Commentary

Remembering Reggie Lewis

Twenty years after his death, it's still painful for Boston to ponder what was lost

Updated: July 27, 2013, 4:28 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

Reggie Lewis Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesReggie Lewis was just budding into an NBA superstar when he collapsed and died on July 27, 1993.

Twenty years later, we still ponder what might have been.

When Reggie Lewis collapsed and died on July 27, 1993, at the age of 27, he was already a husband, a father, a community leader, an NBA All-Star and a Celtics captain.

His shocking death triggered unprecedented spasms of grief throughout Boston, where he left an indelible imprint on the inner-city kids he mentored, kids whose dreams were not unlike his own.

His considerable skills were matched by a silent, patient resolve that served him well.

Reggie had no choice but to learn to wait on greatness.

The Baltimore native was cut from his public high school team, rescued by famed Dunbar coach Bob Wade, but then asked to be a high school sixth man.

He initially went unrecruited by most Division I programs -- except by dogged Northeastern coach Jim Calhoun, who saw something special in the slender, shy wing player. After breaking the Northeastern scoring record, he was drafted 22nd by the Boston Celtics but played only 8.3 minutes a game in his 1987-88, his rookie season.

Midway through his first season in the NBA, I asked him how he was holding up.

"I'm fine," he answered, in his sweet, lazy Baltimore drawl. "Just waiting my turn."

By the time he died, he was one of six players who, from 1988-93, posted at least 7,500 points, 1,500 rebounds, 1,000 assists and 500 steals. The other five -- Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Chris Mullin -- are all Hall of Famers.

I had the privilege of watching Reggie accomplish some astounding things on the basketball court. There was the 1984 NCAA tournament game against VCU, when he was close to unstoppable. Reggie went 15-of-17 from the floor and was within seconds of a Sweet 16 berth before Rolando Lamb shattered Northeastern's dreams with a turnaround 17-foot leaner off an inbounds play as time expired. (In an ironic twist, Rolando's son, Jeremy Lamb, would later play for Calhoun at UConn).

Reggie played in the shadows of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale in his early Celtics years, but by his fifth NBA season, he was a dominant player, carrying Boston in the 1992 Eastern Conference semifinals against Cleveland.

In Game 3, with Bird unable to play because of back woes, he torched the Cavs for 36 points and seven assists. In Game 4, he topped that with 42 points, six assists and five steals. He was evolving into a superstar before our eyes.

[+] EnlargeReggie Lewis
AP Photo/Jon ChaseReggie Lewis and his wife, Donna, were all smiles in May 1993 when his return to basketball was announced, but he died just two months later.

"When Reggie first came into the league," Bird told me, "he really didn't know how to play the game. He shot the ball. That was about it.

"But he was a worker. He spent a lot of time improving his game. He loved it. You could always tell that."

In the final game of his life, in the 1993 playoffs against the Charlotte Hornets and his childhood friend Muggsy Bogues, Lewis was electric in the opening minutes. He slashed to the hole, ripped away offensive rebounds and seized the game by its throat.

But as he was running down the left side of the parquet, he inexplicably stumbled, then fell.

There was no one near him.

Lewis sat, dazed, on the court. He reached forward to stretch his legs. When he finally stood up and headed for the bench, he looked perplexed -- and frightened.

He tried to return to action that night, but the Celtics medical staff pulled him again when he suffered dizziness and shortness of breath. He left having scored 17 points in 13 minutes.

[+] EnlargeReggie Lewis
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty ImagesReggie Lewis began his career in the shadow of Larry Bird but eventually established himself as an All-Star and Celtics captain.

"He was on his way to being one of the best 2-guards in the league," said Brian Shaw, his friend and former teammate.

For further evidence of what might have been, you need look no further than March 31, 1991, when Reggie Lewis did something I never thought possible: He completely and utterly flummoxed the great Michael Jordan.

Lewis blocked Jordan four times in that game and harassed him into a 12-for-36 shooting performance. On a night when Bird had his own shooting issues (he missed 21 of his 36 shots), Lewis scored 25 and utilized his lethal first step to keep Chicago's defenders guessing. Was he going left or right? Would he shake you with that explosive first step and attack the rim, or would he suddenly pull up after one devastating dribble and hoist his trademark praying mantis jumper?

"Reggie was hard to stop," Bird said. "He kept you off balance all the time. There were a few guys in the league I hated to guard because you didn't know what they were thinking.

"I'm glad Reggie was my teammate, because he was one of them."

On March 31, 1991, the Bulls strutted into the Boston Garden with a 53-17 record (they would go on to win 61 games). Jordan was about to win his fifth consecutive scoring title and his first NBA championship.

MJ was the best player in the game, the perfect measuring stick for a young player trying to establish credibility.

Yet, Shaw said, Lewis was neither awed nor intimidated by competing against MJ.

"When we got on the court, Reggie treated him like everyone else," Shaw said.

I called Jordan earlier this week to see if he had any recollections of a young Lewis blocking him four times.

"Oh, I remember it well," Jordan laughed. "He had my number that particular night."

Lewis, like so many young players of his generation, admired Jordan and hoped to emulate his ferocious commitment to the two-way game. Reggie and Shaw talked for hours about what they needed to do to introduce themselves into the discussion of great players in the league. Defense, they understood, was a paramount part of that conversation.

The Celtics had created a marketing poster declaring the "Changing of the Guards," featuring Lewis and Shaw towering over the parquet, with championship banners in the background.

"It was clear the expectations for Reggie were very high at that time," Jordan said. "There was a lot of pressure on him, but it didn't seem to faze him at all."

[+] EnlargeMichael Jordan, Reggie Lewis
Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty ImagesReggie Lewis was fearless in facing Michael Jordan, who said, "He shocked me a little bit."

In that March 31 game, as Jordan pulled up for his patented fallaway -- one of the most feared weapons in basketball -- Lewis waited patiently for MJ to launch himself, then stretched his arms and timed it so he deflected the ball just as Jordan released.

The block surprised Jordan, whose otherworldly elevation usually negated any chance of a rejected shot.

Most players weren't athletic enough to literally "hang" with Jordan. Lewis was one of the exceptions.

"He was a tough matchup," Jordan said. "He had those long arms that really bothered me.

"I was trying to be aggressive with him. I was trying to take advantage of his passive demeanor, but he didn't back down. He never relinquished his own aggressiveness.

"He shocked me a little bit."

As he so often did with young players, Jordan tried to verbally engage Lewis, yet Reggie wouldn't participate. He merely smiled and made a move to the basket.

"I saw it happen all the time," Shaw said. "Players tried to intimidate him, make it personal. But Reggie never said a word.

"He was a silent assassin."

MJ dismissed Reggie's initial block as an anomaly. When it happened again, this time on a pull-up jumper, Jordan became irked. The next time, he became concerned. And by the fourth time, on a lefty drive to the hoop, Jordan was irritated -- and somewhat spooked.

"His length confused me," Jordan conceded. "Every time I thought I had him beat, he'd recover and get up on me. When you have the skills to break someone down on defense and you can't, it makes you tentative offensively."

Here's where we pause for a moment to understand the magnitude of what Jordan is saying. The most dynamic scorer in NBA history is now admitting two decades later that he was shocked by what Reggie Lewis did to him, confused by his length and made tentative offensively.

How many other NBA players can lay claim to making Michael Jordan feel that way?

"He had success against Jordan in other games, too," Shaw said. "Michael would have 37 and Reggie would have 32, so all the talk was about MJ, but Reggie was right there."

Because Lewis was so understated off the floor, opponents mistakenly figured he lacked the killer instinct. They often found out differently when he stripped the ball from them or sent their jump shot into the seats.

Jordan Reggie was on his way to being something really special. Here's this talented guy who had never done anything wrong, who did so much for the city of Boston, and the next thing you know, he's gone.

-- Michael Jordan

Jordan likened Lewis to Detroit guard Joe Dumars, who, along with Isiah Thomas, led the Pistons to back-to-back championships. Dumars was on a roster that included Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman and John Salley, and their supersized personalities often overshadowed his accomplishments.

"Joe never talked trash," Jordan said. "And Reggie was the same way. If you started yapping at either of those guys, they just smiled at you.

"They had that inner confidence where they believed, 'You can say what you want, but I'm still going to play my game.'"

In spite of Jordan's poor shooting in that epic March 31 battle, the Bulls still led by three in the waning seconds. That's when Lewis came down and drilled a 3-pointer to tie it. It was the first and only trey he attempted all night.

It wasn't until the second overtime that the old master, Bird, came to life and ripped off nine points to enable the Celtics to hang on for a 135-132 win.

Jordan retreated to the visitor's locker room shaking his head. None of his teammates dared to rib him about a skinny kid from Baltimore blocking four of his shots.

"No, nobody did," Jordan said. "That's because they understood who I was up against. They knew Reggie Lewis was no slouch.

"When someone with his talent does that to you, you can live with it."

Asked if anyone else had ever blocked four of his shots in one game, Jordan answered, "No one had ever done it before, and no one has done it since."

Had Reggie Lewis lived, would there have been additional battles with Jordan to add to the highlight reel? How much better could he have been? What kind of legacy would he have carved out in a city that had already embraced him as one of its own?

Calhoun firmly believes Lewis would have been a Hall of Famer. Jordan said Reggie would have been a "perennial All-Star," and Shaw is convinced he could have been one of the greatest Celtics of all time.

"He was on his way," Bird noted. "He was a gamer. He just came to play. That was it."

A year after that epic battle with the Bulls, Reggie Lewis was chosen for his first All-Star Game. Jordan, who remained curious about the budding Celtics star, made a point to chat with him in the locker room. Although Lewis was predictably quiet, he was also comfortable with his place on the roster.

"He was showing us older guys respect," Jordan said, "but he also knew he belonged."

On a warm July afternoon in 1993, Reggie Lewis went with a friend to Brandeis University to shoot baskets. He had received conflicting diagnoses regarding his condition and was advised not to exercise strenuously.

He launched jumpers for about an hour. He wasn't sweating profusely or working that hard, but he suddenly crumpled to the floor, gasping for breath, and then lay still.

He was pronounced dead two hours later, leaving his family, his friends, his city, his team and his NBA peers completely numb.

"I was in Chicago when I got the news," Jordan said. "It was so surprising, so sad.

"Reggie was on his way to being something really special. Here's this talented guy who had never done anything wrong, who did so much for the city of Boston, and the next thing you know, he's gone."

Brian Shaw and Reggie Lewis planned to grow up in the NBA together. They shared an agent, bought their houses at the same time, picked out new BMWs just days apart. They even went out and bought life insurance policies together.

"I miss him," Shaw said. "I miss the closeness of having a friend who was going through the same things as me.

"We used to talk all the time about how we wanted to be the breakout tandem, the Celtics backcourt to be reckoned with for a long, long time."

After Reggie's death, Shaw started a Thanksgiving giveaway in his native Oakland in memory of his friend, who hosted the same holiday charity in Boston.

Shaw left the Celtics in 1994. He later went on to win three rings with the Los Angeles Lakers. Jordan won six with the Bulls.

Reggie Lewis never had the chance to keep pace. He died too young, too soon, under murky circumstances that left more questions than answers.

Twenty years later, Boston still aches for him and still wonders what might have been.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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