East Baltimore mourns a role model who 'never forgot his roots' REGGIE LEWIS: 1965-1993

July 29, 1993|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

For the longest time yesterday, Reggie Lewis' basketball court behind Collington Square Elementary School in East Baltimore sat empty.

Lewis had the court resurfaced last year and added six new backboards and rims, making it a popular site for pickup games. But it remained silent through most of the day.

"I guess you could say they're in mourning," said Gregory Eggleston, a passer-by.

Finally, around 5 p.m., a group of seven boys marched onto the court and unconsciously paid tribute to Lewis by doing precisely what he would have done -- play basketball.

And they played without fanfare, just as Lewis, who collapsed Tuesday while shooting baskets at a suburban Boston gym, always had.

"He was a great basketball player," said Wilbur Forrester, 14, an eighth-grader at Herring Run Middle School. "And I'm glad he fixed up this court. It was dirty with a lot of glass all over it."

Across a wide swath of Lewis' native East Baltimore yesterday, people who either knew him well or hardly knew him at all paid tribute to his giving nature and his dedication to the game he loved.

Anthony Lewis, who was not related to the 6-foot-7 Boston Celtics swingman, was his coach and mentor at the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center.

"Reggie was a true role model, in every sense of the word," said Anthony Lewis. "He never forgot where he came from. He never forgot his roots. He remembered the city. He remembered where he lived and where he grew up and he always took time to do the little things. You don't see professional athletes and people of superstar status do that."

At Dunbar High, where Lewis was sixth man on the 1982-83 Poets team that won the mythical national championship, Penelope Martin, a former classmate and current music teacher at her alma mater, remembered his passion for basketball.

"I saw one of the pictures in the paper this morning from when he passed out in April and there was a look of disgust on his face," said Martin, 26, referring to the April 29 game in which Lewis collapsed. One team of doctors diagnosed him with a heart ailment and recommended he quit the sport.

"To know that someone really loved basketball that much, that they would continue to strive after hearing that says a lot," Martin said.

William Wells, boys basketball coach at St. Frances-Charles Hall and director at the Madison Square Community Center, said: "I was pretty proud of him, because he was one of the kids who was everything you could ask of a kid. . . . Baltimore has lost a black role model. There's some guys out there that will make sure that he'll never be forgotten, but I'd like to see somebody present a memorial in his honor and keep his legacy going."

Perhaps the greatest vacuum left by Lewis' death was at Cecil-Kirk, where Lewis and his friends won a national AAU championship, just as the current 19-and-under group did earlier this month.

Trophies and photos of Lewis fill a room at the center and inspire Terrance Payne, a 6-6 senior center at Lake Clifton.

"When you see stuff like that, you fantasize," Payne said. "When you're really little, you know it's hard to get to the NBA. But when you see somebody do it the way he did, it kind of brings it into reality."

The reality of Lewis' sudden death Tuesday raised the question: Is a game, any game, worth risking one's life?

Anthony Lewis said Reggie Lewis had spoken with him Monday and was planning to resume his career after assurances from a second set of doctors that he could play.

"He honestly and truly believed that he was OK," Anthony Lewis said. "That's what he expressed. 'I'm doing fine. I'm doing well. Tell the guys I said hello and congratulations on their recent championship and I'll see you soon.' "

"There was nothing that vaguely suggested that he was jeopardizing himself, his family or anything else. If he had any inkling, a tiny inkling, he wouldn't have done it."

But how easy is it to leave something that inspires such passion? The players Reggie Lewis has left behind at Cecil-Kirk are left to wonder.

"If you're a true ballplayer, you have a great love for the game and you don't want to stop playing," Payne said. "But when your life is on the line, that's a really hard decision to make. I think I would try to stop, but I don't know if I could."

"I would play too," said Anthony Tyrell, 18, a senior guard at Walbrook High. "It's a game and you have to take it to heart. He took it to heart. People might say that's wrong, but he made his own decision and he wanted to play ball. That was his dream and he was living his dream. Why end it now? If he ended his dream, let him end it the way he wanted to."

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