Blakely: Lewis held promise of greatness

Blakely: Lewis held promise of greatness
July 28, 2013, 6:00 pm
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BOSTON -- This is not the Reggie Lewis story that should be told 20 years after his first All-Star appearance.

Instead of extolling on what he achieved during a Hall-of-Fame worthy career, we have been left -- after his death on July 27, 1993 because of heart-related issues that caused him to collapse during a pickup game at Brandeis -- to ponder what could have been.

Time has a way of making us forget just how explosive Reggie Lewis was off the dribble, or how he could just raise up and use those long, praying mantis-like arms to knock down mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper without worrying about it getting blocked.

But like the Charles Dickens classic 'A Tale of Two Cities,' the life and death of Reggie Lewis was, indeed, the best of times and the worst of times.

His evolution from high school sixth man to Division I player to NBA All-Star and captain of the Boston Celtics is one that shows both the promise of a man who came of age before our very eyes, and the pain in never seeing that potential fully reached.

"I'll miss him forever," said Jim Calhoun, the three-time national championship coach at Connecticut who recruited and coached Lewis at Northeastern. "He was like a child of mine. We all have to deal with loss, but I'll always remember Reggie. I remember Reggie hitting game-winners. I remember Reggie being drafted. I remember Reggie being captain of the Celtics. I remember so many positive, great things about Reggie that nothing in this world could ever take that away from him until the day I die."

Located in East Baltimore, Dunbar High School has been a perennial sports power for decades.

Named after famed African-American poet, playwright and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar, its athletics programs have produced one masterpiece of a season after another. This was especially true of the boys' basketball program, which reeled off 60 straight wins over the course of two seasons (1981-83) which included an '83 squad -- Reggie Lewis' senior season -- that finished No. 1 nationally and claimed its share of a mythical national championship.

The Poets were a talented, extremely deep team, so talented that Lewis, just four years before becoming an NBA first-round pick, was Dunbar's sixth man as a senior.

"We saw the talent in him," said Muggsy Bogues, who played with Lewis at Dunbar and later against him in the NBA. "He was just waiting for his opportunity. He was our sixth guy, our sixth man. And as talented as he was, he would have been a star anywhere he would have gone."

And that's what made Lewis such an unconventional superstar. Being the best player was never something pursued. It just happened.

"The game always looked as if it came easily to him," said longtime Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan. "We all know that that's never the case for any of these guys. They work hard to develop their skill. But Reggie Lewis had an effortless way about him. He made the game look so easy. He was an easy scorer, a graceful, beautiful player."

And while basketball became his passion, it was by no means his first love.

"He was going to do football at first," said his mother, Inez "Peggy" Ritch. "But his older brother Irvin told him that he was too lanky for football. And then Irvin was always into basketball."

Bogues remembers first learning of Lewis when the two were playing 13-and-under youth basketball.

Lewis played for the Cecil-Kirk youth team along with David Wingate (Georgetown and later 15 years in the NBA) and Gary Graham (UNLV, sixth-round pick of Indiana Pacers, 1987).

Bogues, a former Wake Forest star who spent 14 seasons in the NBA, played with the Lafayette Park youth squad that featured himself and future All-America Reggie Williams (Georgetown,10-year NBA veteran).

"That's how we got the chance to know Reggie and find out who he was," Bogues said. "We used to call him 'Truc'k back then. Believe it or not, I don't know where it came from.

Quipped Bogues, "Just by knowing how slow he moves, it probably had something to do with it."

Maybe so, but he did enough to convince Calhoun to offer this high school sixth man a full scholarship to Northeastern.

"I was looking for players," said Calhoun. "I found a 6-foot-6, 153-pound player; can't even put him at a position."

Like most of the nation's Division I coaches, Calhoun made a point of finding out all he could about the Dunbar team which at that time was among the nation's best basketball programs.

"Dunbar had started to get a national name," Calhoun said. "They were today, the Oak Hill, in a public school setting, of what Oak Hill (Va.) and Findley Prep (Nevada) has done today. They had the best teams, far and away, in the country."

Lewis' senior season fielded three players (Bogues and Reggie Williams being the others) that went on to become first-round picks in the NBA draft.

Calhoun had a handful of players already on his team from the Baltimore area, so the pipeline to land a player like Lewis had been established.

Between trips to Dunbar practices and the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center, that is where Lewis first caught Calhoun's eye.

Because when it came to actual games played by Dunbar, Lewis' minutes were very limited.

"Reggie was probably sixth, seventh man depending on the game, sometimes eighth man depending on what they needed," Calhoun said. "And I watched him, loved him, tried to recruit him in the fall of his senior year."

Calhoun said the pitch was pretty simple.

"Went in," Calhoun said, "sold him about what we could do for him, and very simply he could be a prominent player where he had been a role player at Dunbar."

Calhoun felt good about his recruitment of Lewis, but admitted to getting nervous after watching him shine during a 1982 Christmas tournament in Johnstown, PA.

A number of Dunbar players got into early foul trouble which meant more minutes for Lewis.

To his credit, he made the most of the opportunity and went on to be named to all-Tournament team.

Fortunately for Calhoun, he was able to make it to the game despite a huge snow storm that kept other Division I coaches from being able to attend.

"It shows where fate sometimes deals you a good hand," Calhoun said.

Coaches quickly got wind of Lewis' breakout performance during the Christmas tournament.

But when they came out to see him afterwards, they were left confused.

"Two games later, he played like six minutes which is good," quipped Calhoun. "I didn't like it when he played. I knew what I saw."

Calhoun eventually got a commitment from Lewis who was beginning to draw interest from major basketball conferences.

Wake Forest came in late to offer him a scholarship, with the intent being to bring him in along with Muggsy Bogues.

"Now I have a dilemma," Calhoun said.

But by the time the Demon Deacons offered, Lewis had already committed to Northeastern.

That still left Calhoun uncertain about whether Lewis would honor that commitment.

"But Reggie, which he was then and forever more, was incredibly loyal," Calhoun said. "At the time, I was nervous as heck. But in retrospect, they were loyal people (Lewis and his mother, Peggy Ritch), they were good people. And Reggie was just an incredible person. He was a special player, a special person. And when he gave you his word, you didn't have to do much more with it."

Lewis' mother recognized the increased attention schools were starting to pay towards her son, but acknowledges it didn't seem like that big a deal.

"I didn't really realize that it was going to go to the point that it got," Ritch said. "It just never sunk in that the magnitude of it, and that he was going to play ball but he was going to school also. I just didn't realize it was going to be that big a deal."

Lewis was not considered one of the Huskie's top recruits.

"He was the fourth recruit, not in my mind, but just ratings-wise," Calhoun said. "He was top-100, maybe 97, but Emeka Okafor (former UConn Husky and first-round NBA draft pick) when he came here (at UConn) was 125 just to give you how the ratings services are sometimes."

It didn't take long to realize that Lewis was indeed a special player.

"It was obvious to me having had a chance to see him play in college, that he had a game that would translate into the pros," said Celtics play-by-play announcer Mike Gorman.

As a freshman, Lewis averaged 17.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game and was the North Atlantic Conference's rookie of the year. He led the Huskies to the NCAA tournament in each of his four seasons and finished his career as Northeastern's all-time leading scorer (2,709 points), as well as being a three-time NAC Player of the Year. At the end of his career,  his 2,709 points ranked ninth all-time on the Division I all-time scorer's list and is currently 19th all-time.

"Some people say he was Paul Pierce before there was Paul Pierce," Gorman said.

Reggie Lewis had the kind of college career that had it come at a bigger school than Northeastern, he may have been in the running to be the top overall pick.

But the size of his school wasn't the only thing that made some teams cautious about him.

It was his size - as in 6-foot-7 weighing at one point less than 190 pounds - that concerned many.

"I looked at him, I wondered if the wind was going to blow him away," said Tommy Heinsohn, Hall of Famer with the C's and basketball analyst for Comcast SportsNet. "He was a skinny kid. But he proved to be an exceptional player. You don't think of great players coming out of Northeastern. My thought was, they're really not taking him because he's a local guy. They must believe."

Moments after selecting Lewis, Red Auerbach explained the reasons behind the C's selecting him with the No. 22 pick.

"We've watched him quite a bit, not only because he's local," Auerbach said. "He can play the big guard; he knows where the hoop is. He drives very well towards the basket. He gives us a dimension that we need in case Danny Ainge or Dennis Johnson gets hurt. We got another big guard."

But like most rookies under then-head coach K.C. Jones, rookies saw limited action.

"You come in as a rookie, you might see a little bit of time," said Jeff Twiss, the Celtics' Vice President of media relations and alumni relations. "And a few might be a few games out of an 82-game schedule. So be patient; kind of earn your stripes which Reggie did."

Indeed, Lewis made the most of his opportunities to see significant action.

One of his first big breaks came during the 1988-1989 season when Larry Bird suffered a heel injury that thrust Lewis into the starting lineup.

In his first game as a starter, against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls nonetheless, Lewis lit up MJ and the Bulls for a 33 points.

Lewis would hold his own in future battles against Jordan, among the more memorable ones being when he blocked Jordan's shot four times in one game.

"He wasn't afraid of him," said former Celtics teammate Dee Brown. "He went at Michael Jordan like he was just some other guy coming down the court."

And that confidence didn't show up in trash talking or anything overly demonstrative.

Lewis made his impact in as stealth, but effective a manner as possible.

"His personality on the court was a lot different than his personality off the court," Gorman said. "Off the court, he was very mild, almost shy. On the court, he was an extremely aggressive player."

Twiss was at Redding home having dinner with his family when he got a call on July 27, 1993 from Ed Lacerte, the C's trainer.

"He (Lacerte) says 'you got a few minutes?'" Twiss recalled.

Twiss said yes, and added, "I said I just noticed on TV, Reggie's at Brandeis, shooting some hoops. Whole bunch of live shots."

Lacerte told him that Lewis had an incident at Brandeis University and was being taken to the hospital.

Twiss soon found himself at the hospital. Twiss saw Rick Fox, but wasn't sure if there were any other players there initially.

Twiss was taken to a waiting room area that was just a few rooms down from Lewis.

"I see Eddie and our doctors go by every so often and it seemed like two minutes; it could have been two hours," Twiss recalled.

The back and fourth swaying came to a standstill when the sound that Twiss recalls far more vividly than he would like, was heard.

"I hear in the next room, this beeeeep! My mouth dropped," Twiss said.

Fox came towards Twiss, crying.

"He just came over and starts hugging me," Twiss recalled.

Between the tears, Twiss was able to make out the only words that truly mattered at this point ...

"We lost Reggie," Fox, gripping Twiss tightly, uttered.

"And I start crying," Twiss recalled. "That's the way we lost him. Never said good-bye. Never said thank-you to him. You never thought you would see any friend go like that. You always want to say good-bye or best wishes. That was it. He was gone."

Two years after Lewis' death, a Wall Street Journal article raised the possibility that Lewis death was cocaine-related.

"This was a tragic story, plain and simple," said Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote the WSJ story. "He (Lewis) was an extraordinary guy who died, that probably shouldn't have."

As the rumors about Lewis' death being cocaine-related began to mount, his family and friends immediately rushed to his defense.

"Everybody that knew Reggie Lewis, knew that he wouldn't' even remotely be around anything that dealt with drugs," Bogues said.

Said former Celtics team doctor Arnold Scheller (1987-2005): "Reggie, at no time from the time I saw him, did that (cocaine use) register as an issue while he was a Celtic."

And while the rumors are indeed part of the Reggie Lewis tale, the official cause of his death today remains as it was 20 years ago (adenovirus-2 which is associated with the common cold).

"What angered me was the readiness of people to accept statements that weren't supported by anything," said former Celtics GM Jan Volk.

Even now, decades after his death, the pain so many felt in his death is still very much alive and well.

"He was only 27 years old," said a watery-eyed Bogues who played with Lewis in high school and was on the floor in Lewis' last game, against Bogues and the Charlotte Hornets. "I mean, it just wasn't real. I'd lost friends a lot younger than that growing up. But you know, to have someone like that, to where we was able to be as kids, see and dream and visualize and hope and wish, and for all that to actually become a reality, and for all that to be cut short for him ... it was sad."

Bogues surrounds himself with a few momentous that remind him of Lewis. Among them is a framed picture of Lewis wearing a blue sweatsuit and a matching blue baseball cap.

Lewis was smiling. He was happy.

It was Reggie Lewis doing what Reggie Lewis always seemed to do.

A jovial Lewis is how Calhoun recalls seeing his former player, a feeling that he successfully transferred to all those who knew him.

"When he walked into the office, I didn't have to put the light on," Calhoun said. "He just did it by walking in."

Said Bogues, a high school basketball coach in Charlotte, N.C.: "He was so easy going; he was just so easy going. I mean, he could be in a room and you don't even know he's there. He had so much to give; just his presence ..."

Memories of their friendship start to overwhelm Bogues whose watery eyes have transformed into a dam about to break.

"He was such a guy you just loved being around," said Bogues as a single stream begins to flow down his right cheek followed by its twin moments later down the left side of his face. "And I just miss him. It wasn't like we were the best of friends. We (were) friends as kids and we were family members. When (you're) young at that age, and coming from where we came from ... people just don't understand."

And with that, Bogues snaps his fingers, adding, "Life can be taken away from you, just that quickly. But we were able to stay the course. We were able to stay the course and see it through. And he was able to see it all the way through to his joyful times. And he reached the highest pinnacle which he envisioned for himself, and that was the NBA. I'm thankful that I was able to be a part of that and to witness it and ... to travel with him to see it come true, to see it come to fruition."

There were many, many more who share in Bogue's connection to Lewis, evident by the large outpouring of fans at his funeral which at the time was the largest attended funeral in the city of Boston.

"Just to see all the people and the respect that was given to him, it was truly amazing," said Lewis' mother, Inez Ritch. "And then you pinch yourself, this is my son. God! I can't believe this is Reggie. He was just blessed."

Ritch added, "Boston really loved him. Thank you, Boston!"