Thursday, June 19, 2008

Dart Adams presents Memories Don't Live Like People Do: Remembering Reggie Lewis

I'm laid back like Reggie Lewis when he's shootin' a jumper! © Dart Adams circa 1991

My beloved Boston Celtics have finally won the NBA Championship after a 22 year drought. In the wake of this championship run, many people are calling Paul Pierce the best all around scorer and offensive threat in Boston Celtics history. While people argue whether or not he has a better all around offensive arsenal than Larry Bird, I immediately begin thinking about the offeensive game of one of my childhood heroes. His name was Reggie Lewis.

Reggie first showed up on my radar back in 1983 when he was a freshman at nearby Northeastern University. He got quite a bit of attention from the Boston Globe partly because he was one of the main reasons that Northeastern University was challenging for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Reggie Lewis was a tireless worker, he could slash and penetrate, he could rebound, he’d pass the ball and he was a pesky defender who picked your pocket or blocked your shot. At that time, all I knew about Reggie Lewis were from his black and white pictures in the paper and reading about his latest exploits in the Globe then scanning the local college basketball box scores.

It wasn’t until later on that the local news stations started doing regular features about the Northeastern Huskies and Reggie Lewis and their games would occasionally air on television buried in the high UHF channels. While Boston College games were aired live, Northeastern games would be pre-taped and aired at the oddest hours of the day.

I didn’t care because I got to see Reggie play. He did it all on the court and he made it look effortless. Reggie would drop 30 points, get 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks and never once get excited, yell, or even pump his fist...he’d just get back on defense. Reggie just did whatever it took to win.

He had a signature shot that was unblockable. He would elevate and lean back as he shot it making it extremely difficult to get a hand on. Reggie had an amazing mid range game, he was good with his back to the basket as he improved his turnaround jumper while at Northeastern and he had deceptive speed and surprising jumping ability making him a nightmare in the open court. Reggie had improved many facets of his game in college, including his handles, defense and free throw shooting.

Being that Reggie was used as a reserve on a Dunbar Poets squad that featured Muggsy Bogues, David Wingate and Reggie Williams no one knew that Reggie was that great of a player (even though those Dunbar teams went 60-0 between 1982-83).

Before you knew it, Reggie Lewis had become a celebrity in Boston. His popularity was most evident in the South End and Roxbury as Reggie spent quite a bit of time in those areas giving back to the community and working with young people.

While most cats that were big man on campus and sports stars were assholes that really felt themselves a bit too much, Reggie Lewis was the total opposite. He was easy going, quiet and approachable. Reggie always had a smile on his face and he was easy to spot at 6’7” rocking his ever present Dunbar Poets jacket.

It was hard not to love Reggie Lewis. This guy would give you the shirt off of his back. He sacrificed and did whatever needed to be done for his team to be successful. There was one legendary game where Reggie torched the other team so Northeastern could go back to the NCAA Tournament and get national exposure.

He had broken his hand during the game but didn’t tell anybody. He figured he’d just play through the pain and sort it all out once his team won. He blocked shots, stole passes, shot jumpers and dunked a good portion of the game on it all because he couldn’t stand to disappoint his teammates and coach Jim Calhoun when they needed him most.

Reggie was almost too good to be true, both on and off the court. Once his collegiate career was over in 1987, he had become the greatest scorer in Northeastern University history with 2,709 points and he lead them to a 102-2o (70-6 conference) record and three conference titles and NCAA berths between the years of 1983-1987.

Yet and still, Reggie would still walk around campus, the South End and Roxbury as if he was just a regular college student and not someone who got national press.

I used to see Reggie all the time because he frequented Braddock Drug, a store that my mother worked during his college days plus he used to run pick up games all the time around the neighborhood and near campus. He was like a superstar that everyone around knew was a star but him.

After his squad was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament we all knew that the NBA would come calling. The draft had multiple rounds back then and there was no question that Reggie was getting drafted. The question was where?

The Boston Celtics had gone to the NBA Finals that year and held the 22nd pick in the first round. Last year, they'd drafted Len Bias to disastrous effect. Luckily, no one drafted Reggie and Red Auerbach pulled the trigger and drafted him. Reggie was in his apartment on campus when he got the call. He promptly got dressed, hopped on the Green Line and rode it to North Station to meet some of the most historic figures in basketball history at the old Boston Garden.

Red Auerbach, a bunch of future Hall Of Famers (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Bill Walton) and his coach K.C. Jones. The Celtics wanted to get back to the title game and Reggie was going to be a big part of their future.

His first season in the NBA as a rookie required him to be a backup at both shooting guard and small forward. He played against the Big 3 everyday in practice and Larry Bird took him under his wing early on. Reggie showed flashes of brilliance during his rookie year, scoring 4.5 ppg in short minutes but his breakout year was still forthcoming.

The 1988-89 season started out ominously for the Boston Celtics as Larry Bird played in only the first six games of the year before he broke his foot and was gone for the year. This provided Reggie Lewis the opportunity to step up and become a starter.

Although the Celtics struggled to 42-40 and stumbled into the playoffs before being swept by the Detroit Pistons in the 1st round Reggie was a revelation, scoring 18.5 ppg on the season but 21 ppg in 57 total starts. Eyes started opening across the league and people took notice of Lewis' explosiveness and athleticism.

The next season, Larry came back into the fold and Reggie Lewis was moved into the starting lineup alongside him. The Celtics had drafted a bunch of young talent to go with the Big 3 like Kevin Gamble and Brian Shaw. The Celtics were solid throughout the year at 52-30 but the once again faltered in the playoffs as they lost in the first round to the younger and faster New York Knicks.

Reggie was brilliant that season, he slashed his way to the basket, played team defense and he seemed automatic with his jumper out to 20 feet. Reggie shot almost 50% on the season a lot of the time which is phenomenal for a jump shooter. Reggie was being groomed to take over as the team leader once his “big brother” Larry retired.

After that season, the turning point happened, coach Chris Ford knew that the Celtics had to begin to focus on the future and get back to uptempo basketball if they wanted to win but use the Big Three in the halfcourt game and shorten their minutes to keep them effective.

Reggie Lewis lead a young crew of players including Kevin Gamble, Brian Shaw and Dee Brown while bridging the gap between Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. With Reggie Lewis leading the way the Celtics got out to a 56-26 record before being eliminated in the playoffs but the powerhouse known as the Detroit Bad Boys.

Reggie averaged 18.7 ppg and he played brilliant basketball but he knew that it was time to step up his leadership and game to another level as Larry Bird and Kevin McHale were nearing the ends of their careers and the window of opportunity was closing fast. He threw himself into training and he worked tirelessly in the offseason.

Oddly enough, Reggie still frequented his old haunts from his Northeastern days. Even though he was a millionaire on national TV with a shoe deal from Reebok and his own commercials and series of posters you could still approach him and ask for an autograph and talk to him and he’d never blow you off. Reggie was always in the ‘hood.

Kids watched their mouths around him, they didn’t even do that for the police and THEY had guns! It was nothing to see Reggie and Dee Brown or Kevin Gamble just driving around town or giving back to the community. Reggie loved Boston and it in turn loved him. He almost had a glow about him like he wasn’t like the rest of us.

That became evident in the 1991-92 season as the brass went out and acquired two point guards to push the ball up the court relentlessly in veteran John Bagley and Sherman “Little General” Douglas. The core of an even more aggressive Reggie Lewis, Kevin Gamble, Brian Shaw, Dee Brown and Rick Fox surprised the league. Reggie Lewis was finally unlocking all of the facets of his game and he revealed himself to be rather unstoppable sometimes.

He had a face up game, back to the basket game, he could score in the post, he could finish with power at the rim, he had a mid range game, he was damn near automatic out to 20” with his shot, he had a great first step and blow by speed plus he had a turnaround jumper and a lean back jumper that were both damn near unblockable.

If Reggie had three point range and wasn’t so unselfish he’d easily average 25 points a game. Kids all over Boston were at outdoor courts, gyms and in their driveways trying to shoot that leaner like Reggie Lewis often to comical effect.

Reggie earned his first trip to the All Star Game that season and he finished with 7 points and 4 rebounds in 15 minutes. It was bittersweet because he was the only Celtic invited to the All Star Game that season. Larry Bird’s back was a mess and Kevin McHale was coming off of the bench like he did as a rookie. The Chief was still going strong but his numbers kept him out of the running. Reggie began to realize that he was now the torchbearer for the Boston Celtics franchise.

Reggie Lewis made the entire country take notice that he was a superstar in the second half of the season by leading the Celtics to a 51-31 record with a young team and powering them to win 15 of their last 16 games of the season averaging 20.8 ppg in the regular season. Once they got into the playoffs, it was revealed that Larry Bird’s back was getting progressively worse so he’d be limited in the postseason.

Reggie simply put the team on his back and even though they were elminated by a clearly superior defensive team in the Celeveland Cavaliers, Reggie Lewis averaged an eye popping 28 ppg in 10 playoff games and he shot 53% on mostly jumpers and drives to the hole. The league began to recognize him as an up and coming superstar. The best thing was he was only 26 years old. The sky was seemingly the limit on Reggie’s potential as not only a basketball player but a human being.

Larry Bird retired in the offseason but he went overseas to Barcelona with the Dream Team to win a Gold medal in the 1992 Olympics first. The reins of the team and the captaincy was officially handed to Reggie Lewis. The new squad consisted of Alaa Abdelnaby, Xavier McDaniel, Derek Strong and a bunch of the old cast old characters minus Brian Shaw who was traded away. The Celtics started out the season a disappointing 12-17 and it cost Reggie a spot in the All Star Game that season.

Reggie went to his teammates and told them that as of January 1st, 1993 the record was 0-0 and it was up to them to play together and make a new season. The team responded and began to gel immediately after that meeting and they ran off an impressive 36-17 record during the calendar year of 1993 to finish at 48-34 in position to do serious damage as one of the hottest teams in the entire league.

Their first playoff game was against the young Charlotte Hornets in Boston Garden. Reggie was hyped up because it was his first ever playoff game as the undisputed leader of the Boston Celtics. It was his team. Boston was his city. He wanted to bring championship glory back to it and make his “big brothers” Larry, Robert and Kevin proud. He wanted to give Red a chance to light up his cigar and hoist number 17 above his head again. The ball was jumped up and it was on.

The Celtics jumped all over the Hornets early and eaven though they had players like Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson and Kendall Gill none of them could stop Reggie Lewis. He was on fire, he grabbed 2 offensive boards from Zo and Grandmama like it was nothing. He hit 7 of 11 shots, had an emphatic block, played tough defense and he scored 17 points in just 13 minutes on the court...then it happened.

He collapsed on the court and laid there for what seemed forever. It was speculated that he was hit by one of the Hornets on the way by or that he tripped. They played it in slow motion again and again before they took Reggie off the court.

Reggie came back in the game and sank another jumper before he was yanked for good. It would be the final game of Reggie Lewis’ NBA career but none of us knew it yet. The Celtics fell apart without him and lost on a last second shot by Alonzo Mourning.

That game would be the final one for Kevin McHale in a Celtic uniform. As much as it hurt to see the Celtics lose, I was way more worried about Reggie. He was given a full physical and check up, then the go ahead to play and work out by doctors and if you knew Reggie, he was going to play. The city of Boston was depending on him. He was the captain, after all.

Reggie died at Brandeis University gym while working out with some friends before he was to run some pick up games to get back to the Celtics next season and go hard for banner number 17. It turns out that Reggie’s heart was just too big. We already knew that in Boston, though. He had enough love for everybody and in turn we all loved him.

The only time I ever saw a weird look on the man’s face was when he got a bad call during a game. Sometimes I’ll be walking around Boston remembering that when I was a kid I saw Reggie there with a smile on his face taking pictures with people or just dropping by a local Y unannounced.

His funeral was one of the saddest days in the history of Boston. Everybody came out to pay their respects, kids in Summer School didn’t feel like talking in class and several teachers just canceled classes and allowed them to go to the funeral. I taped it and I have it storage. I still can’t bring myself to watch it and it would have been 15 years since he passed on July 27th.

Rest in eternal peace, Reggie. We love you and we’ll never forget you.



Anonymous said...

Damn man...

I wasn't even that deep into my NBA fandom when Reggie was coming up but I remember being told NOT to trade or sell my Reggie Lewis cards well before he passed because was the next Great One.

I'm gonna write a blog next week about how Kevin Garnett has changed my life just by watching him play this entire post season. Even though we're bitter rivals, I have a ton of respect for this Celtics team. I hope y'all enjoy this title! But watch out for my Sixers in 2 years....

Mr. Johnson said...

Thanks for that.

I was pretty young when Reggie passed, but I remember crying when a breaking news update came on the TV about Reggie collapsing in that gym.

Anonymous said...

dude I loved this blog and I loved Reggie and cried when he passed I also was at the unveiling of the Reggie Lewis center (no mention in the article)I was 12 when he passed and as a 12 year old good all my brother and I could do to honor him was name our dog after him haha so now those are 2 reggies I miss and make me think of childhood...

Dart Adams said...

@ Eroc:

If this is the Eroc I think it is then congratulations on the young one and great choice of a name. I didn't mention the Reggie Lewis Center because it was hard enough writing the article since I used to see this dude on the regular until I turned 18 and then one day a guy that we all thought of as a superhero just died, It was still hard writing it and this all went down 15 years ago.