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The years have passed but the vividness of the memory has not.
July 27, 1993. I was still in elementary school and two years deep into my love of the game of basketball. NBA players were like superheroes to me, indestructible giants who I looked up to -- literally -- in awe of their talent.
By that time my parents had taken me to two games at the Boston Garden and open practices at Brandeis University in Waltham. Reggie Lewis had been there, one of the standouts who dominated the court in ways I could only dream of on my YMCA team. He was, to me, unbreakable.
In my mind NBA players were cloaked in armor, untouchable to any physical conditions.
I was baffled when Lewis collapsed on the parquet during a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets in late April of that year. At the time I was too young to understand how this powerful force could be vulnerable to any kind of health problems.
Lewis would be fine, I thought.
Three months later I learned the harsh reality of his susceptibility. The news broke on TV that night. I stared at the boxy monitor with wood paneling in shock. How could this be? This had to be a mistake. Reggie Lewis? The Reggie Lewis? Number 35? Dead?
This wasn’t supposed to happen, not in the idyllic world of pro sports I had imagined. I rushed to the phone, my fingers trembling as I paged my father -- this was well before the days of cell phones. He would call back and tell me the report was wrong, I wanted to believe.
But when the phone rang I broke into hysterics, stammering as I tried to catch my breath between the torrential tears. “Reggie . . . Lewis . . . died,” I uncontrollably sobbed, anxiously wrapping the telephone cord around my still shaking fingers and staring blankly at the kitchen floor.
I don’t remember much of the conversation beyond that point -- it was a blur of emotions -- only that my father never told me the report was wrong like I had desperately hoped. Lewis was gone, and to a child it was a devastating reality that seemed incomprehensible.
One of the radio stations in Boston played Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” the day of Lewis’ funeral. I cried again. That song to this day still brings me back to that afternoon in the car. Driving past Brandeis en route to the dentist's office tugged at my emotions as well.
“We saw Reggie play there,” I’d tell my mother in disbelief. Then I’d be silent, my own way of paying respect, as my eyes fixated on the façade of the building where he once dashed across the court.
The following school year my English teacher bound all of our writing assignments into a book. The first story was a detailed account of my first Celtics game. Lewis, of course, was mentioned in it. She told us to include a blank page at the front of the compilation for a dedication. “In Memory of Reggie Lewis,” I penned. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do.
Twenty years later, as I cover the NBA and have the opportunity to reflect on that tragic night of July 27, 1993, it couldn’t have been a better decision.