As his name gets torn down, Reggie Lewis' jersey goes up

March 23, 1995|By Kevin McNamara | Kevin McNamara,Providence Journal

BOSTON -- For one night at least, Reggie Lewis was left to rest in peace.

Celtics fans flocked to the Boston Garden last night for a piece of team history. The sellout crowd paid homage to the Baltimore native who owned a soft smile and a silky jump shot. It also voiced its displeasure whenever the rocky moments of the last few weeks were mentioned.

From the moment festivities began, the Reggie Lewis love fest was in full swing. Chants of "Reg-gie, Reg-gie," rang out numerous times. Only signs of support for the former team captain made their way into the old barn.

Speakers including Red Auerbach, Larry Bird and Dee Brown heaped praise on Lewis, but the most anticipated words came from Donna Harris-Lewis, Reggie's widow.

"The last few weeks have been trying for me," she said as the crowd hissed and booed. "I'm sure they have been for some people here, too. We're all here tonight because we knew the real Reggie."

Harris-Lewis was referring to recent reports that her late husband used cocaine during his college and professional career. Lewis died in the summer of 1993 shooting baskets. Recent reports have alleged that cocaine use may have hastened his passing. Yesterday the Boston Herald, quoting an unnamed medical source, reported that he was a regular, heavy user of cocaine, using the drug before every home game as "a performance enhancer."

Jan Volk, Celtics executive vice president, said the Herald account was "an incredibly bold statement to be made under the cloak of an unnamed source and an obvious violation of medical ethics."

Harris-Lewis ended her remarks with a poem entitled, "Always Believe What Your Own Eyes See." Two lines in the poem signified her feelings on the recent events:

"Character is one thing that never dies. Let's not believe these horrible lies."

Once Harris-Lewis wrapped up her words, the crowd rose and watched Harris-Lewis and her two children, Reggie Jr., and Reggiana, raise number 35 to the Garden rafters. Lewis' number sits on a banner with the numbers 3 (Dennis Johnson), 32 (Kevin McHale) and 33 (Bird).

Earlier in the ceremony, a series of speakers praised Lewis. The most ill-timed remark came from host Tom Heinsohn who said, "Reggie literally played his heart out for the Boston Celtics."

The best quip of the night came from Bird, who took the microphone with Johnson and read the inscription on a miniature banner. "Just like old times," Bird said. "I have to do all the work."

As is his custom, Auerbach captivated the Celtics fans with his remarks. The franchise's guiding light said he carried a heavy heart to the Garden as Lewis became the 20th person honored in the building's rafters.

"I've been here 45 years," Auerbach said. "Every one of these flags we retired, I helped to raise them. Tonight, I'll get as big a thrill as any of them. It's a great honor to be asked to raise the flag for Reggie Lewis."

Auerbach thanked the crowd for cheering Lewis' memory so heartily. Then he paid Lewis a great compliment.

"I've done a lot of things here, but I've had one regret," he said. "I never had the pleasure and honor to coach Reggie Lewis. He personified what is a true Celtic."

Before the game, the Celtics and the NBA continued to deny any knowledge that Lewis may have used cocaine. League commissioner David Stern said that he has read every news report concerning Lewis' alleged drug use, but doesn't believe the league should investigate any wrongdoing.

Stern added that when Lewis first collapsed in a playoff game in April of 1993, doctors never mentioned the possibility of drugs. "It was never presented to us that his case was an issue of drugs," he said.

After she escaped the glare of the Garden lights, Harris-Lewis answered a few questions for the press. She thanked Celtics fans for their warm reception and said, "Reggie would have been very honored."

Asked if she was concerned that some segment of the crowd might stain the event with signs or verbal outbursts, Harris-Lewis said she never doubted the fans' love for her husband.

"I wasn't worried," she said. "I was just happy after two years the show finally went on."

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