporter called me up, and I told
him I didn't know how cocaine could be involved.'' Josephson was
not quoted in the Journal story. Paul Steiger, the Journal's
managing editor, says: ``We remain confident that the article was
fair and accurate.''

Lewis did have a family history of drug abuse; his mother, Inez
Ritch, has acknowledged being a recovering cocaine addict. But the
most ignored medical aspect of the Lewis case is his family
history of heart trouble. Lewis's brother, Jon, now 26, was born
with a hole in his heart and had open- heart surgery when he was
four years old. Ritch has suffered two heart attacks, the first
when she was a teenager. Lewis himself was born with a heart
murmur. ``We considered the family history of heart trouble
significant,'' says a dream-team doctor, who did not want to be
identified.

And finally, there is a glaring absence of anecdotal evidence that
Lewis was doing drugs. He was seldom if ever late for planes,
buses or practice. He had an even temperament. His quality of play
was going up and not, as often happens with cocaine users, down.
SI could find no one in the Celtic organization who, even
anonymously, would say they felt Lewis was a drug user. Like other
old friends of Lewis's, Denver Nugget forward Reggie Williams, his
high school teammate, says he never knew Lewis ``to even think
about drugs'' and that he ``wouldn't even drink a beer'' when they
went out together.

``I understand that drug use can be a factor in damaging one's
heart,'' said Harris Lewis. ``But there are other possibilities
too. And I know what my husband was about, and I know what I'm
about and what our life was about together. Reggie was a man who
stood on principles and a code of ethics. They meant something.''

And what will it mean on March 22 when Lewis's number is retired
at halftime of a home game against the Chicago Bulls? Amid
hometown boos, the Celtics, 24-37 at week's end, are limping
toward the finish line in this, their 48th and final season in the
Garden. A who's-in-charge-here atmosphere pervades the club, the
consequences of which were evident in the disastrous press
conference held in the wake of the Journal story. Gaston lost his
cool, accusing the Journal of being racist and threatening a $100
million lawsuit. CEO Dave Gavitt, who is leaving the Celtics to
become president of the NCAA Foundation, wasn't present at the
press conference.

But Donna Harris Lewis is determined that only good thoughts will
be on her mind when her husband's number 35 is raised to the
rafters. Can she say from the depths of her soul that Reggie never
used cocaine and that such use was not a contributing factor in
his death? Perhaps not. She is haunted by the memory of that
fateful week in July when she found out she was 10 weeks pregnant
with their second child (who turned out to be a girl she named
Reggiena) and then found out she was a widow. She also remembers
the last words Reggie ever said to her: ``Donna, I'm going to
shoot some ball.''

COLOR PHOTO:BARRY CHIN/THE BOSTON GLOBE Harris Lewis disputes the Journal's claim that her husband (collapsing, opposite) refused a drug test. [Harris Lewis] COLOR PHOTO:STEVE LIPOFSKY [see caption above--Reggie Lewis collapsing during game against the Charlotte Hornets] B/W PHOTO: [excerpt of story printed in The Wall Street Journal]COLOR PHOTO:EVAN RICHMAN/THE BOSTON GLOBEAfter the Lewises left Baptist (top), Mudge gave Reggie an optimistic prognosis, but two months after he and the doctor hugged, Reggie died in the gym (opposite) of causes that the death certificate (far right) may or may not have pinpointed. [Reggie Lewis getting into vehicle after leaving Baptist Hospital]TWO COLOR PHOTOS:FRANK O'BRIEN/THE BOSTON GLOBE [see caption above--Dr. Gilbert Mudge speaking in front ofchart; Dr. Gilbert Mudge embracing Reggie Lewis] COLOR PHOTO:WINSLOW TOWNSON/AP [see caption above--cameramen in the gym where Reggie Lewis died] B/W PHOTO: [see caption above--death certificate of Reggie Lewis] COLOR PHOTO:STEVE LIPOFSKYAfter Lewis collapsed, Scheller (above) offered a gloomy assessment; the player's subsequent death left the Celtic brass -- (below, from left) Volk, Ford and Gavitt -- in shock. [Arnold Scheller talking into microphones] COLOR PHOTO:SUSAN WALSH/AP [see caption above--Jan Volk, Chris Ford, and Dave Gavitt]TWO COLOR PHOTOS:DAMIAN STROHMEYER (2) Bereaved teammates (from left) Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish helped bear Lewis to his final resting place, but the controversy about his death has not yet been laid to rest.[Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish, and others carrying coffin of Reggie Lewis; grave of Reggie Lewis]

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