Friends, family pay homage to Lewis Ex-Dunbar star was role model


For Russell Lewis, it was a family meeting that left him with mixed feelings. As the doctor told the group of about 10 family members that gathered at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston that Reggie Lewis was fine, his uncle couldn't help but think about the results from days before that said the Boston Celtics captain and former Dunbar High standout had a potentially life-threatening heart ailment.

"There was always this shred of doubt, so I told him, 'Without basketball, you can continue,' " Russell Lewis said yesterday about that May meeting. "I looked around the room and told him, 'This is what really counts -- your family.' "

Today that family, and the close friends of Reggie Lewis, are in mourning. Mr. Lewis collapsed while shooting baskets at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., Tuesday and was pronounced dead hours later. Those close to him say that, at the age of 27, it was just too hard for one of the NBA's top stars to walk away from a game that he loved so much, even if it meant risking his life.

"Being young, being in the state of mind that you can do anything and live forever, death is the furthest thing from your mind," Russell Lewis said. "If you want something bad enough, and someone tells you you can have it, you believe it. Reggie wanted to play basketball badly."

Mack Lewis, a noted local boxing coach and an uncle of Reggie Lewis, said that he is not only losing a close relative -- but that Baltimore is losing one of its top role models.

"When you lose a nephew who never got in trouble, who finished college and who everybody looked up to, it hurts," he said.

"This really makes you think. So many boys come up and don't do anything with their lives, and here's a young man who made sacrifices and became one of the top players in the world.

"You can't buy honor, you can't buy love -- and those were things that Reggie was about," Mack Lewis added. "We're going to miss him. We're just hopeful that those who knew him will be touched."

Reggie Lewis' brother Irvin, 29, also searched for the right words. "I look at my brother as a great person, and nothing will be able to replace him," he said. "I was a ballplayer and he learned from me, and now I can't give him anything."

It was a game that Reggie played exceptionally, a self-made player who was a substitute on the 1982-1983 Dunbar High School team that won the national championship. Yesterday, members of that team were having a difficult time coming to grips with their former teammate's death.

"It made my heart stop," said Tim Dawson, a forward on that Dunbar team who is now an assistant principal at a middle school in Miami, Fla.

He found out about Mr. Lewis' death while watching the late news. "At first I thought it was a mistake, I didn't believe what I heard. I knew about the problems that he had, but I didn't expect this. This is a shock."

Those who knew him best knew him as "Truck," and Charlotte Hornets guard Muggsy Bogues, who played with Mr. Lewis at Dunbar, was one of his best friends. "Along with my own sorrow and loss, I am thinking about and praying for Reggie's family to be strong," Mr. Bogues said. Mr. Lewis' wife, Donna, is pregnant with their second child. Reggie Jr. is 10 months old.

"It's hard to swallow that his kids won't get to see what a great person he was," Mr. Bogues said. "We went through so much together and both grew up dreaming of making it to the NBA.

"Truck was a soft-spoken guy who always accomplished the goals he set out to do. That's what I admired most about him."

David Wingate, a teammate of Mr. Bogues on the Hornets, also played with Mr. Lewis at Dunbar.

"I pray God will give his wife and family the strength to endure this type of sorrow," Mr. Wingate said.

Former Dunbar guard Gerard Marable, a social worker at the Cherry Hill Multipurpose Center, had just used his former teammate as an example of hope in a presentation he made to a group Tuesday.

"I explained to these people how they can never give up on their dream, and I used the example of Reggie Lewis, Reggie Williams and Muggsy Bogues," Mr. Marable said. "I was hoping that it was a story of inspiration. And then this happens.

"What bothers me the most is I really saw him work hard for all the things he achieved," he said. "All the work, and suddenly it's swept away like that. This is devastating."

When the news that Mr. Lewis had died had spread, it attracted high school players -- both past and present -- to the Madison Square Recreation Center in East Baltimore where Mr. Lewis and others perfected their skills.

Eric Green, a guard on the 1982-1983 Dunbar team, was one of those who gathered at the East Baltimore basketball court.

"This is a shock, and it really hurts," said Mr. Green, speaking barely above a whisper. "I saw him at a club recently and he said he was OK, and he looked perfectly healthy. It's sad because here was a guy who was always considerate of everybody. He always put something back into the community.

"When we talked, I told him, 'You just can't stop playing the sport that you love,' " Mr. Green said. "Basketball was pretty much his life. And if you asked him to stop playing, you were asking him to stop living. It meant that much to him."

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