In Baltimore, mother family remain bitter about widow THE REGGIE LEWIS TRAGEDY: A YEAR LATER

September 11, 1994|By Ken Rosenthal and Mike Preston | Ken Rosenthal and Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff researcher Dee Lyons contributed to this article.

More than a year later, Inez "Peggy" Ritch can't let go.

Her Northeast Baltimore home is full of memories -- framed photographs, award certificates, handsome trophies. Mementoes of her son, Reggie Lewis, the basketball star.

Reggie Lewis, who died on July 27, 1993, at the age of 27.

"It's been difficult," Ritch says. "I'm trying to adjust to this. People tell you, 'Give it to the Lord, pray.' I do. But evidently, I must not have done it. It's still with me.

"Every day, I close my eyes to sleep. When I wake up, it's the first thing to hit me. Every day, it's, 'What in the world happened?' "

Lewis rose from a substitute player at Dunbar High School to become captain of the Boston Celtics, but his career ended at its peak, ended when he died of a heart ailment while shooting baskets at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

The conflicting diagnoses Lewis received from Boston cardiologists were the subject of intense debate before and after his death. Ritch, 48, says she has "no peace" over the loss of her son.

She blames Dr. Gilbert H. Mudge Jr., the cardiologist who diagnosed Lewis with a benign fainting condition after a team of 12 physicians assembled by the Celtics warned of serious heart trouble.

She blames Lewis' widow, Donna Harris-Lewis, for steering him away from the Celtics' doctors, then failing to pursue the questions surrounding his death.

She blames the Celtics, whom she believes knew of Lewis' heart problems before he collapsed during an NBA playoff game on April 29, 1993.

Finally, she blames herself, for lapsing into a nine-year cocaine addiction that diminished her influence with her son, allowing Harris-Lewis to emerge as the principal force in his life.

"I wake up in tears," says Ritch, who underwent rehabilitation and says she hasn't used drugs in more than two years. "This thing bothers me so much, not a day goes by when it's not there."

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Ritch and Harris-Lewis were the two women closest to Lewis, but their relationship always has been uneasy. Lewis' death could have brought them closer. Instead, it drove them farther apart.

"I just can't communicate with her at all," Ritch says. "I know we'll never be close, but when you're around other people, she puts on a front that everything is OK. It's not for real."

Harris-Lewis, 29, declined to be interviewed for this article. In a three-way telephone conversation with her attorney, Peter Roisman, she was told by The Sun that Ritch held her partly responsible for Reggie's death.

"Reggie had a mind of his own," Harris-Lewis replied.

She then agreed to consider written questions submitted by The Sun. She responded after three days by sending a message through Roisman.

"Since Reggie's death a year ago, each one of us close to him has had to find a way to best grieve over his passing," Harris-Lewis said.

She declined to comment further.

Reggie Lewis met Donna Harris when they were sophomores at Northeastern University. Ritch says her problems with Donna began in 1988, and escalated when the only guests at their July 1991 wedding in Las Vegas were two friends, Mark Reeves and Darlene Dorcinvil.

Lewis' uncle, Russell Lewis, says Reggie told him that "it was best to get away" because of the problems between his fiancee and mother -- problems that were exacerbated by Ritch's cocaine addiction.

"I believe if it hadn't been for my addiction, I would have had more of an impact on his life," says Ritch, who raised Lewis as a single parent.

"He would call home, but I was not there for him, for advice, for anything. When he called, I wouldn't have any time to talk -- he'd be interrupting my high time."

But in this tale of two cities, nearly all of Lewis' Baltimore relatives are angry at Harris-Lewis, who lives with her two children in The House That Reggie Built, an $850,000 home in Dedham, Mass.

The relatives are upset that Harris-Lewis is blocking efforts to honor Reggie's memory in his hometown, most notably by withholding permission to rename his boyhood stomping ground, the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center in Northeast Baltimore.

The Great Blacks in Wax Museum on North Avenue wants to build a sports pavilion in Lewis' name, but executive director Joanne Martin says the project hasn't even reached the planning stages, in part because of the family dispute.

Harris-Lewis is the mother of Lewis' two children -- Reggie Jr., 2, and Reggieana, 7 months. She learned she was pregnant with Reggieana the day her husband died, and gave birth to her on Feb. 7, less than seven months after his death.

The family's resentment of Harris-Lewis stems partly from the wealth she inherited. Harris-Lewis was the sole beneficiary in Lewis' will, and Celtics officials say they are obligated to pay her the remaining three years on Lewis' guaranteed contract, valued at approximately $10 million.

"She has everything he had," Ritch says. "It's like she just took over being Reggie."

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