For Celtics fans who were just discovering their love of basketball as Larry Bird’s career was winding down, our hopes came to rest on the slender shoulders of one Reggie Lewis. The lanky Lewis was born in Baltimore, Maryland. He played at legendary Dunbar High in Baltimore, but he played his college ball in Boston at Northeastern. So it only seemed fitting that the Boston Celtics made him their first round draft choice at 22nd overall in the 1987 draft, a mere year after the tragic death of Len Bias, the man who was supposed to serve as the bridge to future success as the careers of the original Big Three were winding down.
After an uneventful rookie year in which he saw little playing time, Reggie exploded as the Celtics 6th man in his second year. He became an all around great player very quickly. With a silky smooth shooting touch, fundamental passing skills, and the ability to both block shots and steal the ball as a swingman, Reggie had game. An Eastern Conference All Star in 1992, Reggie Lewis became the Captain of the Celtics after Bird’s retirement. Reggie Lewis was the future of the Celtics. Unfortunately, Reggie’s years in Celtic green proved too brief, as the Celtics were once again struck by tragedy.
On April 29, 1993 Reggie Lewis collapsed while running the court at the Boston Garden during the first game of a first round playoff series against the Charlotte Hornets. Reggie Lewis never played another NBA game. I have no desire to rehash the medical drama that played out after Lewis collapsed. I understood at the time why Lewis wanted a second opinion, and I understand why the first team of doctors wanted no part of clearing him to play. I can forgive Dr. Gilbert Mudge for being human and wrong in his second opinion that suggested Lewis would be able to play again. Unfortunately, some times tragedies happen, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them.
I was in my parent’s basement watching television on the night of Tuesday, July 27, 1993 when a news flash announced that an NBA All Star had passed away. I knew immediately that it was Reggie Lewis. I could feel it. My worst suspicions were confirmed when the News came on and announced that Reggie Lewis had collapsed on a basketball court at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Reggie Lewis was dead, and for the first time as a young teenager, I began to truly understand the nature of tragedy. It comes without warning and it can strike down the best of us.
All of the recriminations and speculation that followed both fascinated and pained me. Had Lewis used cocaine? Was there something that could have been done to prevent his tragic death? None of it matters really. We’ll never know how good Reggie Lewis could have been, and the Celtics suffered for years in the aftermath of his unexpected death. His wife and his two young children – one at the time still unborn – were the ones who really had to suffer the full force of his tragic death. My heart went out to them.
Reggie Lewis died 17 years ago today. His number 35 is retired and hanging in the rafters of the new Boston Garden, and he will always have a place within the Celtic family. Our time watching Reggie play may have been too short, but what a time it was. Rest in peace, Reggie.