The Reggie Lewis postmortem is on those who live

March 12, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

So now, with Reggie Lewis two years under the earth, we're informed that the East Baltimore kid who went on to star for the Boston Celtics died not of natural heart failure but of reckless stupidity, which is the act of having a dream life and yet still finding it so wanting that various dangerous substances are abused to make life even dreamier.

Would Reggie Lewis do such a thing? His wife says no, but she has a legacy to keep alive. His old team's executives say no, but they had a public relations nightmare on their hands and a $15 million insurance policy slipping through their fingers. His mother says no, but his mother has her own history of drug abuse.

For what it's worth, his teammates also say no, but the record of professional athletes and drugs is not precisely wonderful. The ballplayers lead lives of joy and glamour, and yet the sporting landscape is still littered with those abusing drugs, who seem to find in narcotics a kind of twisted validation of the good life, a secret, in-group status symbol that transcends mere mansions or Rolls-Royces.

The Wall Street Journal, best known for analyzing the bounces of the stock market, now looks at the Reggie Lewis corpse and cries foul. It wasn't strictly Reggie's heart that killed him, the Journal says, but the abuse it took from the cocaine he was ingesting.

Yes, there was a history of heart trouble in Lewis' family, but so what? Yes, one of his brothers had open-heart surgery at age 4, but so what? Yes, Lewis' mother had a heart attack at 17 and then another, at the end of seven years of cocaine abuse, in 1990, and so what? And, yes, Reggie Lewis was born with a heart murmur, but so what? It wasn't his heart, says the Journal, and it wasn't some virus that invaded it. It was drugs.

In April 1993, Lewis dropped to the floor and fainted during a basketball game. A dozen specialists diagnosed heart scarring, which they strongly suspected was linked to cocaine, according to the Journal. Lewis denied any drug abuse. The doctors wanted testing. Lewis said no. The doctors insisted. Lewis checked himself out of the hospital.

When he went to another hospital, doctors said his problem was a benign fainting condition, requiring close monitoring. Lewis went back to playing basketball, and collapsed and died in a casual practice. He was buried with all the trappings of a hero, and all the denials of everybody with a voice who heard mention of drugs.

But now, two years after the fact, the Wall Street Journal says there was too much protesting -- that the Celtics, for openers, simply lied. They told Lewis' doctors that pro basketball rules prevented them from forcing Reggie to take a drug test. In fact, it was in the Celtics' interest not to uncover any drug link, because the ballclub was deep in debt and holding onto that big insurance contract that would have been voided with any link to drugs.

Could Reggie Lewis have been stupid enough to do drugs? Two years after the fact, analysis seems a little futile. Drugs or natural heart failure, he remains in his grave. In truth, the postmortem is held not merely on Lewis, but on those around him, on people we once trusted implicitly and now reflexively second-guess.

If the scarring on Lewis' heart was so bad, and the danger so clear, why didn't the doctors make loud public pronouncements that he risked death by continuing to play? Why didn't they shame the Celtics into retiring Lewis, and maybe saving his life? And why didn't the Celtics, knowing the danger, gracefully slide Lewis into retirement even without any public shaming?

We don't know, and we're no longer certain we should even ask such questions. Maybe, looking at Lewis' family history, his heart was simply a ticking bomb. Maybe there are racial overtones, and the death of a white player wouldn't be questioned in such a manner. Maybe it's just that we see a ballplayer die young, or screw up a career, and we've learned the hard way, learned from Len Bias but also from Dexter Manley and Steve Howe and Pete Rose that our athletes are not entirely the people we once imagined they were.

Reggie Lewis stays dead, no matter what. What we exhume now is not his body, but the remnants of our own desires to be innocent and trustful. The modern wish is not to be caught looking naive. So we suspect everyone, those who are two years into the grave, but also those along the sidelines, the bit players not wishing to lose a big payday and willing to do anything, tell a lie, break a trust, cost a life, in order to keep cashing in.

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