Celtics' Lewis dies after court collapse Dunbar grad, 27, had heart ailment

July 28, 1993|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

Former Dunbar High School star Reggie Lewis died last night after collapsing for the second time in three months while playing basketball, following warnings from a team of doctors that continuing to play could threaten his life.

Mr. Lewis, 27, the captain and leading scorer of the NBA's Boston Celtics last season, stopped breathing while shooting baskets at the team's practice facility at Brandeis University at Waltham, Mass., around 5 p.m. yesterday.

Amir Weiss, who was at the Brandeis gym, said Lewis "wasn't doing anything too strenuous. When I looked over, Reggie was on the floor. We went over to look at him and he was gasping for air."

Mr. Weiss said Mr. Lewis was limp and shaking and, "all of a sudden he just stopped breathing. He never made another sound."

Mr. Lewis had no pulse, but was revived by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR and rushed to Waltham-Weston Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:30 p.m.

After he collapsed in a playoff game April 29, a team of 11 cardiologists told him that he suffered from a severe form of heart disease that would endanger his life if he resumed his basketball career.

Later, a second set of doctors concluded that he suffered from a comparatively benign neural condition that could be successfully treated with drugs, allowing him to resume his athletic career.

Bob Wade, Mr. Lewis' coach at Dunbar, spoke in quiet tones of his former player.

"I'm just devastated," Mr. Wade said. "He was taking it real slow and under doctors' care. I was part of his formative years."

Wes Unseld, head coach of the Washington Bullets, said: "I just think it's a shock. It's really sad to hear this. Reggie was exemplary in every aspect."

Mr. Lewis' return to basketball after he collapsed midway through the first period of the first game of the Celtics' opening-round playoff series against the Charlotte Hornets April 29 was the subject of considerable discussion in Boston and in NBA circles.

Mr. Lewis, a 6-foot-7 guard/forward who made the All-Star team in 1992, fell near the free throw line after Robert Parish hit a dunk with 6:36 left in the first quarter. Mr. Lewis sat on the court as play continued for 10 seconds.

Three minutes later, Mr. Lewis was sent back into the game, but he stayed just more than a minute before coming out.

He tried to play again in the second half but came out for good when he became dizzy midway through the third quarter.

Immediately after that game, Celtics team physician Dr. Arnold Scheller said he thought Lewis was suffering from either hyperventilation or low glucose, adding that an examination conducted after the game showed "no neurological signs or cardiac signs."

But on May 3, after three days of tests at New England Baptist Hospital, Mr. Lewis' collapse was attributed to cardiomyopathy, a potentially life-threatening heart ailment, by Dr. Scheller.

"This is a serious problem," Dr. Scheller said that day.

"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."

Dr. Scheller said a team of cardiologists and electrophysiologists examined Lewis at New England Baptist Hospital, and their final diagnosis was "uniform."

Mr. Lewis, however, checked out of New England Baptist soon after hearing that diagnosis and sought another opinion.

Later, Mr. Lewis said that he and his wife, Donna Harris Lewis, took issue with the team for releasing information to the public about his condition before he had a chance to get a second opinion.

He also criticized the club for preventing him and his wife from attending a meeting May 2 at New England Baptist Hospital in which specialists gathered to diagnose his condition.

On May 10, Dr. Gilbert Mudge at Brigham and Women's Hospital announced that doctors there had concluded that Mr. Lewis had a nerve condition, neurocardiogenic syncope, that confuses the signals telling the heart whether to speed up or slow down.

Dr. Mudge said that Mr. Lewis has a "normal athlete's heart" and could play basketball again.

"I am optimistic that under medical supervision, Mr. Reggie Lewis will be able to return to professional basketball without limitation," Dr. Mudge said that day.

Since the Brigham and Women's diagnosis, Mr. Lewis had been working out on his own, according to Dr. Mudge. Mr. Lewis did not participate in any supervised basketball game or scrimmage after the collapse.

On June 16, Celtics executive vice president Dave Gavitt told reporters it was "very likely" that Mr. Lewis would participate in some form of structured drill or workout at either a minicamp run by former teammate Larry Bird during the week of July 4, or the team's rookie/free-agent camp the week of July 11.

But Mr. Lewis did not participate in either.

As recently as last week, Mr. Lewis, who averaged 20.8 points per game last year, was preparing to play for the Celtics this season.

Mr. Gavitt said he had been told that Lewis would be ready to play for training camp Oct. 8 and was working out.

"The doctor feels [Lewis] is fine, and Reggie feels he's fine," Mr. Gavitt told the Hartford Courant last week.

Mr. Lewis first rose to basketball prominence as a member of the 1983 Dunbar team that claimed the mythical national championship, filling the role of sixth man.

Mr. Lewis and his Dunbar teammates Muggsy Bogues of the Charlotte Hornets and Reggie Williams of the Denver Nuggets were selected in the first round of the 1987 NBA draft, in what is believed to be the first time in league history that three players from the same high school were taken in the first round of the same draft.

Mr. Lewis leaves a wife, Donna Harris-Lewis, who is pregnant, and a son, Reggie Jr., who will be 1 year old next month.

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