Remembering Reggie by Bent
Twelve years ago today, the Celtics organization suffered a tragic setback, from which it has never really recovered. One day later, a young English kid, received his copy of USA Today from the news store and after the momentary excitement of seeing a picture of his hero on the front cover was suddenly forced to come to terms with the news of that hero's untimely demise.
I will never forget that weekend. My parents were down in London and I was home alone. When they returned Sunday night with a gift for me (a Reggie Lewis poster), I told them what had happened. They didn't really know who I was talking about, but they knew how badly it had affected me. I will never forget Reggie Lewis, either.
Whilst this was a topic I wanted to address, I haven't planned what I wanted to say. I didn't want to imagine what might have been, but invariably will touch upon the subject. I didn't want to compare Reggie to Paul Pierce, but drawing such comparison is difficult to avoid. I didn't want simply to focus on the statistics, or Reggie's personality and character, but it would be impossible to do the man justice without at least mentioning those at some point.
Instead, I have decided to write from the heart...and the heart is as logical a starting place as any, given the fact that it was Reggie's heart that made him the special player (and person) that I will never forget. Sadly, it was also the organ that failed him and caused his tragic death at Brandeis University just 12 weeks after collapsing on the court in the playoff opener against the Hornets and just 10 weeks after being told he had "a normal athlete's heart", but crucially not having been given the all clear to continue playing.
I don't want to talk about Reggie's death and the ugly, and in most people's opinion, inaccurate controversy over alleged cocaine use in the aftermath. What I do want to do is remember Reggie's life, or more specifically his Celtics career.
As a player, Lewis was unique in the modern game. (Some have said he was a lot like Sam Jones). The closest thing to Reggie in the current game is probably Rip Hamilton, because they both have the mid-range game that hardly anyone has these days, but there was more to Reggie than that. He was athletic like Hamilton, but also made use of his long arms to develop a post game and become a sound rebounder and excellent defensive player.
Reggie's bread and butter though, *was* his mid-range game. He was simultaneously graceful and awkward, did most of his scoring in the flow of the game, but you could go to him for a big hoop as and when it was required and as a result, he would often find the ball in his hands in the fourth quarter, yet still, refreshingly, wouldn't tend to force shots.
Though eminently capable, Reggie would rarely shoot three pointers, preferring instead to showcase his repertoire of pull-ups, leaners, floaters, turnarounds and fadeaways, whether it be off the catch, on the dribble or coming off picks. He also could take smaller defenders down low to finish with maybe a hook or a fadeaway and was also more than capable of getting to the rim, or making the smart pass.
Lewis was more than just a scorer though. He was quiet (Robert Parish called him the silent assassin), but a tremendous leader. With his consistency and style, Reggie wrote the book on leading by example. Towards the end of his career, it seemed he would have 20 points, or close to it, every single game. He could have scored more, but he simply wasn't greedy enough, instead expending that excess energy on the glass or on the defensive end. He also played with respect for his teammates, officials and opponents. A word that always springs to mind when considering Reggie: Class. On a breakaway, he would often gracefully, but gently, glide in for a simple dunk. Two points, no jawing, no need. Class.
Lewis was only a twenty points per game scorer, but he was incredibly efficient in doing it. Reggie's shooting percentage was always around 50%, unlike the go-to guys of today's game whose percentages tend to be in the low-forties. A measure of his consistency was the fact that he scored in double figures in each of the last 41 games of the 1990-91 season and nearly all of the ones thereafter.
Many of today's top scorers are also not known for their defense. Lewis, although never rewarded with an all-defensive team selection, matured into one of the best defensive shooting guards in the league, leading all guards in blocked shots for two years running, ahead of the likes of Jordan and Drexler. He was the only Celtic ever to have 100 rebounds, blocks, assists and steals in the same season (although Parish did it as a Warrior and Russell maybe did it too, but they didn't record the defensive stats in those days).
One can only imagine what would have happened if Lewis had been able to continue playing. I remember being very excited when it was announced that Reggie's career looked set to continue following his collapse. That he wasn't an all-star in his final season remains one of the biggest injustices I can recall. Of course, without the big numbers and the highlight reel plays (which he was capable of, but didn't need to do), he was ridiculously left out. I can remember that B.J. Armstrong, Horace Grant, Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson were on the Eastern Conference team the following year, none of whom were fit to hold Reggie's jockstrap.
Of course, he couldn't continue playing and the fact that he tried to, ultimately was the reason he died. I would much rather be reflecting on the tragedy of a young player not being able to continue to play the game he excelled at, than to look back on the tragedy of his death, which although it affected me greatly as a fan, must have been infinitely harder to take for his family.
Maybe if Reggie were still here today, he would impart his wisdom on the current Celtics the way Hondo, Jo-Jo, Russell and the Chief often do. If only Paul Pierce could play the game with the same level of class, the same commitment to defense, the same respect for his teammates, opponents and the officials, the same unselfish and efficient offensive attitude, the same level of class. Then maybe he would have the talent to become a special player, like Reggie was (and now always will be).
Alas, Reggie is the last true link to the past. He never won a championship, but he originally plied his trade with Larry, Kevin and the Chief and learned to play the game in the same way. When Larry's career wound down, it was Reggie, not McHale or Parish who took over the lead. It was fitting that when Reggie couldn't play in that Hornets series, McHale (who most assumed was finished) "had Reggie's back" and nearly got the C's through. Dee Brown is probably the only player who played with the same level of heart (remember the Orlando series in 1994?) but he simply lacked Reggie's undeniable talent and was almost fighting alone as the foundation of the franchise crumbled around him. Of course, no one seems to play the game that way these days.
Whilst I am aware that I have rambled on for a long time, I want to leave you with 10 memories I have of Reggie. In no particular order, these were not necessarily Reggie's best ever performances, but just things that come to mind when I look back at his career and hopefully they serve to illustrate the type of player he was.
1. The first time I saw Lewis play. This was in the classic game 7 duel between Bird and Dominique in 1988. This skinny rookie hardly played, but came off the bench to hit a pull-up jumper and a short turnaround just when the C's needed it. "I like this kid," I thought to myself.
2. The following year was the one when Larry missed virtually all of it with a foot injury. Reggie scored over 20 points in all three playoff games as the eighth seeded Celtics were no match for the Pistons.
3. In 1990, the game 5 loss against the Knicks will be remembered for the Celtics losing on their homecourt and for Larry Bird's missed dunk, but I remember it for how Reggie (by then a key member of the team and sporting a bald head for the only time in his career) momentarily took over with some spectacular drives in the fourth quarter.
4. In 1991, the C's made an incredible run over the last 16 games, winning 15 and taking the Atlantic division title. The highlight of that run was a 135-132 double-OT win over the Bulls. Lewis shut down Jordan early (although he finished with 37) and scored a typically quiet 20-something points. He hit a clutch three to tie the game in regulation, incredibly only his second of the season. Had a bit of an adventure at the line late, missing 4 of 6, but did enough to clinch a big win at the Garden.
5. The following season was Bird's last and he was a late scratch for a Nationally televised match-up with the Bulls. Lewis went toe-to-toe with Jordan, who shot 12-28 (and several of the made baskets were against Kevin Gamble and Rick Fox). Lewis held him scoreless over the last five minutes and scored a typically efficient 21 in the Celtics 97-86 win, including a couple of memorable up-and-under type moves where he schooled MJ.
6. After anchoring another late season run for the division title, Lewis took over as the Celtic's go-to guy in the 1992 playoffs. After seeing off the Pacers in three, Boston ultimately would lose 4-3 to the Cavs, but the series represented the passing of the torch from Bird to Lewis, who shot 53% and averaged 28 points in the playoffs, including a 42 point effort in an OT loss. (And then DIDN'T make the all-star team the following year?!?!) I still remember Mike Gorman making the best call of his career "Reggie is carrying this team on his slender shoulders".
7. A simple regular season game against the Jazz and the C's didn't even win (losing 92-91) but this game was classic Reggie. He scored 13 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, almost single-handedly carrying the C's to the win. His hoops were a baseline jump shot, a drive and hanging floater, a leaning off-balance one-hand bank shot from the top of the key, an off-balance double-clutch pull-up (plus the foul) and a driving lay-up. Typical Reggie, displaying his full array of moves.
8. The Bulls came to town without MJ early on in the 1992-93 season. Lewis simply went off. On fire from the outside, he (ably backed up by Dee Brown who also caught fire) canned a bunch of outside shots and ended up with 32 in the C's 101-96 win. He also threw in a couple of fast break dunks for good measure. On this day, he was pretty much unstoppable.
9. When the Suns (that team with Barkley, Marjerle, Ainge, KJ, etc.) came to Boston late on in the season, it was a regular season classic. Lots of runs and excitement. Reggie scored 20 points before half-time and I swear, it was the quietest 20 points ever. The announcer just suddenly exclaimed "Reggie Lewis has TWENTY points" and then you realised how badly he was pouring it on. Once again, a beautiful array of moves, including a gorgeous jumper off a stutter-step, a long buzzer beating three, several tough one-on-one moves and a clutch turnaround fadeaway with a man draped all over him. Lewis finished with 38 in the C's 118-114 loss against the league's best team, but should have had a chance to win it from the line in the closing seconds. Poor officiating there effectively cost Reggie what might have been his signature game.
10. Reggie's last game will always be remembered for the stomach-churningly frightening collapse, but he certainly played well before that point. Unstoppable again, the non-allstar had 17 points on 11 shots in 13 minutes, which was enough to give the Celtics a lead that they held onto, although they would ultimately fall short in the series.
That's my memories of Reggie (well, some of them). He's the only professional athlete I have ever been inspired to write as much as this about and has been an inspiration to me throughout my life. Reggie Lewis...sheer class.