This is the story of a mess to cry. Not by drugs, alcohol or other excesses that the US sports world knows too well, but by the waste of a career on the verge of reaching new heights. After a more than promising first few years in the big league, Reggie Lewis could eventually have registered his name alongside the other great Celtics in history. He should have even, only fate decided otherwise. A heart attack brought him down at just 27, leaving Boston with only inconsolable tears and the memory of beautiful promises that would never come true. Story of a life unfairly cut short.
August 1992, the Dream Team splashes its class all over the world during the Olympic Games in Barcelona. The enthusiasm is huge, the fervor is rising and kids around the world are passionate about this group of superstars who outrageously dominated world basketball for a few weeks. The following summer, on the other hand, will be much less festive for the world of the orange ball. First of all because at the beginning of June, it’s Drazen Petrovic, the Mozart of basketball, a true Croatian prodigy of the New Jersey Nets who died in a car accident. Not far from being considered the best European and best shooter in history, it is world basketball that is bereaved by this disappearance of Petrov’, who had already conquered Europe and was just beginning to charm America. . Not even two months later, new drama: while he is playing a training match in the middle of July, Reggie Lewis collapses, victim of a heart attack, and will not recover .
Born on November 21, 1965 in Maryland, Lewis discovered a passion for basketball at a very young age. After a brilliant career in High School, he joined Boston to play with Northeastern University. And the good performances are not long in coming: for his first year as a freshman, he is running at a very correct average of 17.8 points per game. Nationally, it’s hard to play anything with such a small university, but Reggie continues to have a blast on the court, and at the end of his four years of college, he proudly averages 22.2 points per game. Running for the NBA draft obviously sounds like a no-brainer. And the story could not have been better written, since it was the Celtics who selected him, in 22e position of the first round. It is therefore always in Massachusetts that Lewis will recite his ranges, and better still, in the largest historic franchise in the NBA.
The Celtics of the time are those of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, the era of the Big Three made in the 80’s. Before this 1987 draft, Boston had just come out of the NBA Finals lost against Magic and the Lakers, but still accumulated three titles throughout the decade of the 80’s. Suffice to say that this Celtics team is the best in the NBA, and for Reggie Lewis it will not be easy to find his place in the workforce. His rookie campaign turns out to be very discreet, spending barely 8 minutes in the field on average. Difficult to make a name for yourself in an ultra-rich workforce and contender for the NBA title each season. It is helpless that he attends the elimination of the Celtics by the Pistons in the Conference Finals.
“I don’t mind being in the shadow of three Hall of Famers at all, I just want to learn as much as possible from them.”
The following season will be of a completely different flavor for Reggie, who seizes his chance and truly makes a name for himself in the workforce. The main reason is an extremely injured Larry Bird who will only be able to play 6 small games in the season. Direct consequence: Reggie Lewis takes the rank, and will finally demonstrate all his talent. 81 games played, including 57 as a starter, for no less than 18.5 points per game, making him at 23 only the team’s second offensive option behind Kevin McHale. But more than that, Reggie doesn’t just score, he’s also a real Swiss army knife in defense, capable of blackening a game sheet in all stats compartments. Thus, he adds to his 18.5 points some 4.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.5 interceptions and 0.9 blocks. He gives himself thoroughly on the floor, and it does not take more to seduce the public of Boston Garden. But as good as it is, the Celtics machine jams yet again in the playoffs in the absence of Larry Bird, suffering a severe 3-0 by Detroit in the first round of postseason. Bis repeated a year later, where this time it was the New York Knicks who had Boston (3-2).
Also, at the start of the 1990-1991 season, the objective was clear: finally shine in the playoffs. Reggie Lewis is now a key part of the workforce, indisputable holder of the Celtics for his fourth season in the league. Always in his scoring standards, he is also asserting himself more and more as a very serious client in defense. At 34 and with a broken back, Bird is still around, but it’s up to Lewis to be the team’s blaster.
“I’ve never been afraid to go into contact, that’s what I like to do, so that’s what I bring now”.
And alongside an aging Big Three, that’s at least what Boston needs. Not to regain its glory of yesteryear, but if only to finally win a series of playoffs, something they have not done since 1988. And in the first round of this post season 1991, it is the Pacers of another Reggie, Miller this time, who stand in front of them. Lewis sublimates himself to offer the Celtics the long-awaited qualification: no less than 42 minutes of play per game, accompanied by 22 points and more than 6 rebounds. But the next round is another story, and once again Boston must surrender against fiercer Pistons.
A new disappointment, but also a certainty: Reggie Lewis has taken power, and better still, the succession seems assured for Boston. The Man after the Big Three will be named Reggie Lewis. This takeover materialized from the following season, 1991-1992, the best of his young career: at the height of his 26 years, he compiled 20.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists, but above all 1.5 interceptions and 1.3 block. Reggie has become an ultra-complete player, a formidable defender who is improving year after year in attack.
“I never really thought of myself as a scorer. But if there’s a shot to take, I’ll definitely take it.”
A beautiful philosophy that offered him his first All Star selection, in Orlando in 1992 where he scored 7 points and grabbed 4 rebounds. But Reggie still wants more: “I don’t want the All Star Game to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
On the strength of this superb season, where he notably wrote a line of history by becoming the only Celtic to compile at least 100 rebounds, assists, interceptions and counterattacks, Reggie began the 1992 playoffs full of hope. And after a first round dispatched against Indiana (3-0), the serious things begin in the semi-finals of Conf ‘, against the Cleveland Cavaliers. These are the Cavs of the great era, led by Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance, Mark Price or even “Hot” Rod Williams. The Celtics resist somehow, but will be out 4-3. The glory of the 80’s is over, Boston is struggling to simply pass the second.
Limited to 4 games in all of the playoffs, Larry Bird bowed out in the summer of 1992, leaving full responsibility for leadership and captaincy to a Reggie Lewis who again sublimated himself in the playoffs (almost 28 fists from mean).
“Everyone calls it ‘Reggie’s team’ now, and I don’t mind. It’s just a new challenge that I have to take up and I’m looking forward to it”.
At 27, no doubt, the boss of the Celtics is him. For the upcoming 1992-1993 season, Reggie intends to turn a corner and take his Celtics far during the playoffs.
Unfortunately, he cannot. During the first game against the Hornets, in the first round, he collapses on the ground. Heart disease, everyone fears the worst, but he is fine (from 3’40 on the video above). He recovers and attends as a spectator the elimination of his teammates against the Charlotte of Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Muggsy Bugs, Lewis’ former High School pal. Despite his heart ailment, the doctors assure him that he can start playing basketball again without risk. A big sigh of relief in Boston.
But fate intervenes, and it is the heart attack that strikes the unfortunate Reggie Lewis, only 27 years old, during a practice match at a University of Massachusetts in the middle of July, and this time he does not will not come under it. It will later turn out that Reggie was in fact suffering from a genetic heart defect.
It is one of those events that takes a step back from the world of sport, where too often passion takes precedence over reason. The collapse of a stadium, the plane crash that decimated the Manchester United team in 1958, a stupid car accident that brought down basketball’s Mozart, or a heart attack that struck down Reggie Lewis like so many others athletes around the world. For Boston the drama is cruel, but unfortunately not unprecedented. In 1986, a few days after the draft, Len Bias, the fantastic winger from Maryland selected in second position, died of an overdose. There is no doubt that the fate of the Massachusetts franchise, so disappointing during the decade of the 90’s, would have been different without the disappearance of Bias or Lewis, but it was not.
If only Reggie Lewis could have continued playing for the Celtics. If only he had been able to come back and show all his talent to make Boston one of the best basketball teams in all of America. If only he could have had the career he should have. If only the doctors could have made a better prognosis regarding his heart problems.
If only. But we are not rewriting history. Hi artist.
Drafted 22nd in 1987 by the Boston Celtics
450 matches played, 352 starts.
17.6 points / 4.3 rebounds / 2.6 assists / 1.3 steals / 0.9 blocks
Number 35 retired by the Boston Celtics.