There's blame enough to go around

July 29, 1993|By Tim Layden | Tim Layden,Newsday

Reggie Lewis is dead and so we search for blame. Twenty-seven years old, with an all-star career in full bloom, a family that included a son named Reggie Jr. It's much too soon to die, for a man much too strong. It must be somebody's fault.

The doctor? A Boston cardiologist by the name of Gilbert Mudge disagreed with a dozen others who said that Lewis had heart disease. Not at all, he said last spring. Lewis has a nerve disorder named neurocardiogenic syncope, which he called a "poorly understood condition." He can play, said Gilbert Mudge, who will not win a Nobel Prize this year.

The team? The Boston Celtics were struggling with this decision. They were struggling when Lewis fell face-first on the parquet floor of the Boston Garden in a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets. They apparently still had not decided what to do.

Reggie Lewis himself? Died for the love of a game? Please. Don't drop this one in Lewis' lap just for the sake of a quick solution with a romantic feel. It's so much more complicated than that. Maybe for Lewis basketball was once a game of a ball and a basket. Maybe when he was a little kid in Baltimore.

But the sport that Lewis was playing late Tuesday afternoon at Brandeis University is much more than a simple game. It's part of a growth industry -- basketball, football, baseball . . . all of them -- that takes hold of people and tells them that the normal rules don't apply. In Reggie Lewis' case, the rule was that when 12 doctors study you and tell you that you have heart disease and playing basketball could kill you, you don't play basketball anymore.

Everybody who has helped make American sport into an outsized garden of dreams and privilege is to blame for the death of Reggie Lewis. That's you and me, to start with. That's recruiters, coaches, general managers, television, advertising. . .

It takes no great genius to understand that sports are wildly out of proportion to society. You see it in huge salaries, you see it in mammoth television contracts. You accept it in the name of escapism. Who cares how much money Doc Rivers makes as long as he entertains you?

But sports have done something else, something to athletes themselves and from a very young age. It has charged them with a sense of urgency -- desperation, even -- and with the notion that because they play games, they are special and different. And that the games themselves are important.

"These kids who play sports now, professional sports or Division I college, they're totally invested, 100 percent straight ahead," said Dr. Barry Maron, a cardiologist and expert on athletes and heart disease at the Heart Institute in Minneapolis. "They've been told their whole life that they're elite . . . and that extends to the medical arena. They lose clarity. The whole thing gets screwed up."

Hank Gathers, until Tuesday the poster child for heart disease and athletes, couldn't give up basketball because an NBA contract was going to lift his family from a Philadelphia ghetto and because he was just too strong to die. He never understood that he had worth beyond basketball or that the body, even his body, is a very fragile thing.

Monty Williams plays basketball for Notre Dame. He played one year and then was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, form of heart disease. He never fainted in a game, never even felt symptoms. But doctors told him not to play because he was at risk. Like Reggie Lewis, he found other doctors, who cited "new research," (this was disputed) and was cleared to play last season. Dr. Lameh Fananapazir, the doctor who allowed Williams to resume his career, said that Williams was part of an ongoing study. Notre Dame made him and his mother sign waivers, in the event that he should fall and die, like Gathers.

Stephen Larkin, Barry's younger brother, is the starting left fielder for the University of Texas. Like Williams, he had to fight to play after being diagnosed with a form of heart disease. Larkin had two fainting episodes while playing high school football. "Serious heart disease," said Maron, who examined Larkin and recommended he not play anything. "You watch. He's the next one."

The system at all levels fosters the belief that anything can be accomplished through hard work. That anything can be overcome. Athletes who succeed are ordained as superheroes, in commercials, in videotapes. People pay millions of dollars a year to wear replicas of their uniforms. Think about it. Sports. It's crazy.

Reggie Lewis was a product of that system, a good -- not great -- high school player who became a star at Northeastern and then ascended to the elite level of the NBA. He was an example of what can be achieved through hard work. And then he fell to the floor last April, holding his chest. He looked for somebody to tell him yes when he needed to hear no.

But athletes almost never hear no. And when they do, they've been conditioned not to believe it. We all share in the blame for making them so large and so vulnerable.

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