Lewis' death allows tough town to cry Fallen warrior shattered barriers


August 03, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

BOSTON -- It figures that this city, which takes sports so seriously, would take the death of Reggie Lewis so hard.

Not that the pain is felt exclusively here, where he played college and professional basketball and captained the sacred Celtics. I haven't been in Baltimore for 10 days now, but I'm sure Lewis' hometown must be grieving, too.

There's something about his life and death that transcends every barrier, even the racial one, and it's this: We like our heroes as big as we can get them, and we need their journeys to be complete.

When the odyssey ends early because the hero dies young, the pain doubles. It's not merely the hero we lose, but the exquisite myth he created. I call these "true myths"; they appear with just enough frequency to make us believe they are the norm.

Consider, for example, three true myths from Maryland.

There was the farm boy, Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, who could hit a baseball a country mile with arms made strong pitching hay on the Eastern Shore. He easily could have been the model for slugger Roy Hobbs, Bernard Malamud's "The Natural."

And there's the true myth of the troubled city brat who, under the disciplining hand of a mentor, gets on track and funnels all his athletic skills into baseball, becoming the most famous man on earth in his time. That was Baltimore-born Babe Ruth.

Then there's the true myth of the ghetto kid who rises from poverty -- the euphemism is "humble beginnings" -- to become a revered and idolized basketball star.

Reggie Lewis was one such hero, at least in Boston, and I wonder how many people outside his immediate circle of relatives and friends back in Baltimore really knew that. I wonder if they understood how big Reggie Lewis was here. And more, I wonder if folks back in Baltimore appreciate the difficulty of achieving that status in Boston, especially for a black man.

The finicky fans here, in all sports, chew up mediocre athletes. This so-called Athens of America, this center of intellectual commerce, is also a rough-and-tumble town with blue-collar ideas about sports, politics and race. There is always a glut of free-range opinion here, much of it acerbic and even mean.

But Reggie Lewis made the grade. He was accepted. He kept his mouth shut and worked hard. He was a fine basketball player, a winner, a pleasant, generous and popular public figure with an absolutely golden smile. His life was big here; his death seems even bigger.

But, personally, I have had a mixed reaction to Boston's reaction to his death.

As I listened to it all, I kept thinking of the too many other men who have died prematurely, often violently, in our cities over the years. That perspective keeps me from involving myself too deeply in the death of a single celebrity.

But I understand why others, especially sports fans caught in the true myth, can't resist. We need our heroes as big as we can get them.

When Reggie Lewis hit the floor while shooting hoops in the Brandeis gym last Tuesday, it created an emotional earthquake here.

Thousands of men and women walked down Botolph Street to Matthews Arena at Northeastern University to pay respects to Lewis yesterday. In local newspapers, there has been page after page of analysis of Lewis' career, his personality, his medical condition. The Boston Globe published an eight-page special section on Lewis. Television stations have aired documentaries and testimonials. The subject filled talk radio airwaves for days.

It's been really impressive.

And yet I'm left with this: Public grief on this scale is hardly ever expressed for the hundreds, make that thousands, of young men who die violently in cities, from Baltimore to Los Angeles. And there is far less interest in the conditions that breed such disastrous results than there has been in Reggie Lewis' medical condition.

I am equally impressed that so many white people could grieve over the death of a black man, especially in Boston, in a state where, for years since my youth, I have heard expressed, time and again, derogatory and even hateful sentiments toward African-Americans. It's mostly incidental stuff -- slips of the tongue, ethnic jokes, snide comments -- but it is consistent. During 17 years living in Baltimore, I rarely have heard the casual and frequent racist comments I have experienced in the Boston area.

Athletes, the good ones like Lewis, transcend racial prejudice to earn acceptance. Or so we like to believe. I recently heard radio's Rush Limbaugh mimic, in minstrel-show style, the way Magic Johnson speaks. It was ugly, racist and mean -- but, as far as I know, none of Limbaugh's millions of listeners raised a stink about it. I assume they had a good laugh.

So here in Boston, I'm fascinated that so many white people could love in life, and grieve in death, a black man from inner-city Baltimore. Perhaps I should view it as a sign of genuine social and emotional progress, but I'm not quite ready to do that.

Reggie Lewis has been mourned in such a grand manner because he was an admired basketball player, a hero on a quest, a famous man. He deserves the tributes. His fans deserve the chance to grieve. But I wonder how many of them, returning to face the life-threatening problems of the real world away from sports, ever do so with the seriousness and compassion shown this past week for an athlete dying young.

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