Celtics turn page, but Lewis chapter is never far away

November 03, 1993|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Staff Writer

Playing their first game at the Boston Garden since Reggie Lewis died on July 27, the Boston Celtics stood silent on the parquet floor last week and bowed their heads. But as emotional as that moment was, center Robert Parish said it couldn't compare to walking out on the gym floor at Brandeis University when camp opened last month.

"Being on the floor where it happened, it was just much more difficult than walking out on the Garden floor," Parish said of the Brandeis gym where Lewis collapsed. "The first day of training camp when we walked on the court, everyone just looked around, and everyone looked for Reggie."

Call it instinct. When the Celtics found themselves in a tough spot last season, it was Lewis the team looked to more often than not. But this season there will be no looking to Lewis, whose death due to cardiac arrest hit the Celtics, and the NBA, like a sledgehammer.

There is no replacing the All-Star guard from Dunbar. But life without Reggie Lewis already has begun for the Celtics, who open their season Friday at home against New York. The next night, Boston will be at USAir Arena, where the Washington Bullets plan to observe a moment of silence for Lewis before their home opener.

Honoring Lewis will be a scene played out in almost every NBA city as the league mourns the Baltimore native who, in his quiet way, developed into one of the top stars in basketball.

"Overall, the process of recovering from this has been slow," said Celtics forward Ed Pinckney. "But it's good in the fact that everyone's been together dealing with this. Everybody's obviously trying to get over his passing away, but they're also accepting the fact that we have to keep going without him."

For Dee Brown, who will start at the shooting-guard spot occupied by Lewis the past five years, it was hard getting through a preseason game without visualizing his former teammate alongside him on the court.

"There are situations in games where I feel, 'What would Reggie do now? Where would Reggie go?' " Brown said. "It just all comes back. I still think of him on the court."

Playing at the Charlotte Coliseum last week, point guard Sherman Douglas couldn't help but recall that it was in the first game of the playoffs against the Hornets last season that Lewis collapsed while running the court. At the time, no one imagined it would be Lewis' last game.

"Just looking around and seeing that he wasn't in this locker room with us, that's hard," Douglas said. "When we were [in Charlotte] last year for the playoffs and Reggie didn't make the trip, I know he was hoping we would do our best and win. I know he's upstairs now hoping we do the same thing."

But winning for the Celtics may be a tremendous task. Boston, playing its first season without Larry Bird in 1992-93, finished 48-34, second in the Atlantic Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference. But when Lewis and his 20.8 points per game went down in the first game of the playoffs, Boston became a first-round loser to Charlotte.

Forward Kevin McHale announced his retirement shortly afterward. Even though Lewis' collapse in the playoffs left his status uncertain, the Celtics still had outside hopes of having him back this season. And then the tragedy.

"I was home in Florida when I heard the news," Brown said. "I had to fly right back up. That was probably one of the longest flights I ever had. All I could do was think about Reggie and his family."

Now, the once-proud team has lost three All-Star players in two years, and prepares to embark on a season that many describe as a rebuilding campaign. For the first time in a long time, the Celtics -- who haven't missed the playoffs since the 1978-79 season -- are being described as a possible lottery team.

"All the success we had in the '80s, keeping the players intact, we're paying for that now," said Boston coach Chris Ford. "Those players brought so much to the franchise that we were willing to pay that price of keeping things intact."

But it might be too soon to count Boston out. Although it might not mean much, the Celtics went 6-3 in the preseason -- second-best in the Eastern Conference behind the Knicks. Even at 40, Parish is still one of the top 10 centers. Dino Radja, a 6-foot-11 rookie forward from Croatia, led the Celtics in scoring four times in the preseason and appears ready to play in the NBA. And forward Xavier McDaniel remains a fierce competitor.

Boston's chances for a playoff berth will come down to how well the backcourt performs. Douglas will start at the point, backed up by Chris Corchiani. Brown settles in at shooting guard, where he'll be spelled by Rick Fox and maybe Jimmy Oliver, who has had a good preseason.

"The nucleus is still there, but to lose that amount of key players in that short a period of time, you're going to struggle," Brown said. "I think a lot of people are selling us short. We have to go out and prove that we're still the Celtics."

And what Brown won't go out and do is try to prove he's Reggie Lewis.

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