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Lewis' Death at Center of Controversy : Pro basketball: Report links cocaine to former Celtic.

March 10, 1995|ELLIOTT ALMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A week before Reggie Lewis' No. 35 is to be retired by the Boston Celtics, revelations about his controversial death nearly two years ago have shaken the Boston medical community, the team and family and friends of the former basketball player.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that physicians suspected that cocaine killed Lewis in the summer of 1993, but it was never revealed because of concern for his reputation and financial interests of as much as $15 million for his family and the Celtics.

Although unable to offer unqualified evidence of drug use, physicians involved in Lewis' diagnosis, treatment and autopsy told the newspaper they suspected cocaine damaged his heart.

Lewis collapsed during a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets two years ago, then died three months later while shooting baskets in a Brandeis University gymnasium at Waltham, Mass. He was 27 and had reached NBA stardom.

The medical case became one of the most discussed in recent memory after Lewis abruptly left a group of Boston physicians, called the Dream Team of cardiology, for another doctor across town who offered a contradictory diagnosis.

Although some doctors suspected cocaine use, citing heart scars as consistent with that, they said they could not test the Celtic captain for drugs because Lewis initially refused, the Journal reported. Furthermore, Lewis had not been tested recently by the NBA because league policies prevented testing of veterans without reasonable cause. Lewis denied drug use.

"His denying it wasn't enough," said Lewis' agent, Jerome Stanley, in an interview with The Times. "Why couldn't they eliminate drugs? Because they thought he was a liar. I think he just rebelled. He resented their questioning. That's why he didn't (submit to a drug test).

"There is a whole different standard of judging his truth. He's a black kid from Baltimore whose mother is a drug user."

Lewis' widow, Donna Harris-Lewis, denied that he refused to take a drug test.

"He was a model citizen," she said at a news conference. "He was kind and caring, and this is the way I'll remember him and I encourage everybody to do the same."

The Celtics, expressing anger over the story, have threatened a $100-million lawsuit.

Lawrence Carter, who helped write an insurance policy for Lewis and his wife, said the basketball player was given an extensive background check not only by his company but by two others.

"Reggie was medically sound, he was socially sound," Carter told The Times. "If not, we would not have been able to place a policy of that size on a guy who was 24 years of age and playing professional sports in America."

The death certificate listed the cause of death as adenovirus 2, a common virus that causes colds.

"The adenovirus 2 finding was wildly improbable," Jeffrey Isner, a consulting physician on the autopsy, told the Journal.

But Paul Thompson, a cardiologist at the University of Pittsburgh who handled some of the first cocaine-related heart disease cases, said it was conceivable that a virus was the cause.

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