To An Athlete Dying Young: The Tragic Anniversary of Reggie Lewis' Death

Sam EsbeContributor IJuly 27, 2009

“The time you won your town the race, we chaired you through the market-place; Man and boy stood cheering by, and home we brought you shoulder-high.”

Today marks the anniversary of one of the saddest days in my life, and that is the passing of Reggie Lewis. To place Reggie’s death as simply one tragedy in a large list of unfortunate events to happen to the Boston Celtics does do not justice to man that we loved.

Reggie was one of the few sports athletes who never saw himself as one. Perhaps it was his humble upbringings in Baltimore or was his rookie year when he found himself buried on the bench.

But the truth is that Reggie was a uniquely special human being. He was a man capable of lighting up a room with his smile. And in his 27 short years on this planet, he touched the lives of many and never forgot a soul.

“To-day, the road all runners come, shoulder-high we bring you home, and set you at your threshold down, townsman of a stiller town.”

Years before the NBA realized it could profit from Summer Leagues, individual teams used to hold training camps where training camp featured a mix of undrafted rookies looking for a guaranteed contract, young players trying to lock up a spot in the rotation, and veterans just playing to get in a workout or two.

Players would stay for hours after the camps ended with autograph-seeking fans. There was very little security and one could walk right up to any player and end up in a twenty-minute conversation on just about any subject.

One year, Reggie was slightly injured and didn’t participate in the training camp. Instead, he just sat back in a chair on the sidelines and talked with his adoring fans with his thick Baltimore accent and his trademark smile. At is was here that Reggie was at home.

As a young child, I once attended a Celtics luncheon, featuring a number of players, including Reggie. The audience could ask questions, and prompted by my family, I wanted to ask the group who was the more difficult team to play against, the Bulls or the Knicks.

Yet all that came out was "Which team is the best team in the league, the Bulls or the Knicks?" The room filled with laughter at the audacity of such a question, yet Reggie jumped in, understanding exactly what I meant to say, and answered the question, as such. And he did this, with a smile.

“Smart lad, to slip betimes away from fields were glory does not stay and early though the laurel grows, it withers quicker than the rose.”

It was clear from the first time he donned a Celtics green and white uniform that he could play. Even when he was stuck on the bench, unable to crack Head Coach KC Jones’ rotation in his rookie season, he was destined for becoming a very good basketball player.

Many have forgotten just how good Reggie was. He was silky smooth on the court, capable of hitting a three-pointer, but much more comfortable inside the arc with his mid-range game.

His sinewy build by no means meant the he couldn’t defend. In fact, it was the contrary. Reggie’s long arms proved to be a weapon on defense, locking down opponents, jumping the passing lanes, and blocking shots.

And he never backed down from the competition. When matched up with Reggie Miller, it was Lewis who would prove to be the better Reggie and he would relish the opportunity to go head-to-head with Michael Jordan.

“Eyes the shady night has shut cannot see the record cut, and silence sounds no worse than cheers after earth has stopped the ears.”

Reggie found stardom in his fifth season. The Celtics surrounded their rapidly aging Big Three with a number of athletic young players who could get up and down the court, with Reggie developing into the leader of the group.

He seemed to be the perfect replacement for the post-Bird years in 1992-93 when he lead the Celtics to 48 wins and the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Although they no longer had Larry Legend, this group was a very deep team with a still effective McHale and Parish, and of course, Reggie leading the way.

Matched up against a good young Hornets team—and two of his former Dunbar High School teammates, Muggsy Bogues and David Wingate—the Celtics put together a dominate offensive performance with 112 points, while shooting 55 percent from the field.

But they did much of this without Reggie. About thirteen minutes into the game, Reggie collapsed. He started the game in an unbelievable way and could not be covered, driving past his defenders and scoring at will.

And then, while striding up the left side of the court, he fell. I thought he tripped. It seemed like he just hit a bump in the rough Parquet floor and lost his footing. Or perhaps his feet got caught and tumbled down.

And then, he remained seated on the ground, visibly shaken, and glancing down to the other end of the court, as if even he didn’t know himself what just had happened.

How ironic that a man with such a big heart, could actually have a heart problem?

“Now you will not swell the rout of lads that wore their honours out, runners whom renown outran and the name died before the man.”

I don’t think anyone quite anticipated what would follow. Even though his Dream Team of doctors essentially told him that he would be risking his life by stepping on the court again, everyone seemed to hold out hope.

Things would have been a lot different Reggie Lewis been playing today. Medical conditions, especially those that might be life threatening, would be treated much differently. But the answer at the time that the Dream Team gave Reggie and his family was not an answer he was willing to live with.

Along came Dr. Gilbert Mudge, who defied the consensus from the leading cardiologists in the world by declaring that Reggie could resume his basketball activities. His name would be been more fitting had the “ge” ending been dropped.

“So set, before its echoes fade, the fleet foot on the sill of shade, and hold to the low lintel up, the still-defended challenge-cup.”

I remember going to sleep hearing the reports that something had happened to Reggie but nobody knew for certain. And as I ran downstairs, I saw my dad, sitting at the dining room table with a newspaper in his hands, crying.

And he told me to sit on his lap, because he had something to tell me. And when he delivered the news that Reggie had died, I felt like my world had collapsed. Of course, when you are young, any tragic news could be seen as such, but this truly was.

It’s hard to know whether Reggie’s life would have ended the way it did had he never been introduced to Dr. Mudge. In truth, Reggie was a competitor, born to play basketball and overcome anything placed in front of him. He could have retired and one day heading out for a jog, collapsed in the same way.

But I don’t know if would have hurt in the same way. Because when Reggie collapsed on the courts at Brandeis University, the emotion was not just pure sadness but regret. What if someone else had just told Reggie, “It’s ok. You don’t have to do this. Basketball is not that important.”

What if someone close, a friend, a teammate, or a relative, had just grabbed Reggie on the morning of July 27, 1993 and told him they were going to see a movie.

Would our shining star still be alive today? Would he still be handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving Day to family’s who could not afford one?

“And round that early-laurelled head will flock to gaze the strengthless dead, and find unwithered on its curls, the garland briefer than a girl's.”

When an athlete dies before his or her time, we often mourn and think about what could have been, in the sport, that he or she played. One of my greatest regrets, and I put myself in this category of people who have done this, is that Reggie’s death was and remains viewed as a tragic even in Boston Celtics’ history.

But it was more than that. Reggie was a phenomenal human being and was capable of accomplishing a lot more than he did on the hardwood floor.

Reggie left behind a loving wife and two very young children. And he also left behind millions of adoring fans.

We lost one of the brightest basketball stars, exactly 16 years ago. But more importantly, we lost a great man.

RIP No. 35. We miss you.


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