Reggie is gone, but whys won't leave so quickly

July 28, 1993|By Dan Shaughnessy | Dan Shaughnessy,Boston Globe

Reggie Lewis knew. The doctors and lawyers and self-serving Boston Celtics team officials hemmed and hawed about all of this, but from the very first moment, Lewis knew how serious this was. An hour or two after he collapsed on the parquet floor during a playoff game this spring, he told the Globe's Jackie MacMullan, "Yeah, I was scared. I started having flashbacks to that Hank Gathers thing."

Gathers, a college standout at the University of Loyola-Marymount, died of a heart arrhythmia in March 1990.

Last night, two months after he got a hand-delivered warning, Lewis died while playing basketball at the Brandeis University gym in Waltham, Mass.

Why?

Why did Reggie Lewis have to die? Was basketball that important? Did egos get in the way? Did legal exposure get in the way? Did the head-in-the-sand Celtics try too hard to stay out of bounds? Where was Teflon CEO Dave Gavitt during all of this? Was Lewis possibly involved in any kind of self-abuse?

On this terrible day, we have no answers, only questions.

This is an awful story. As local tragedies go, this is right up there with Harry Agganis, Tony Conigliaro and Len Bias. A young man in the prime of life, with a sculpted body and a level head, has been taken. We are left to ponder the awful questions.

Reggie Lewis wanted only to play basketball for a living, and somebody told him he could. A doctor, Gilbert Mudge, put expertise and ego on the line and risked the life of a person. The Celtics, shamelessly free of liability, gleefully embraced a positive diagnosis that flew in the face of a club-assembled "Dream Team" of cardiology. Suddenly, according to Dr. Mudge, Reggie Lewis was A-OK. The unconscionable Celtics high-fived the good news.

It was a couple of months ago, you might remember, when Dr. Mudge, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, defied a team of 12 prominent specialists and asserted that Lewis suffered from neurocardiogenic syncope, a nerve disorder that was treatable with medication.

Lewis went down April 29, during the Celtics' first game of the playoffs. He collapsed while running his lane against the Charlotte Hornets. He never played again and the Celtics exited the playoffs in four quick games.

Lewis was checked into New England Baptist Hospital (the official Celtics hospital); his tests were examined by 11 heart specialists, who concluded that he had a life-threatening heart condition. Lewis, under the cover of darkness, checked himself out of the hospital and went to Brigham and Women's.

There he found Mudge, the smartest man in the universe. Mudge told everybody that he had the answer. He found a different malady. No big deal. And the spineless, litigation-conscious Celtics embraced every hopeful word.

Celtics lawyers, according to a team source quoted in an earlier Globe story, had advised the team that the night Lewis switched hospitals and doctors, he assumed liability for his condition. For the team to comment on his condition or doubt any diagnosis could only force it to accept additional future liability.

Yesterday, Lewis died after collapsing while shooting baskets.

Remember that scene of Gavitt hugging Reggie on the day that Mudge told the world Reggie was OK? Didn't it make you wonder about the vaunted "Dream Team"?

We are not naive. We know that medical diagnosis is an imprecise science. But a famous basketball player gets different treatment than you and me. Reggie Lewis was told that he was OK to play.

As recently as July 12, Mudge said, "We're not backing off from anything. I would not change one word. He is progressing along perfectly and he is right where he should be. When he starts playing, we suspect he will be fine. From my point of view, he could not be better."

At the same time, when Mudge was asked about the possibility of a courtside defibrillator, he said, "No comment."

No comment.

If this was a sensitive issue, why then, was there no medical presence when Lewis worked out yesterday at Brandeis? Mudge told us that Lewis had a normal, healthy heart. How could this man die of cardiac arrest after he was assured that he did not have a heart problem? It is outrageous. And Reggie Lewis is dead.

Lewis died while doing what he loves, what he's been doing since he was a small boy. He was shooting baskets.

This death could have been prevented. But Reggie Lewis played basketball for a living and somebody told him it was OK to keep on playing.

What is going on? A life was risked for no reason. Why didn't the Celtics say something? Why didn't the infuriatingly smug Mudge insist on a third opinion? Nobody had the guts to say, "No."

Reggie Lewis is dead. It is a tragedy. And it didn't have to happen.

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