Lewis' last lesson painfully obvious

KEN ROSENTHAL

July 29, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

If his life was an inspiration, then let his death be a lesson, too. Reggie Lewis rose from the streets of East Baltimore to become captain of the world's most storied basketball team. It was a dizzying ascent, but it didn't make him invincible.

Maybe someday, we'll view our great athletes as human beings instead of immortal superheroes, and maybe then the athletes will admit to the same shortcomings as the rest of us.

The sad part is, Reggie Lewis seemed to grasp his own mortality from the beginning.

Still, he couldn't stop.

Not after he received a diagnosis of a life-threatening heart condition from a "Dream Team" of cardiologists assembled by the Boston Celtics. And certainly not after securing a dramatically different second opinion that cleared the way for his return to the NBA.

The average person asks, how could he take such a risk? The better question is, how could he not? The mind-set of an elite athlete is to confront every challenge. Superstars do not retire under doctors' orders. Superstars make heroic comebacks, for the good of the team and greater glory.

Sugar Ray Leonard fighting with a detached retina. Bo Jackson returning with an artificial hip. Magic Johnson wanting to compete with the AIDS virus. No one ever tells the superstars "no," not in high school, not in college, not in the pros. Why should they fear the impossible?

Lewis' problem, of course, was much more serious than most, but he found someone who told him it was not. A minor fainting disorder, Dr. Gilbert Mudge said. Well, Reggie could handle that. All he ever wanted to do was play basketball. Now he could lace 'em up again.

But did he truly believe he was healthy?

The night of his first collapse, in a playoff game last April 29, Lewis said, "Yeah, I was scared. I started having flashbacks to that Hank Gathers thing." More recently, his agent, Peter Roisman, said Lewis was "struggling internally" with his decision to return to the NBA.

Lewis, 27, did not participate in the Celtics' minicamp or a rookie/free-agent camp earlier this month, even though Mudge said he was fine. Maybe Lewis kept thinking of Gathers, the former Loyola Marymount star who collapsed on the court and died of heart failure on March 4, 1990.

Still, he couldn't stop.

Did Lewis grasp the danger? Yes. Should he have sought additional opinions? Of course. Could his death have been avoided? Absolutely. All that makes this tragedy even more difficult to accept. Something is profoundly wrong in a society where no one would step forward to tell Reggie Lewis, "No."

Doctors blow it, just like lawyers, writers and plumbers. But now Dr. Mudge must answer for a diagnosis that never appeared to make sense. And the Celtics must answer for a reversal that might free them of liability, but not of a guilty conscience.

Mudge based his findings in part on the results of a "tilt test," in which Lewis was strapped to a table that was suddenly raised to a vertical position. Critics view the test as unreliable, but Mudge never backed down, maintaining that Lewis was "doing fine" hours before his death.

"I have seen an awful lot of patients like this," said Dr. Philip Podrid of Boston University. "And I have never been that certain of a diagnosis without absolute proof, and they did not have absolute proof."

So, how could the Celtics embrace Mudge's diagnosis when it contradicted that of their own doctors? The question won't go away now that their franchise player has died of cardiac arrest.

Lewis' first set of doctors said he was suffering from cardiomyopathy, the same condition that killed Gathers. They said he should have received an implantable defibrillator -- a device that shocks the heart back to normal when it beats too fast -- and stopped playing basketball.

"No one can be sure, but I suspect that had he had an implanted defibrillator, he would probably be telling his physician this morning that he was shooting hoops and got a shock from this device," said Dr. Ferdinand Venditti, chief of cardiology at the Lahey Clinic outside Boston.

In other words, he wouldn't have been Reggie Lewis, superstar, but he would have lived. Lewis had a 10-month-old son, Reggie Jr. His wife, Donna, is pregnant with their second child. Of course, he loved basketball. But basketball is a part of life, not life itself.

Gathers wouldn't take his medicine. Lewis wouldn't accept his diagnosis. Same condition, same outcome. What happens to the next star athlete who learns he's suffering from cardiomyopathy? Would the evidence before him be enough?

Reggie Lewis had the evidence.

And still, he couldn't stop.

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