Reggie Lewis may never rest in peace

March 10, 1995|By Dan Shaughnessy | Dan Shaughnessy,The Boston Globe

If Reggie wasn't black, nobody would have raised the issue of drugs.

That is the politically correct threat that often makes us back away. That's what Reggie Lewis' family and friends said after he collapsed on a Brandeis basketball court and died. It was what Celtics owner Paul Gaston said yesterday when he announced plans to sue the Wall Street Journal for $100 million.

"Racist," Gaston replied to a question about the Journal's motivation for exploring the possibility that cocaine abuse contributed to Lewis' death. "When a black athlete dies, people do not believe it's not because of guns or drugs."

I say if Reggie had been white, we'd have gotten to the bottom of this sooner.

If Reggie Lewis had been white, would everyone have backed away when his failed heart showed scarring that was consistent with cocaine cardiomyopathy? Would a state medical examiner have dismissed the evidence and filed a death certificate that jTC made no allowance for the possibility of drug abuse? In the face of some serious suspicions, would the Celtics and the NBA have worked so hard to dismiss the drug notion and preserve Lewis' image?

More than a year and a half after Reggie Lewis collapsed, all we know for certain is that he died. The mystery of his life and death has not been resolved, and the Celtics captain may never rest in peace.

The Lewis story came back to life in a Journal article that strongly suggested cocaine abuse at one time or another during Lewis' life may have contributed to his death. Moreover, the report raised serious questions about the official "cause of death," along with the possibility that Celtics officials, doctors, lawyers and Lewis' wife resisted testing that might have revealed cocaine use.

Lewis' death and its awful fallout are something that many of our readers preferred we ignore. A lot of Celtics fans simply did not want to know why Lewis died.

When Lewis died on July 27, 1993, I wrote, "Was Lewis possibly involved in any kind of self-abuse?" Days later, the Globe's Will McDonough wrote a column on the subject, reporting that "the doctors who examined Lewis were concerned that drugs might have been involved."

That's when the angry phone calls and mail started. Among other things, we were accused of racism and bad taste. The question of cocaine, the writers and callers said, was only being raised because Lewis was black.

Now Gaston is saying those things again. He termed the Journal report "shameful, gutless, yellow journalism, based wholly on complete disregard for truth."

That isn't consistent with the 106-year history of the Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, what was consistent was the Celtics' refusal to answer any questions about their involvement in Lewis' care. Gaston offered no specifics about those "shameful and disgusting" allegations. And of course, Teflon Dave Gavitt, the man on the scene 18 months ago, was at the Big East luncheon in New York.

Gaston can talk all he wants about "disregard for truth." But doctors have gone on record about asking Lewis about cocaine use, which was consistent with his malady. Lewis would not submit to testing. And that is why he checked out of the Celtics' medical care, changing hospitals under the cover of darkness. And nobody said anything. The Celtics instead embraced the contrary opinion of Dr. Gilbert Mudge, who said Lewis had a "normal athlete's heart."

Gaston had better be right. His charges against the Journal will ++ unleash a new series of investigations. Ditto for Donna Harris Lewis, who said Reggie never did drugs. Here's a bet the suit is never filed. The Celtics and Lewis will want no part of the legal minefield of discovery and deposition.

This is not about taking down a hero or trashing the dead. It's not about racism. It's about a possible coverup and major insurance dollars and Gaston's dear stockholders (when Gaston says "stockholders," he means "me").

We're never going to know just what killed Reggie Lewis. Ultimately, he was responsible for himself. But today I'm wondering about everyone's part -- that would include those of ++ us in the media -- in backing away from the possibilities that drugs played a role.

Paul Gaston is wrong. When this great black athlete was undergoing treatment, doctors, team officials, relatives, lawyers and reporters did everything possible to believe it was anything but cocaine. And that might have contributed to Lewis' death.

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