Growing up right outside of Boston, I was a big Reggie Lewis fan. He's still my favorite basketball player of all time. Lewis was one of the most efficient players in the NBA, and had he played today in an era of basketball analytics, he probably would have enjoyed higher star power and commanded discussion at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics and similar forums.
What made Lewis so good? Terrific defense and all-out hustle were a big part of it. So too was scoring efficiency. Hitting close to 50% of his shots, Lewis averaged 21 points per game in each of his last two seasons (91-92 and 92-93) and in the 91-92 season did something that Larry Bird never accomplished -- he led his Celtics team in scoring, steals and blocked shots per game. As Celtics Blog highlighted, Lewis, who was 6'7, also famously blocked Michael Jordan four times in one game.
Lewis had the unenviable task of following Bird as the next great Celtic. It was a task that, had Lenny Bias not died from a cocaine overdose the night the Celtics made him the 2nd overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft, Lewis would have shared with another potential superstar and the Celtics probably would have gone on to be one of the best teams in the 90s.
But that didn't happen.
On April 29, 1993, Lewis collapsed during a playoff game in Boston against the Charlotte Hornets. A "dream team" of 12 Boston cardiologists concluded that Lewis had cardiomyopathy, also known as "athletes heart" and a potentially fatal condition whereby the heart becomes too thick and beats irregularly. I've written about cardiomyopathy in the context of Eddy Curry and Alan Milstein addressed it when he argued on behalf of Curry that the Chicago Bulls had no right to insist on a DNA test as a condition of Curry's employment. This is also the kind of topic well discussed in David Epstein's new book The Sports Gene.
The doctors told Lewis that his basketball career was over.
Lewis then received a second opinion from Dr. Gilbert Mudge, a cardiologist who as Time Magazine reported, diagnosed Lewis with neurocardiogenic syncope, "a fairly benign fainting condition caused by nerve irregularities during or after peak periods of exertion." At a press conference, Mudge said, "I am confident that under medical supervision Mr. Reggie Lewis will be able to return to professional basketball without limitations." Mudge's opinion was later supported by other cardiologists, although some disagreed and supported the original diagnosis instead.
"We spent quite a bit of time with a libel litigator, and as much as I hate the fact that some injustices go unpunished, I decided that this was one that was going to get away," Gaston said yesterday. "I don't see my job to go on a personal crusade against one of the foremost newspapers in the country. My job is to help rebuild the Boston Celtics and run the company which oversees them." ...For a really good video about Lewis, check out this tribute:
Gaston immediately threatened to sue for $ 100 million, calling the article "defamatory and libelous." He said any proceeds from the lawsuit would go to the Reggie Lewis Foundation.
Several libel specialists contacted by the Globe expressed doubt that a suit would be filed. One said it would be an "uphill battle," and another added, "The last thing the Celtics want to do is bring this to court."
Gaston said a suit would have cost millions of dollars to pursue and that he felt the money could be more efficiently spent. "But, personally," he added, "I am equally disgusted now as I ever was by what appeared. That bitter taste will never leave my mouth."
Dick Tofel, vice president for corporate communications at Dow Jones, the Journal's publisher, said yesterday, "We said when we published the article that we were confident the article was fair and accurate, and we feel the same way three years later."
This post is adapted and expanded from a post I wrote three years ago.