Score one for the good guys Hoop star Reggie Lewis worked and played to beat racism. Team Harmony, a memorial to his passion, tries to pass his spirit on to youngsters hungry for hope.

July 22, 1998|By Jeffrey Marx | Jeffrey Marx,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Claudy Paul never could have foreseen the feeling of empowerment that would eventually replace the raw sting of what he was hearing one afternoon on his way home from school.

As a black freshman at mostly white Charlestown High School in Boston, Claudy was not entirely naive about certain things that might be said. But he was also quite popular, the vibrant and determined vice president of his class, and never before had anyone been so blatant, so hurtful, about the color of his skin.

It happened at the bus stop when Claudy interrupted the conversation of a schoolmate, an older white guy, to tell him that his bus was approaching. The schoolmate summarily dismissed Claudy by snapping: "You listen, nigger, this ain't no Dorchester," making reference to a predominantly black part of town. "You better wait till I'm through talking."

Tears started down Claudy's cheeks. "Because this guy had said it with such passion," Claudy remembers. "He was speaking to me like I'd committed a crime or something."

No, Claudy never could have imagined anything positive coming out of this. He never could have imagined sharing his story with millions of people across the country or being known at the White House. Never could have imagined becoming something of a poster child for a sports-related program called Team Harmony that encourages teen-agers to take a stand against prejudice and bigotry.

And all because of a gifted basketball player named Reggie Lewis. A basketball player gone almost five years now - a player whose marquee value was once determined by points on a scoreboard but whose legacy is now being measured by the most meaningful statistics of all. Lives touched. Hope gained.

*

For Lewis, who was raised by a single mother in a tough section of East Baltimore and graduated from Dunbar High in 1983, the game of basketball was both tonic and provider.

In two seasons at Dunbar, playing with friends like David Wingate, Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues and Reggie Williams, all of whom he would later see again as professionals in the National Basketball Association, Lewis contributed greatly to a team that won 59 straight games and claimed a mythical national title, as determined by USA Today.

His achievements at Northeastern University in Boston, not exactly a basketball factory, were even more impressive. Lewis piled up enough points to become the ninth-leading scorer in the history of major college basketball while leading the Huskies to four straight appearances in the NCAA tournament.

And then he was picked in the first round of the 1987 NBA draft by the cross-town Boston Celtics, one of the most storied franchises in all of sports. He simply hopped on the Green Line and took the subway over to Boston Garden to join the ranks of the great Larry Bird and company. Lewis later signed a five-year contract worth $16.5 million, became an NBA All-Star, and eventually succeeded Bird as captain of the Celtics.

This was all storybook stuff. But neither fame nor fortune would ever be enough to make Lewis feel complete. He would also need to make a difference in this world. As an undergraduate, he had talked about some day being a probation officer so he could help young people in trouble. As a professional athlete, in sharp contrast to what we often see and hear from so many high-profile Generation-X athletes, Lewis not only accepted the responsibility being a role model, he embraced it, even cherished it.

"Which is one of the things I always loved so much about him," says his college sweetheart, now Donna Harris-Lewis, to whom he was married in 1991. "Reggie was always doing something for other people, especially young people."

His charitable efforts were both plentiful and much celebrated: the annual Thanksgiving Day turkey giveaway to help feed the poor; his tireless work with the Boys & Girls Clubs, the NBA Stay in School program, the Governor's Anti-Drug Council, the Walk for Hunger and the Special Olympics; countless visits to schools, hospitals, community centers and city parks, where he would often just stop by, unannounced, to offer his encouragement.

Though subtle and understated - hardly the typical adjectives for a 6-foot-7 scoring machine - Lewis was quietly confident and always engaging. His easy smile was immediately disarming. His interest always seemed to be so genuine.

All of which explains the way former Northeastern president John Curry once defined the dual roles Lewis came to serve in his adopted city of Boston: "Superman on the basketball court and Clark Kent off it." And that was without Curry even knowing about the plan Lewis and a friend named Jon Jennings had been formulating to help fight racism.

Meeting of minds

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