Senselessness of playing on is the real tragedy of Lewis' death REGGIE LEWIS: 1965-1993

Phil Jackman

July 29, 1993|By Phil Jackman

It's easy to remember the immediate reaction when word came down that Reggie Lewis had collapsed and died while shooting baskets at Brandeis University outside Boston: pity. Age 27 is much too young to go.

Then shock took over. Not shock that such a young person was susceptible to cardiac arrest; after all, there was that three-alarm warning three months ago when Lewis went down during an NBA playoff game. Shock in the form of the question: Why was he playing basketball?

Next came something almost approaching fury. How senseless that this had happened, particularly when so many people apparently had the opportunity to stop it, including the man himself.

Nobody wants something they love to do taken away from them, especially when it ends up being his livelihood. But this was no sprained ankle Lewis suffered the night of April 29 when, for no apparent reason, he melted into the Boston Garden hardwood.

At the time, Reggie said, "Yeah, I was scared." And his mind certainly wasn't put at ease when no fewer than 11 cardiologists came to the conclusion that the player was saddled with a "life-threatening heart condition."

Youth being what it is, impetuous, Reggie sought a second opinion, and he got it from a doctor at a hospital other than that officially designated as the Celtics' hospital. In law it's known as the homecourt advantage.

Armed with the diagnosis that his problem was "only" a nerve disorder, Reggie was in the process of coming back slowly and under the supervision of a doctor. Slowly? Just a couple of months after passing out and having 11 specialists decree that he had a serious heart condition?

Then there's the question of the second opinion offered by Dr. Gilbert Mudge. His was a singular opinion going against those of 11 colleagues. Math dictates that to ease his mind Reggie Lewis should have sought out at least 10 other specialists who agreed with Mudge, and then the score would only have been tied.

At the same time, it certainly would have been in the best interest of all concerned if Reggie had undergone tests prescribed by Boston's team physician and the battery of cardiologists who had tendered the original diagnosis. No doubt he would have been required to pass the team physical prior to training camp and the continuance of his sparkling career anyway.

The Celtics haven't showered themselves with glory in the handling of the Lewis situation, never really taking command while giving the impression that they might be willing to go along with the favorable diagnosis of Reggie's problem being a "minor fainting" malady.

Theirs was a hope that Lewis would turn out to be OK and he could resume playing. Still, if the player himself was willing to gamble, they should have been the ones throwing up the caution signs and insisting upon a more definitive assessment of his true condition (if possible).

If Lewis had collapsed while walking in the park, shopping or doing anything else we all do daily, this story would have been just as tragic but slightly more acceptable. The fact he was taking part in a leisurely shoot-around suggests his early demise was inevitable and that his placing faith in Mudge's findings was foolhardy.

If there had been no Hank Gathers, maybe this would have qualified as "a terrible tragedy," as Boston's legendary coach Red Auerbach described it. But Reggie knew well the story of Gathers, the West Coast collegian who collapsed similarly and later died of a heart arrhythmia during a game.

Some have suggested the players loved the game so much they were willing to run any risk to keep playing. In reality, all such a theory indicates is that they didn't begin to appreciate what life is really about.

Even if ultimately he could have resumed playing, it wasn't worth the gamble for Reggie Lewis. He had a glorious career as a schoolboy champion at Dunbar High School, as a star at Northeastern University and as an All-Star, captain and scoring leader of the Celtics. That career came to 12 years and, in hindsight, it seemed to be a good time to move on and utilize the education he had gained along the way.

Too bad more people didn't read it the same way.

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