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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 750

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This is the unmarked grave of Reggie Lewis.

Born in 1965 in Baltimore, Lewis was a star basketball player by the time he was a child. He attended Dunbar High School, a powerhouse where he played with Muggsy Bogues, David Wingate, and Reggie Williams, all long-time future NBA players. But Lewis wasn’t quite the high school star that they were (Bogues played at Wake Forest and Wingate and Williams at Georgetown) and so instead of going to a great college program, he played for Northeastern. But he was the best of all of them once he got to college. He won the ECAC North (today, the American East Conference) Rookie of the Year in 1984 and was a three-time first team ECAC North selection from 1985-87. All four years, he led the Huskies to the NCAA Tournament, including getting an upset win in 1984 and nearly making the Sweet Sixteen before falling in the last second against Virginia Commonwealth. Lewis not only left Northeastern as the all-time leading scorer, but he remains so today. To say the least, Northeastern has not had another Reggie Lewis since.

Though Lewis was a small-college guy and so hadn’t played against the competition that other high draft picks had, he was still a first round prospect. And he had the perfect situation. The Boston Celtics selected him with the 22nd pick in the 1987 draft. This was a critical time for the Celtics. The great core of big men that defined that team in the 1980s were again. Len Bias had died of a cocaine overdose shortly after being drafted, a huge blow for the Celtics that impacted them for a decade or more.

Lewis absolutely lived up to expectations. He was on the bench for most of his rookie year. But in his second year, Larry Bird got hurt and Lewis stepped up in a big time way. He scored 18.5 points a game in 1988 and was selected to the All Star Game. That was about the level he would play at for the rest of his sadly short career. He scored between 17 and 20.8 points a game between 1988 and 1993. His biggest flaw is that he was a terrible three point shooter, but that wasn’t as big a part of the game then as it is today. He was a pretty good shooter overall and while not a great rebounder, was functional for a wing.

On April 27, 1993, the Celtics were playing the Charlotte Hornets in the first round of the playoffs. Lewis collapsed on the floor. He seemed dazed, but sitting for a few minutes thought he was better. He even returned to the game, but felt dizzy again. He checked into the hospital the next day. He was diagnosed with focal cardiomyopathy, a heart disease that leads to an irregular heartbeat and quite often, death. It was to be the end of his career. But he couldn’t accept that. Hard to blame him; I can only imagine what that news must have been like to a young man at the peak of his athletic life. So he sought out a second opinion. And that opinion said, nah, it was neurocardiogenic syncope, which is a manageable condition. One problem: the first doctors were right and second was wrong. But Lewis decided to follow the second opinion. He started practicing for the next season. And on July 27, he dropped dead in the middle of a workout. There were plenty of rumors that cocaine use contributed to his heart problems. As far as I know, the results of that were inconclusive. He was 27 years old.

This really decimated the Celtics for a long time. Incredibly, the NBA had no provision under the salary cap that took a dead player’s costs off the table. So the Celtics had to count his contract for the next two seasons. So not only did the Celtics lose its generational talent, after having only a few years before lost its last generational talent before he played a game, thus leaving the team bereft of talent through the 1990s, but it had to deal with the financial implications too.

Reggie Lewis is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other basketball players who died way too young, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Len Bias is in Suitland, Maryland and Hank Gathers is in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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