AND THE LAST IS FIRST Lewis, Dunbar's 6th man, emerges from shadows as pro

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- The first two dunks executed by the lithe Boston Celtic with the bulging deltoids are emphatic and eye-catching, if not spectacular. But just wait, Michael Jordan, you haven't seen anything yet.

Suddenly, the basketball world is turned topsy-turvy, like Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling. Only this is more breathtaking. The basketball player, equipped with his special Reeboks, is literally flying head down as he slams the ball through the bottom of the net in a reverse jam. Strutting off the court, he says pointedly, "That's Reggie . . . Lewis."

Said Lewis' agent, Jerome Stanley, who secured the Reebok commercial and a five-year contract extension with the Celtics worth $16.5 million with 40 percent of the money deferred over 15 years, "Brian Shaw is the straw that stirs the Celtic drink. Larry Bird is the glass that holds them together, but Reggie is the ice that keeps them cool."

No more identity crisis for the once painfully thin Baltimorean who was the obscure sixth man on Dunbar High's 1982 mythical high school championship team. A gawky kid with an ugly jump shot, he caddied for the likes of Reggie Williams, David Wingate and Muggsy Bogues.

"Reggie could play, but he just wasn't aggressive in high school," said Bogues, the starting point guard for the Charlotte Hornets.

But Lewis, his financial future now secure, has left tread marks on his former Dunbar teammates while screeching front and center.

Williams, traded or waived three times in little over a year, recently took a substantial salary cut to join the struggling Denver Nuggets. Wingate was released by the San Antonio Spurs this summer after being indicted on two rape charges, and Bogues lasted only one season in Washington before he was dunked into the 1988 expansion pool.

"They all had bigger reputations than me in high school and then played for high-profile college programs," said Lewis. "But that only made me work that

much harder to make a name for myself."

He was still just "another Reggie" while shattering all the records at Northeastern University, a suburban Boston school known more for its five-year work-study program than its basketball prowess.

The Celtics would make him their first-round pick -- the 22nd player selected in the 1987 National Basketball Association draft -- long after Williams and Bogues had been spoken for. And Lewis would remain in the shadows as a lightly played rookie, in awe of celebrated Celtics superstars Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

"I was just happy to be part of a great team, but it was hard not to get down riding the bench all that time," said Lewis, victimized by an unwritten Celtics rule that rookies should be heard, but not seen on the hallowed parquet floor.

"I felt I could have contributed, but guys like Dennis Johnson and Larry kept telling me, 'Wait your turn; it will come.' "

Ironically, it was Bird's misfortune -- surgery on both his heels that sidelined him almost the entire 1988-89 season -- that finally gave Lewis his chance.

"It was a bad time for Larry, but a blessing for me," he said. "No telling what might have happened otherwise. I could still be waiting my turn.

"Replacing Larry as the starting forward gave me the opportunity to make mistakes and not worry about trying to do everything at once to impress the coach. I could relax and play my game."

Lewis became an fan favorite his second pro season, slashing to the basket and averaging 18.5 points a game. But he came of age the night of Dec. 6, 1989, going against Jordan and scoring 33 points, with six rebounds and four assists. He knew he belonged.

With confidence came a new maturity and self-perception. The naive, almost shy "boy-next-door" had grown into a high-scoring professional, capable of burning the opposition at either small forward or shooting guard.

As his recognition grew, so did his awareness that basketball was a business with few loyalties, even on a tradition-rich team like the Celtics, where the alumni celebrate all the championship banners hanging from the Boston Garden rafters.

"I saw how things worked when they traded Danny Ainge and released Dennis Johnson," Lewis said. "And then there was that business with Brian Shaw last year," he added, referring to the close friend who opted to play in Italy when the Celtics would not renegotiate his contract.

Lewis felt that he was also being taken for granted after another solid season last winter in which he averaged 17 points and improved his defense and passing.

"I don't speak out a lot, and some people view that as a sign of weakness," he said. "They thought I was the type who just went with the flow. It was time people started taking me seriously. I'm much better now in taking care of myself and business."

Lewis took his first decisive step in dropping ProServ, Inc., as his representative in favor of Stanley, who got Shaw a sizable raise after he returned from Italy.

"When I got Reggie his new contract, it was one of the top three in the league," Stanley said. "It's still in the top five. I'm sure what happened in Brian's case made them realize I meant business. But what the Celtics realized was that Reggie was a major part of their future foundation."

Lewis, averaging 18 points, is certainly one of the main reasons ++ the revitalized Celtics own a league-best 28-5 record and have rekindled championship dreams. But no one in the organization is brash enough to claim they knew he was destined for stardom.

"We all knew from Day One that he could be a scorer," said Chris Ford, who graduated from assistant to head coach this season. "But Reggie has become an NBA player beyond our wildest dreams. I don't hesitate playing him at guard or forward. Wherever he plays, I know he's going to do a lot of damage."

When the Celtics drafted him in 1987, there were murmurings that they had simply settled for a local college hotshot to appease the fans.

"Our thinking is just the opposite," said general manager Jan Volk. "We're usually reluctant to pick someone locally, especially a marginal player, because it puts them under tremendous pressure to succeed.

"But that was never a factor with Reggie. One of our scouts, Rick Weitzman, was also a Northeastern graduate, and he spent considerable time scouting Reggie. We saw his rapid development from his freshman to senior year.

"That was a blessing because a lot of NBA scouts soured on him when he played on a bad ankle and had a disappointing camp in Chicago right before the draft. We knew too much about him to change our opinion because of a few bad days."

It was one of the soundest draft decisions the Celtics have made in recent years.

Said Dave Gavitt, the former Big East commissioner now running the Celtics front office, "We made a commitment this season to get more speed and motion in our game, and Reggie, along with Shaw and [rookie guard] Dee Brown are the reasons we've been successful. When we started negotiating last summer, we hoped to sign Reggie for three more years. We were only too happy to make it a five-year deal."

Reggie Lewis has a bold, new image that Reebok was anxious to project.

"We chose him for our national commercial because we regard Reggie as one of the up-and-coming stars in the NBA," said Bernadette Manser, vice president of marketing. "He's stylish, aggressive and very talented. Perfect for the image we're trying to sell."

Lewis insists all the new-found wealth and fame has not changed his basic nature. He remains close to his family in Baltimore and purchased new homes for both his mother and sister. He is also active in charities for underprivileged youngsters in Boston and Baltimore.

Reggie Lewis no longer has to introduce himself. The odd man out from Dunbar High has taken off like a rocket. And his spectacular reverse jam has him soaring toward the Boston Garden rafters.

Dunbar's top picks

The four members of Dunbar High's mythical 1982 prep basketball championship team selected in the first or second round of the NBA draft.

* Reggie Williams, G/F, Georgetown, drafted in the first round (4th pick) by Los Angeles Clippers in 1987. After two mediocre seasons, he was a throw-in with rights to F Danny Ferry for Cleveland G Ron Harper. Williams has since been cut by the Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs. Signed as a free agent by Denver last week.

* Muggsy Bogues, G, Wake Forest, drafted in the first round (12th pick) by Washington in 1987. Claimed by Charlotte in the 1988 NBA expansion draft. Now Hornets starting point guard.

* Reggie Lewis, G/F, Northeastern, drafted in the first round (22nd pick) by Boston in 1987. Played only 405 minutes as a rookie. Blossomed in his second season, averaging 18.5 points after replacing injured Larry Bird as starting small forward. In August, he signed a five-year contract extension worth $16.5 million.

* David Wingate, G, Georgetown drafted in the second round (44th pick) by Philadelphia in 1986. Traded to San Antonio in 1989 with Maurice Cheeks and Christian Welp for Johnny Dawkins and Jay Vincent. Released by Spurs in September after being indicted for rape in Maryland and Texas.

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