Truth in Lewis case holds consequences THE REGGIE LEWIS CONTROVERSY

March 10, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Something went down. Something went wrong.

That's what Inez "Peggy" Ritch said last August about the death of her son.

And that's what the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, suggesting that cocaine was one reason Reggie Lewis died, and that Lewis' widow and the Boston Celtics stood to lose if the secret ever got out.

If this isn't the truth -- and Ritch doesn't believe it herself -- then what is?

Even after this story, especially after this story, the central question remains unanswered.

Why did Reggie Lewis die?

No one will ever know.

Predictably, the Celtics went to great lengths to dismiss the Journal story, calling it "racist" and "gutless" and "shameful."

But someone had to ask the questions.

The Celtics didn't.

Lewis' widow didn't.

And Lewis didn't.

The Journal suggests they were all motivated by financial interests, not exactly a shocking revelation in this day and age.

Lewis risked the loss of his career.

His widow risked the loss of $10 million in insurance payments.

And the Celtics risked the loss of an important business deal, plus their $5.6 million share of the insurance proceeds.

And, oh yes, public-relations damage.

If the Celtics were so concerned about their star's condition, they could have forced Lewis to submit to a drug test urged by his doctors, citing the "reasonable cause" mandated by the NBA.

And if Donna Harris-Lewis was so concerned, she could have demanded a more thorough examination of her husband's death.

But Harris-Lewis dropped it.

Dropped it after playing an active role in Lewis' decision to switch doctors. Dropped it when so many questions remain unanswered. Dropped it when it was in her best interests to shut up.

Something went down. Something went wrong.

This is what Peggy Ritch was talking about last August when she sat down at her dining-room table in Northeast Baltimore.

Ritch said she had "no peace" over Lewis' death, and she admitted to a nine-year cocaine addiction to ensure that her story was told.

Call it a guess, call it a hunch, call it mother's intuition.

When it came to the death of her son, Peggy Ritch smelled a rat.

She believed the Celtics knew more. She believed her daughter-in-law knew more. But she never believed that Lewis had used drugs -- not all those nights she could barely sleep, not all those mornings she woke up in tears.

"It's not true," Ritch said last night. "Reggie was not a drug user. I don't give a damn what people say. If anything was being covered up, it was the fact he had a heart condition.

"As far as Reggie using drugs, he never used any drugs -- no kind of way, never in his lifetime did anything like that happen.

"He didn't do it."

As Lewis' mother, Ritch would never want to admit that he had a cocaine problem. But her opinion can't be dismissed. She was an addict herself once. She probably could identify a user as well as anyone.

But Peggy Ritch said her son didn't use drugs.

Others who knew Lewis said the same.

So, why did this man die?

The answer isn't necessarily in his death certificate. Dr. Stanton Kessler, the deputy medical examiner in Massachusetts, listed the cause of death as a virus that causes the common cold.

Last year, the Journal reported, a dozen eminent cardiac pathologists met in Boston to discuss the issue of sudden death and athletes' hearts.

And when the subject turned to Kessler's findings, one of the pathologists laughed.

Now, two top heart experts in Baltimore say that it is not only possible that Kessler was right, but also that his conclusion was logical.

The truth?

No one will ever know.

Which is exactly how most of the principles want it.

They'll gather one more time in Boston Garden on March 22, gather to see Lewis' No. 35 retired. What will Harris-Lewis be thinking? The Celtics' officials?

They have their own consciences to face.

Something went down. Something went wrong.

Peggy Ritch said it.

Whatever the truth, Peggy Ritch was right.

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