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MIKE DOWNEY

He Wouldn't Let His Heart Serve as an Obstacle

July 28, 1993|MIKE DOWNEY

Every time I would hear or read about Reggie Lewis and his refusal to quit playing basketball, my mind would return to that Broadway play, "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" in which a sculptor no longer wishes to live because he no longer has the use of his hands.

I did not know Reggie Lewis, but I kept wanting to pull him aside.

I kept wanting to say: "Reggie, Reggie, Reggie. You're 27. You've got your whole life ahead of you. You've got friends, family, people who care about you. You've got no right risking your life this way. You've got so many things you can do besides play basketball."

I kept wanting somebody to save Reggie's life.

I kept wanting somebody to tell him about Hank Gathers.

But, of course, Reggie knew all about Hank Gathers.

I kept wanting somebody to tell him about Ernest Killum.

But, of course, Reggie knew all about Ernest Killum.

The heart is a lonely hunter, and creeps up on its victims so quietly. Sometimes it isn't heard at all. And other times it is so misunderstood. People such as Reggie Lewis, young people, proud people, so full of life, are fond of speaking from the heart, even quoting their heart. "My heart told me I should keep playing." "I had to follow my heart."

They ignore its warnings.

They say they would rather do nothing at all than not do what their heart tells them they should do.

So, when a young athlete in his prime such as Reggie Lewis sees his livelihood in jeopardy, sees his entire life's work threatened by a single episode, he is seldom inclined to listen to those who so cavalierly suggest that he should be willing to give it all up.

Hank Gathers did not want to hear it. Ernest Killum did not want to hear it. They were collegians, young, strong, fit, ambitious, energetic, brave. They were stubborn. They weren't interested in EKG readings or blood-pressure numbers or heart murmurs. Their hearts were as large and red as valentines and full of love and hope and trust.

So, when doctors told Reggie Lewis that he would never--should never--play basketball for the Boston Celtics again, he wondered how they could say such a thing. He had collapsed. So what? Many collapse. They collapse from exhaustion, from heat, from stress. All they need is some rest. Then they'll be good as new.

This is what Reggie Lewis told his doctors. This is what Reggie told his employers. And because the heart is such an unpredictable little muscle, his doctors and employers were not sure what to say back. They could advise Reggie not to play. They could order him not to run or jump or exert. They could monitor his progress, day by day.

But they couldn't save him.

Not if he refused to be saved.

Nobody could prevent Reggie Lewis from spending a summer's day inside a school gymnasium at Brandeis, bouncing a ball, jumping up and down, keeping himself in shape, doing what he loved. Nobody could barricade the door. Nobody could call a cop or a doctor whenever they saw Reggie Lewis playing basketball and have him physically restrained. Nobody could force Reggie Lewis into a lifetime of tranquillity at 27.

Reggie Lewis was a player. That was his life. He played basketball at Dunbar High in his hometown of Baltimore and impressed anyone who dropped by to watch. He spent four years in college at Northeastern and rarely missed a game, playing more than 4,000 minutes, averaging 22.2 points per game over four seasons and never, ever resembling anything but the picture of health.

Upon being made the 22nd choice of an NBA draft by the one team from New England most familiar with the quality of Northeastern's players, there were those who wondered whether Reggie Lewis had what it took to play basketball on a higher level. He had it. He appeared in 49 games as a rookie. One season later, he missed only one Celtic game and averaged 18 1/2 points against the greatest competition known to man.

Why did Reggie Lewis play so much? Partly because he was so good. Partly because he worked so hard.

But partly because Boston's previous top draft choice, Len Bias, had been cut down in his prime by a body that had not been given proper care.

Reggie Lewis' condition was different. It was not of his own making. But it was nonetheless serious, and he needed to take better care of himself before it was too late.

Men and women make sacrifices for their art, for their trades, for their dreams. This is what Reggie Lewis did. His work meant more to him than his very life.

I wish somebody could have made him see life differently, so what happened to him Tuesday would never have happened. I wish that when someone listened to his or her heart, they could be sure what it was trying to say.

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