Lewis begins most important game of his life

John Steadman

May 05, 1993|By John Steadman

It's difficult to comprephend, to rationalize, but another aspect of life is just beginning for Reggie Lewis. He's probably going to be forced to find a different line of work although it's not of his volition to stop playing basketball, which has been so rewarding in pleasure and profit.

The collective recommendation from some of the most renowned doctors of cardiology in the country is that he not try to play again. A heart problem, which had him gasping for breath in a Boston Celtics' playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets, has been diagnosed as serious enough to have him retire.

There's no intelligent reason, based on the evidence from examinations at New England Baptist Hospital, that he subject himself to further complications. But it is understandable why Lewis and his wife would seek a "second opinion," which explains why they transferred to Boston's Brigham & Women's Hospital.

The same stunned reaction comes to most of us when physical findings aren't what we hope to hear. In the Lewis case, there's hardly an alternative. When a tribunal of experts, a jury of 12 specializing in the field of coronary care, agrees it would not be in his best health interests to return to basketball, there's a compelling reason to listen.

A heart irregularity isn't to be correlated to a pulled calf muscle or a sprained ankle. A visit to the training room or a treatment in the whirlpool isn't going to alleviate the severity of the condition.

There's profound compassion for Lewis and this is at it should be. It's a devastating setback to be taken away from something that came so naturally to him as basketball, a sport he played with a true professional degree of excellence.

The collapse came without warning. Lewis didn't anticipate such disturbing news. The disease wasn't of his making. He didn't ingest cocaine or put himself in a position where he might contract AIDs.

Heart problems are a general human condition most of us can relate to because of what might have happened to a family member, business associate or the next-door neighbor.

Whether the heart ailment is congenital or work-related hasn't been determined. The stress of the pace in any basketball game pushes the heart to its maximum work load. Certainly, in the NBA, the almost non-stop demands exact a price that makes you wonder why more players aren't similary troubled.

From Baltimore's Dunbar High School to Northeastern University and then the Celtics as a first-round draft choice, the 27-year-old all-star performer created a reputation of being considerate of others and not filled up with his own importance.

The Celtics and the NBA are aware Lewis could have suffered even more extensive heart damage had he tried to continue to play after twice leaving the game because of discomfort and then, after halftime intermission, taking the floor a third time for the second half.

Reports from courtside, after he fell initially and appeared disoriented, indicated the situation had been caused by a blow to the head. Dr. Arnold Scheller, the Celtics' physician, now explains Lewis' condition as a fast, ineffective heart rate. The medical findings refer to it as "ventricular tachycardia," which doctors say is "life-threatening."

Lewis' former high school coach, Bob Wade, was shocked at the development. But he put the difficult news in human perspective, away from points scored, rebounds or assists. "If his career is over, it would hurt," Wade said. "But he has made his mark in a short period of time [six years in the NBA]. He still has a lot to look forward to in the future."

Whether medication can control the trouble hasn't been determined. If it can, Lewis will play again. But the Celtics and the NBA may not want to take such a chance for obvious reasons. If Lewis can't pass a physical examination, he can hardly be expected to resume what was shaping into a superb career.

Basketball is his calling. From this moment on, though, it doesn't mean he has to play. Scouting, public relations and even coaching, if approved by doctors, would be a way to continue a productive life-style. But the Celtics and the NBA are going to be reluctant to go against firm medical advice and permit him to play after the alarming diagnosis.

Rather he walk away prematurely than jeopardize his life.

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