Lewis, Dunbar's 6th man, emerges from shadows as pro


January 12, 1991|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK -- The first two dunks executed by the lithe Boston Celtic with the bulging deltoids are emphatic and eye-catching, if not spectacular. But just wait, Michael Jordan, you haven't seen anything yet.

Suddenly, the basketball world is turned topsy-turvy, like Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling. Only this is more breathtaking. The basketball player, equipped with his special Reeboks, is literally flying head down as he slams the ball through the bottom of the net in a reverse jam. Strutting off the court, he says pointedly, "That's Reggie . . . Lewis."

Said Lewis' agent, Jerome Stanley, who secured the Reebok commercial and a five-year contract extension with the Celtics worth $16.5 million with 40 percent of the money deferred over 15 years, "Brian Shaw is the straw that stirs the Celtic drink. Larry Bird is the glass that holds them together, but Reggie is the ice that keeps them cool."

No more identity crisis for the once painfully thin Baltimorean who was the obscure sixth man on Dunbar High's 1982 mythical high school championship team. A gawky kid with an ugly jump shot, he caddied for the likes of Reggie Williams, David Wingate and Muggsy Bogues.

"Reggie could play, but he just wasn't aggressive in high school," said Bogues, the starting point guard for the Charlotte Hornets.

But Lewis, his financial future now secure, has left tread marks on his former Dunbar teammates while screeching front and center.

Williams, traded or waived three times in little over a year, recently took a substantial salary cut to join the struggling Denver Nuggets. Wingate was released by the San Antonio Spurs this summer after being indicted on two rape charges, and Bogues lasted only one season in Washington before he was dunked into the 1988 expansion pool.

"They all had bigger reputations than me in high school and then played for high-profile college programs," said Lewis. "But that only made me work that

much harder to make a name for myself."

He was still just "another Reggie" while shattering all the records at Northeastern University, a suburban Boston school known more for its five-year work-study program than its basketball prowess.

The Celtics would make him their first-round pick -- the 22nd player selected in the 1987 National Basketball Association draft -- long after Williams and Bogues had been spoken for. And Lewis would remain in the shadows as a lightly played rookie, in awe of celebrated Celtics superstars Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

"I was just happy to be part of a great team, but it was hard not to get down riding the bench all that time," said Lewis, victimized by an unwritten Celtics rule that rookies should be heard, but not seen on the hallowed parquet floor.

"I felt I could have contributed, but guys like Dennis Johnson and Larry kept telling me, 'Wait your turn; it will come.' "

Ironically, it was Bird's misfortune -- surgery on both his heels that sidelined him almost the entire 1988-89 season -- that finally gave Lewis his chance.

"It was a bad time for Larry, but a blessing for me," he said. "No telling what might have happened otherwise. I could still be waiting my turn.

"Replacing Larry as the starting forward gave me the opportunity to make mistakes and not worry about trying to do everything at once to impress the coach. I could relax and play my game."

Lewis became an fan favorite his second pro season, slashing to the basket and averaging 18.5 points a game. But he came of age the night of Dec. 6, 1989, going against Jordan and scoring 33 points, with six rebounds and four assists. He knew he belonged.

With confidence came a new maturity and self-perception. The naive, almost shy "boy-next-door" had grown into a high-scoring professional, capable of burning the opposition at either small forward or shooting guard.

As his recognition grew, so did his awareness that basketball was a business with few loyalties, even on a tradition-rich team like the Celtics, where the alumni celebrate all the championship banners hanging from the Boston Garden rafters.

"I saw how things worked when they traded Danny Ainge and released Dennis Johnson," Lewis said. "And then there was that business with Brian Shaw last year," he added, referring to the close friend who opted to play in Italy when the Celtics would not renegotiate his contract.

Lewis felt that he was also being taken for granted after another solid season last winter in which he averaged 17 points and improved his defense and passing.

"I don't speak out a lot, and some people view that as a sign of weakness," he said. "They thought I was the type who just went with the flow. It was time people started taking me seriously. I'm much better now in taking care of myself and business."

Lewis took his first decisive step in dropping ProServ, Inc., as his representative in favor of Stanley, who got Shaw a sizable raise after he returned from Italy.

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