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Urban Legend

BILL PLASCHKE

Raymond Lewis, Dead at 48, Is Still Considered L.A.'s Ultimate Street Player

February 14, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE

"What round were you taken in the NBA draft?"

Raymond Lewis held up one finger.

"How many points did you score against Long Beach State?"

He held up five fingers, then three fingers.

"We're going to leave now."

He curled his fingers tightly around my fingers.

But he was too sick. The tubes and tape stuck to his chapped lips and withered body were too much. It was too late.

We left. Everyone left.

Five days after my first and last visit with the best basketball player in the history of Los Angeles, Raymond Lewis died alone.

It was a Sunday morning, bathed in sun, then angry and dark.

The 6-foot-1 guard whose legend brushed every corner of a large diverse community died, at 48, in a sterile hospital room the size of a closet.

The man who'd flown died with one leg.

The man with the rich jump shot and priceless dribble died with no car, no phone and no money.

His burial is being paid by the proceeds of a life insurance policy purchased by brother-in-law James Pilcher.

"I did it because the man is a dignitary," Pilcher said.

The ruler of a kingdom of shadows. The presider over a congress of ghosts.

Every serious basketball fan in this city, playground runners and gym rats, from Compton to Crenshaw to the corner of Central and 109th, regards Raymond Lewis as the ultimate baller.

Yet he never played one minute of professional basketball.

He played only two seasons of college.

He never held a permanent job.

He never left Watts.

In those isolated spots in the rest of the country where Raymond Lewis is remembered, it is only for his stubborn will, his poor choices, his odd behavior.

Here, it's about the jumper.

"Without exception, the best player ever to come out of L.A.," Marques Johnson said.

Here, it's about the time he scored 52 points in a summer league game against Laker rookies while in high school.

"The best high school player I have ever seen anywhere," Jerry Tarkanian said.

Here, it's about the time he took on the city's 30 best playground stars in knockout games of one-on-one and went 30-0.

"How interesting that Allen Iverson won the All-Star MVP on the day Raymond passed away," said George McQuarn, his coach at Verbum Dei High. "Because Raymond was the Allen Iverson of his day."

The legend met the truth Sunday at 11:35 a.m. at County-USC Medical Center.

Lewis, an alcoholic, died after failing to seek medical attention for an infected leg, leading to an amputation from which he never recovered.

He spent his final days at home on a mattress on the floor of his mother's tiny duplex in Watts, his leg rotting, his body failing, refusing medical help, even once shooing away paramedics summoned by his mother's 911 call.

When he finally did agree to leave the duplex last month, he was blind and unable to walk because of an untreated stroke.

Once at the hospital, doctors told him he had 48 hours to live unless they amputated the leg, yet he would not consent.

"I can still go down to the corner and shoot the ball," he told Pilcher. "If my leg is gone, I can't do that."

Desperate, Pilcher and Lewis' uncle, the Rev. Joseph Peay, called the family to the hospital to persuade Lewis otherwise. One by one, relatives visited Lewis, pleading with him to have the amputation.

He finally agreed. But it took them all day.

When Raymond Lewis finally died, it was not as the object of a young man's dreams, but as the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom.

"My father felt that if he wasn't playing ball, he wasn't worth anything," said his daughter, Kamilah Lewis-Harris.

The tragedy here, for both a man and his community, is that he was right.

If he wasn't playing ball, he wasn't worth anything. He played as long as he could, for whoever would treat him like the star that he was.

Then he curled up on the floor and died.

I got the cell phone call Sunday morning while watching my 9-year-old son's basketball game.

It was from Pilcher, who had held Lewis' hand with me five days earlier.

"Raymond has passed," he said.

At that same moment I looked up to see a little boy hit a 15-foot jumper, then dance downcourt ahead of his teammates, one arm raised to the sky, another arm grabbing his jersey, dancing alone.

*

In his last pickup game, Raymond Lewis challenged James Pilcher for $10 and a six-pack of Coors.

Lewis made 15 consecutive shots.

He was 41.

In one of his last public appearances, Lewis agreed to pose for a shoe company billboard for an advertising campaign about playground legends.

While waiting for the photo shoot, he wandered over to a basketball goal in a nearby parking lot.

Marques Johnson, working in a TV studio nearby, walked up and saw Lewis shooting.

"He's out there in his black slippers and he's firing," Johnson said. "Swish. Swish. Swish. At least 15 straight."

The last vision was an appropriate one.

A parking lot goal, because that is where he was most comfortable.

Jumpers, because that is what he did.

Slippers, because he never left home.

Even when he was given a red Corvette to sign at Cal State L.A. out of high school in 1971, Lewis wouldn't leave the neighborhood.

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