Reggie's friends, family do best to ignore furor

March 22, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

BOSTON -- The mayor of Boston answered phones. So did Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn. So did former Celtics great Larry Bird.

The video tributes rolled, the donations poured in and Reggie Lewis' widow received a standing ovation.

Derrick Lewis?

Never heard of him.

The Wall Street Journal?

Bite your tongue.

The telethon went on. The retiring of Lewis' jersey will go on. Donna Harris-Lewis and the Celtics will simply ignore the furor, the way they did before.

By now, the routine is familiar -- stay calm, disregard the evidence, ride out the storm.

There's just one problem.

The routine might have led to Lewis' death.

And so they held the one-hour telethon last night on the campus of Lewis' alma mater, Northeastern University.

And so they will raise his No. 35 to the rafters tonight in a halftime ceremony at Boston Garden.

It would all seem so moving and sincere, if not for the headlines, the awful, deflating headlines that keep appearing each day.

"Ex-teammate says Lewis was 'social user' of cocaine" -- that was at the top of Page 1 in yesterday's Boston Globe.

"Dealer says he sold coke to Reggie" -- that was on the front page of the tabloid Boston Herald.

"They've got him splattered all over the place" -- that's what Reggie Lewis' mother, Inez "Peggy" Ritch, said from her home in Baltimore.

Of course, none of this was evident on this "Night of Unity" at Northeastern, this night that was so touching, yet so strange.

Keith Motley, the dean of student services, actually conducted a champagne toast at a reception prior to the telethon.

"To life, to love and to happiness," Motley said.

And everyone drank up.

Harris-Lewis held an impromptu news conference, but the questions turned to the allegations, and Motley was forced to interrupt.

After tonight, maybe this sordid, bizarre saga will fade from prominence. Or maybe there's even more to the story, one that already has spun too far out of control.

"Our fans know what Reggie did for his team -- he played very hard, and worked very hard," said Bird, a former teammate of Lewis' with the Celtics.

"You can't let rumors and people in the background come out and make accusations that we'll probably never know the

answer to. I respect Reggie as a man, and our fans do, too."

In the end, people will believe what they want to believe. No one will ever know if cocaine killed Reggie Lewis. And those with an insight to the truth are still fiercely protecting the myth that led to this mess in the first place.

And so, we hear from others.

The doctors who suspected Lewis used cocaine. Northeastern officials who no longer are certain he was clean. Former drug dealers who claim they sold Lewis coke, and a former teammate whose story changes every day.

Does that amount to proof?

Hardly.

Does it present a fuller portrait of Lewis?

Yes.

Hearing all this now, nearly two years after the fact, is unseemly, unnerving, even a bit unreal. The problem is, the facts were hidden for too long. Now, no one knows what to believe, not even Lewis' mother.

Remember the conflict between Ritch and Harris-Lewis? Their problems intensified during the nine years Ritch was a cocaine addict, then peaked after Lewis died, when they argued over where he should be buried.

Like Ritch, Harris-Lewis insists that her husband was not a drug user. But three days ago, the Globe reported on two statements she allegedly made over the phone to Lewis' cardiologist, Dr. Gilbert Mudge Jr.

The first came on July 27, 1993, the night Lewis died, according to Mudge's notes of the calls. Harris-Lewis tried to telephone Mudge. Unable to reach him, she left the following message on his answering machine:

"There were many things that we could never tell you. There were many things that you didn't know."

Six weeks later, on Sept. 16, 1993, Harris-Lewis called Mudge again, according to Globe sources, which again included Mudge's notes of the call.

Harris-Lewis told Mudge that Ritch had been a cocaine user, and that "Reggie died of the poisons that his mother gave him."

What does that mean?

Harris-Lewis says nothing. She denied making the statement in a telephone conversation with Ritch last weekend.

"I don't know what that is," Peggy Ritch said. "Everyone up there is trying to save their butt. I just don't believe Donna said it. Dr. Mudge is trying to save his butt coming out with that kind of stuff. He's the one who started all this crap.

"If she said it, I don't know why she said it, or what she meant. I wasn't a supplier to my son, that's for sure. I wasn't even around him that much. Our relationship was very strained. I very seldom saw him anymore."

You figure it out:

If Harris-Lewis knew her husband was using drugs, she did him the ultimate disservice, failing to relate vital information to his doctors.

But if Harris-Lewis never made the statement, it means Mudge's notes are either inaccurate or false.

And Mudge is the doctor who told the Wall Street Journal that he warned Lewis to stop using cocaine.

Questions, so many questions -- and this is but one small element of the story.

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