Reginald Lewis a name to recall beyond the gym

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 24, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

We needed someone with a briefcase in the high school gymnasiums last week. We needed someone in a handsome business suit, with a bankroll in his pocket and photographs in his hands, to tell all the athletes to put away their sneakers for a moment.

And then we needed him to hold up the photographs and tell everybody the difference between Reggie Lewis and Reginald Lewis.

Reggie Lewis, the ballplayers know and revere. Good for him: Reggie Lewis played basketball at Dunbar High School once, and now he plays for the Boston Celtics and averages 20.5 points a game and maybe a million dollars a year.

Reginald Lewis, who's he? To those who followed prep sports around here in the late '50s, he was the intense kid who played for Dunbar High's basketball and football and baseball teams and then disappeared from the sports pages, which some think is the same as disappearing from the human race.

And this is why we needed someone in a tailored suit in the high school gyms last week, somebody with a business background and a sense of perspective and a few dollars in his pockets, who could tell these kids that life does not begin and end on the basketball court.

Grant Reggie Lewis his 20 points a game and his million bucks a year. Applause, applause. But let the kids know there once was a Reginald Lewis out of Dunbar High, a kid from a modest background and walls placed in front of him long ago because of the color of his skin.

And let them know that, when he died last week, he had $400 million to his name, which he earned by a method that does not always occur to high school jocks: He discovered there was a world outside the gymnasium.

''I know, I know,'' Pete Pompey was saying at week's end. ''These kids get a basketball in their hands, and they have stars in their eyes.''

Pompey has a sense of perspective about the Lewises, Reggie and Reginald, and about the real world. He coaches Dunbar's basketball team now, and, years ago when he played ball at Douglass High, he competed against Reginald Lewis.

How many of your players, Pompey was asked, know who Reggie Lewis the basketball player is?

''All 13 would know,'' he said.

And Reginald Lewis?

''Well,'' he said, ''they know now.''

They know now, because the newspapers carried stories last week about Reginald Lewis overcoming the odds in his life and making it big. They know now, because Pete Pompey made certain they knew. But it begs the larger issue.

''Kids with stars in their eyes,'' Pompey said again. ''Particularly black kids. The image has been set out there that basketball's a way out of their trouble. They see it on TV every day, and they read the sports pages. They get brainwashed. But they don't hear enough about the ones like Reginald Lewis.''

Sometimes it breaks your heart: all these kids banking on the long-shot athletic career, and wandering away from the gyms without a backup plan. All those hours spent perfecting their game on the playgrounds, draining away the time that might have been spent on books.

It's one of the cruelest hoaxes of modern sports, this notion fed to millions of kids that if they exercise their bodies enough they can become the next Reggie Lewis, while they put their brains on a shelf and never consider the possibilities of a Reginald Lewis.

''It's the difference between reading Sports Illustrated and Forbes,'' Pete Pompey said.

At Dunbar last week, the kids were going through midterm exams and fitting in basketball practice where they could. Pompey said he'd asked Reginald Lewis to come down from New York to talk with his ballplayers about life after the games have ended. But now those plans are gone.

Lewis died last week, of a cerebral hemorrhage, after fighting brain cancer. He was 50. A ferocious high school athlete, he could have been one of those who banked everything on his body and come up short. But he invested in his mind.

He was a lawyer, a financier and a philanthropist. A business memo notes that his food company, TLC Beatrice International, had 1991 sales of $1.54 billion and net income from continuing sales of $51.4 million. Forbes Magazine called him one of the 400 richest people in America.

''He was always a serious guy,'' said Pete Pompey, who'd stayed in touch with him through the years. ''Even as a teen-ager, he was no-nonsense. He had that intensity. And that's what I wanted him to tell my kids, how making it professionally is this unbelievable long shot.

''You know, they all think they're gonna be in that 1 percent that makes it. It's good to shoot for the stars, but we've got to tell them to prepare themselves to do something else.''

To tell them: It's wonderful to be Reggie Lewis.

But it's also possible to be Reginald Lewis.

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