Friday, October 12, 2012

RIP: Reggie Lewis - Nov. 21, 1965 - July 27, 1993

Reggie Lewis
If you love Celtic basketball then you probably loved Reggie Lewis.  At Northeastern University he was so great that he is the only player in the school's history to have his jersey, number 35, retired; it hangs from the rafters of their arena. You thought, when he was picked by the Celtics in round one of 1987’s draft, that they had picked a great one who’d lead the team in bringing another few championship banners to town. He was a huge star. He would average 17.6 points per game. He would become the first player in Celtic history to have 100 rebounds, 100 assists, 100 steals, and 100 blocks in one season. And he was popular. He did a lot of work and donated a lot of money for children in rundown Boston neighborhoods. Boston loved Reggie Lewis.

And then, in a playoff game in May of 1993, Reggie Lewis collapsed. Extensive tests were performed; the results were reviewed by a panel of twelve cardiologists. Called the "dream team," they jointly concluded that Lewis had cardiomyopathy. A defibrillator might be necessary; his basketball career should end. Unable to accept this verdict, Lewis and his wife sought a thirteenth opinion. They found, at Brigham and Women's Hospital, a cardiologist named Gilbert Mudge who, after he examined Lewis, had great news:the Celtic star had only a relatively harmless fainting disorder. At a press conference Mudge announced: "Mr. Reggie Lewis will be able to return to professional basketball ... without limitation."

Almost exactly two months later, on July 27, Reggie, practicing off-season at the gymnasium of Brandeis University, collapsed again. Two campus policemen were on the scene quickly; both performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation efforts while awaiting an ambulance. Donna Lewis, Reggie's wife, rushed to a hospital in Waltham. Holding Reggie's hand she leaned to his ear and told him that everything was going to turn out okay. "Hang in there! Come on, wake up," she said. She was talking to a man who was already dead. On August 2, Larry Bird, Senator Kennedy, and some fifteen thousand other people lined up for his funeral.
When I was at Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain (adjacent to Boston) in 2007, I visited the graves of poets buried there. Later I remembered that it is also the final resting place of Reggie Lewis, and I wished I had visited his grave as well. This past Monday, having a morning to fill before joining the afternoon events of Dead Poets Remembrance Day at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, I decided to return to Forest Hills and visit the grave of Reggie Lewis. Unfortunately, it being Columbus Day, the cemetery office was closed. Maps of the cemetery were available at the entrance, but Reggie Lewis was not on the list of distinguished people buried there.

I meandered around and around on the narrow curving roads of Forest Hill's two hundred and seventy five acres, hoping to maybe run across a maintenance worker who could tell me where Reggie Lewis is buried. I even took to stopping to ask the few pedestrians I encountered if they might know. At this I got lucky: a woman I asked,surprised that Reggie Lewis was buried here (and I was surprised that she, a matronly woman looking to be around sixty, would even know who Reggie Lewis was), whipped out her I-Pad, did some googling, and kindly informed me that Reggie Lewis's grave is unmarked, but that he lies beneath the ground facing the grave of one James O'Bryant on Dogwood Lane.

I found Dogwood on the map, drove to it, parked at the south end of it. Luckily, Dogwood Lane is not too long, and the plots are layed out in a more-than-less regimented fashion. I set off on the west side of Dogwood looking at every single stone in the series of hedged squares. Reaching the north end I crossed Dogwood and walked up and down among the rows of stones on the east side. Eventually, feeling a mite of despair, I saw that I was nearing the end. I had examined perhaps a thousand headstones and had not found the one I wanted to find. I consoled myself: the morning was sunny, warm, and blue-skied, and I love walking in cemeteries, and I've lived through many other disappointments in life; this is just another disappointment to pile on the pile of disappointments. No big deal. Then, within the very last hedge-lined square I had yet to walk in -- i.e. the square right next to my parked car -- and right before my eyes stood the marker of James O'Bryant. I photographed the plot across from it.

The Unmarked Grave

I couldn't help but wonder why his widow has not had a marker placed there; I considered that perhaps she had, and that ... like the graves of Sylvia Plath and James Dean ... it had been chiseled away at by avid souvenir-seeking fans -- believe me when I say that Boston loved Reggie Lewis -- until it was in no condition to remain standing.
Donna Lewis sued Doctor Gilbert Mudge (and three other doctors) for malpractice. As the trial played out, following some three years of dispositions and hearing, it was a daily front-page headline in both the Globe and the Herald. Donna Lewis was vilified by some as greedy; after all, it was said, she was already rich from her husband's life insurance and his Celtics contract. Never mind that rich might not feel that great when you've lost the man you love, the father of your two young children, lost a future of treasured companionship. Her courtroom ordeal ended in a mistrial. She sued again. She lost again.
At some point during all the dispositions and hearings a Globe reporter named Will McDonough asked a fellow reporter, Howard Manly, "Did you know that Reggie has no gravestone?" Manly did not believe this could be true. They drove out to Forest Hills. McDonough was right.

When, some time later, Donna Lewis was told that people wondered why there is no headstone, she said "I don't think that with all the stuff that has taken place, I don't think he's really at rest right now. Nothing about him passing from this earth has been right."

I can only guess that Donna Lewis, to this very day, is unable to think of her husband as being "at rest."

And I can only hope that he is.
Ephemera #1 - I read many articles on the Internet researching the facts of Reggie Lewis' life. In one, James O'Bryant's grave is described as being marked by a "huge mausoleum." Mr. O'Bryant was a distinguished man -- Northeastern University's African-American Institute is named for him -- but his grave marker is way more modest than a "huge mausoleum."

Ephemera #2 - One of the Brandeis University policemen who performed mouth-to-mouth resusitation efforts on Reggie Lewis was one James Crowley. Exactly eleven days short of ten years after this good deed, Crowley, now a member of the city of Cambridge's police force, gained national infamy after arresting the very distinguished and harmless Professor Henry Louis Gates at the professor's Cambridge home for disorderly conduct, after a misunderstanding about Gates being the resident of the home, not a black man burglarizing it. Crowley was accused of having been motivated by racial profiling; ironically he was considered such an expert on how to avoid racial profiling that he was an instructor for a regular class on the subject at a leading Massachusetts Police Academy.

Obama, Crowley, Gates, and Biden at the famous beer summit.


  1. I remember Reggie Lewis well, but you gave new ( to me ) facts . thanks George, Larry Long

  2. Obviously his wife has to be a monster to put him in an unmarked grave like some homeless person but it doesn't say much for the Celtics or him teammates to let that happen.

  3. I can't believe a LEGEND is buried in an unmarked grave. That really saddens me and I think there's no excuse for it not even the one given by his widow. I wonder if she has to approve this before it can be done and if not why the long wait? He was much to great in life to not be honored in death.

    1. Since this post is about five years old, Reggie may got a proper marker in the meantime. When a nice spring day comes I'll drive up to see.