Lewis, Celtics get the bad news: Heart ailment is 'life-threatening'

May 04, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Reggie Lewis, the Dunbar High School sixth man who became an NBA All-Star with the Boston Celtics, has a cardiomyopathy, a potentially "life-threatening" heart ailment that likely will end his career, according to Celtics' team doctor Arnold Scheller.

"This is a serious problem," Scheller said last night in Charlotte, N.C. "We want to think and figure it out. You have to understand, Reggie is dealing with being told that he has a major medical problem and the potential loss of his career. What happens when you learn of a loss is you go through denial, anger, and you gradually learn to accept it. Now, he is in the process of getting second opinions."

Lewis, 27, collapsed in the first quarter of last Thursday's playoff game between the Celtics and Charlotte Hornets. Scheller said the collapse was caused by a ventricular tachycardia -- a fast, ineffective heart rate -- and "that's a dangerous condition."

A team of 12 cardiologists and electrophysiologists examined Lewis at New England Baptist Hospital, and their final diagnosis was "uniform," according to Scheller.

Lewis checked out of New England Baptist Hospital late Sunday night and continued another series of tests yesterday at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.

He could not be reached for comment.

But the worst fears of the Celtics were realized when it was disclosed that Lewis has a cardiomyopathy. That's the same ailment that Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers had when he collapsed during a game and died less than two hours later, March 4, 1990. Many of those who examined Lewis were familiar with the Gathers case, according to Scheller.

"It's similar to Gathers," Scheller said. "It's the same kind of problem. That's the ultimate severity."

Asked if Lewis could resume his career, Scheller said, "We've only gotten to the stage where we've figured out what it is."

Dr. Stephen Gottlieb, director of the University of Maryland's Cardiac Care Unit, said a cardiomyopathy can strike a patient in two forms.

"One is dilated cardiomyopathy in which the heart is enlarged and doesn't pump as well," he said. "The other is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. That is when the heart is thickened. In the history of sports, most of the cases are hypertrophic."

Gottlieb said patients with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can faint because of either a rapid heart rate or thickening in the heart muscle at the point where the blood leaves the heart and passes into the aorta.

Gottlieb said the condition can be regulated with medication.

He cautioned that "even if you give medicine it is difficult to know if the medicine is working if you're giving it based on one episode of symptoms."

Terry Cummings of the San Antonio Spurs has played 11 NBA seasons despite an irregularity in the rhythm of his heart, which he controls with medication. It's a condition far less severe than cardiomyopathy.

"I have a feeling I know what Reggie is going through," Cummings said in a statement released by the Spurs. "The good thing about it is that he is young and if he takes care of himself he'll get over it and hopefully continue his career. A lot of it is stress-related. You're under a lot of pressure and sometimes you don't have the proper diet, which contributes to this. If he takes the proper medication with which he is comfortable, then he should be able to play again. It's knowing your body and knowing what you can and can't do."

From a playground at Collington Square in East Baltimore to the Boston Garden, Lewis has fashioned a game built on a fine shooting touch and relentless defense.

He couldn't crack the starting lineup during his senior year at Dunbar in 1982-1983, filling the role as sixth man as the school won a national championship. But in four years at Northeastern University in Boston, he became a feared scorer and was selected 22nd by the Celtics in the first round of the 1987 draft.

This year, he earned the team's ultimate honor when he succeeded Larry Bird as the Celtics' captain.

"Reggie has come a long way," said Lewis' high school coach, Bob Wade. "If his career is over, it would hurt. But he has made his mark in a short period of time. He still has a lot to look forward to in the future."

His friends and teammates were shocked by the news.

"It's devastating," said Tyrone Bogues, the Hornets' point guard who played with Lewis at Dunbar.

"Me and Reg started our career off at the same place in the same city at the same time," he said. "We went to high school together. We shared childhood together. Then, we went our separate ways. And he takes his game to the highest level he can possibly take it to. . . . It's the best time of his career and his life, with marriage and his kids going well, too. And then he gets hit with something like this."

Celtics forward Alaa Abdelnaby said, "What it makes you do is get scared. You pray for the best and hope it never ever happens again."

Celtics' officials defended their actions after Lewis' collapse midway through the first quarter of last Thursday's game. Believing he had suffered a blow to the head, Lewis was twice sent back into the game, but left for good after complaining of dizziness during the second half.

"We were lucky," Celtics CEO Dave Gavitt said. "We were all lucky. Reggie was lucky primarily. Now that we know what the tests turned up, we all need to say our prayers."

Mack Lewis, a veteran Baltimore fight trainer and Reggie's uncle, said his nephew can make a life for himself without basketball.

"I boxed in the Army, had two busted eardrums and was told I could never compete again and that I had to let it go," he said. "I decided to see if I could help some other kids. I've done it 40-some years. If Reggie can't play, I would hope he would get a job as a coach. I know he loves the game. I'd like to see him help some kids."

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