Earlier today, I went to one of my favorite web sites, Celticsblog.com, and saw a subject on the message boards, “15 years ago today / R.I.P. Reggie.” I was taken aback for a second, and could not believe it has really been 15 years since Reggie Lewis collapsed and died while shooting around at Brandeis University during the summer of 1993.
I was 16-years-old at the time. The Celtics had just finished their first season without Larry Bird since 1979. Kevin McHale retired after the ’93 season, a season that came to an end with a first round playoff loss to Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson, and the Charlotte Hornets.
While that series will be remembered as McHale’s final games, it is remembered more so because during Game One, Lewis collapsed on the court and would never play in another game in the NBA.
From the start of the 1988-'89 season through the end of ’92-'93, Lewis played in 401 of a possible 410 Celtics’ games. He had just completed a season where he averaged 20.8 points per game for the second year in a row, to go with 4.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. In that final season for Lewis, he played nearly 40 minutes per game, playing in 80 of 82 contests.
That someone at the age of 27 could seem so healthy one minute and then be lying flat on the court the next, was difficult enough to understand. That three months later, he would collapse again and pass away, was simply beyond comprehension to me.
Like many, I will never forget where I was when I heard the news. I was playing with my high school team in a summer league game in Walpole, Massachusetts. My team was trailing by three points with about a minute left in regulation. Then in a very rare moment in my basketball career, I actually hit a three-pointer that tied the game and we played overtime.
As we walked to the bench at the end of regulation, the guy who was sitting at the scorer’s table, said to the other person at the table that he just heard about Lewis collapsing. He did not have any other information.
We then played the five-minute overtime and my team won. A number of us would pile into a car for the 25-minute ride back to our town. When we got into the car, we immediately heard the news over the radio that Reggie had died.
I sat in the backseat, silent, for the entire car ride. When I walked into my home, the feeling in my house was almost as if a family member had died. My mother was waiting at the door to tell me the news. My older brother was upstairs in his room in shock. At 16, I just could not fathom what could possibly have happened. Even today at 31, it still does not make sense.
Lewis was a star for the Celtics. He had taken over the team captaincy after Bird retired. He had a great story—going from not even being a starter on his high school team, to a brilliant collegiate career playing for Jim Calhoun at Northeastern University in Boston, to being a first round draft pick of the Celtics.
In four years at Northeastern, Lewis led the Huskies to four NCAA Tournament appearances and an amazing 102-26 record. When Lewis left Northeastern, he did so as the school’s all-time leading scorer and ninth all-time in Division I history with 2,709 points. The highlight of his career may have been an 88-84 win over Pervis Ellison and the defending National Champion Louisville Cardinals at the Great Alaskan Shootout to open the 1986-'87 season.
Once in the NBA, Lewis did not play much his first season with Boston. But in his second season, Bird missed most of the year due to injury, and it was Lewis who took full advantage. He went from per game averages of 8.3 minutes and 4.5 points as a rookie, to 32.3 minutes and 18.5 points in his second season.
Lewis had become a great player at the NBA level, and at the time of his passing, he was one of the top shooting guards in the NBA, trailing only Michael Jordan and a few other notable names. A great scorer, Lewis was equally adept as a defender.
But what Lewis accomplished on the court does not come close to telling his complete story.
This is from Reggie's Hall of Fame induction page from the Northeastern University web site, “Reggie Lewis left fans around the nation with memories of his basketball accomplishments. But also memorable was his demeanor off the hardwood. His contributions to the community were just as consistent as his jump shots.”
He was beloved by the city of Boston, especially those growing up in the inner city. For a few summers, I had played in the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League (BNBL). Other than myself and a friend of mine who also played on the team, everyone else on my team, and virtually everyone else in the league I was in, was from the inner city. They all worshiped Lewis.
Yes, part of it was what he did on the court. But there were many great players in the NBA. These kids loved Reggie not only for who he was when he was playing for the Celtics, but for the time he put in to helping the community. It seemed as if everyone on my team had a story about meeting Reggie.
It was common to hear someone talk about the time they were at the playground and Lewis just showed up to sign autographs or take a few jump shots with the neighborhood kids.
Lewis died on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, I had a BNBL game. I thought Lewis’s death hit my brother and me hard. It was nothing compared to how the kids from the city were dealing with it.
These games were always on the informal side. But before our game began that night, everyone got organized, and there was a moment of silence. Everyone had some type of tribute to Reggie. His uniform number, 35, was on their sneakers, his initials were on their jerseys, anything that would show their respect and admiration for Lewis was on display.
I tried to do my part. I wrote 35 on my sneakers. I kept the 35 there all summer. When I returned to my high school in the fall, I wrote “R.L.” and 35 on my football cleats and selected 35 for the number of my jersey. Basketball season came, and I again made sure to put his initials and number on the back of my sneakers.
About a month after Lewis died, I played in a basketball tournament that was held at Brandeis University. For most of the games, we did not play on the main court. But my team made it to the finals, and for that game, we found ourselves on the same court where a month earlier Lewis had collapsed.
I don’t know about my teammates, but I recall having trouble concentrating during pre-game layup lines. I knew I was on the court where Reggie had died.
Years later, I would attend Northeastern University. And although my days of playing were left behind in high school, I became very active in the school’s athletics department. It had been years since Lewis had died, and even longer since he starred at Northeastern. Even still, Lewis was still spoken of admiringly often.
Of all of Lewis’ charity work, the event he may have been most known for was giving away turkeys to needy people before Thanksgiving each year. He did this in Boston and in his hometown of Baltimore. His wife kept alive the tradition after his passing, working with the athletics department at Northeastern and the Boston Celtics to conduct the event.
In the years I worked at Northeastern, I was able to assist with the Reggie Lewis Turkey Give-a-way. It was an honor and something I will never forget. Not only because I was able in a small part to help someone and some family enjoy Thanksgiving when otherwise they might not have, but because I was able to again do a small part to make sure people remember Reggie Lewis for all of his wonderful qualities.
It has been 15 years since Reggie passed away. I have stopped trying to find answers to the unexplainable questions of how and why. I choose to remember Reggie for his game, for his smile, and for his contributions to everyone he came in contact with. He is missed today as much for what he did as a member of the Boston Celtics as he is for the countless lives he touched away from the bright lights of the NBA.