At the place where Reggie Lewis spent much of his childhood, even the youngest understood.
"Heart problems," Tavon Biles said yesterday, without looking up from his game of checkers.
Tavon Biles is 10. Like Reggie Lewis before him, he spends many afternoons at the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center, a second home for 1,400 inner-city kids each week.
Reggie would stop by after school when he was Tavon's age. He'd shoot pool, play cards, dabble in pingpong. Every kid who passes through Cecil-Kirk knows about Reggie. Many have even met him, because he often comes back.
Now, Lewis is suffering from cardiomyopathy, a condition that threatens his NBA career. The kids at Cecil-Kirk might not grasp every medical detail. But they all know what happened to Reggie -- even the little ones who imitate the way the Boston Celtics star collapsed on the court.
"They want to know how he's doing, if I've spoken with him, if he's going to play again," said Cecil-Kirk director Anthony Lewis, who is no relation to Reggie. "I try to tell them he's doing fine. The condition he has is treatable. The likelihood of him playing again is very good."
Medical experts might dispute Anthony Lewis' opinion, but to so many at Cecil-Kirk, Reggie remains a symbol of hope. Anthony, 38, keeps a framed color picture of his 1983 18-and-under team, the last from Cecil-Kirk to win a city championship. Reggie, of course, was one of his stars.
"He's an idol for some of the younger kids, and some of us older kids, too," said William Hawkins, 19, a recreational aide at the center. "A whole lot of kids see him on TV. They know he's from here. They strive to be like him."
Lake Clifton's Terrance Payne, a 6-foot-7 junior center, said Lewis' condition is a hot topic in the community -- "Everywhere I go," he said, "they're talking about it." But yesterday, at the place where it all began, the kids went about their usual ways.
A group of 90 children between the second and fifth grades attended a tutorial program, divided equally among English, math and fun. The middle-school kids gathered in the recreation room. Anthony Lewis was everywhere, answering phone calls, dispensing discipline, settling arguments.
"Busy," he said with a smile. "Always busy."
The place is an oasis for children from single-parent homes, as well as those in which both parents work. "Attitude, Attendance, Achievement," urges one poster in the recreation room. "Mother's Day, A Special Day," says another.
Anthony Lewis said Reggie went through the "whole ball of wax" -- the afternoon activities, plus basketball at night. Before attending Dunbar High, he'd play in the early evening, then stay to watch older players like Ernie Graham. Later, he became a recreational aide, monitoring younger kids.
Reggie isn't the only NBA player who traces his roots to Cecil-Kirk. One of his early teammates was Charlotte's David Wingate. That pile of Atlanta Hawks stickers in the recreation room came courtesy of Duane Ferrell.
The kids at the center don't require introductions. Ferrell appeared at a stay-in-school rally a month ago. Lewis has donated Christmas turkeys and countless pairs of sneakers. Wingate, too, visits whenever possible.
Street violence is a daily fact of life in this part of Baltimore, not far from the corner of Greenmount and North avenues. Still, many were shaken by what happened to Reggie, the NBA star who had seemingly grown immune from it all.
"I was scared," said Damon Spells, 14. "I thought he was going to die."
It happened to Hank Gathers, the former Loyola Marymount star who suffered from a condition similar to Lewis'. But Anthony Lewis spoke to Reggie's wife, Donna, on Tuesday night. He keeps reassuring the kids everything will be all right.
"I hope it's something that will come and go, so he can still play," William Hawkins said. "I love watching him play basketball."
Payne, however, seemed less hopeful.
"If you're a true player, you want to play every game," he said. "But something like that makes you think about stop playing basketball altogether.
"Your heart is nothing to be playing with. Plus, look what happened to Hank Gathers. If Reggie had kept playing, you never know what would have happened. It made me think. It can be over, just like that."
That's the message from this.
The young, the old, they all understand.