BOSTON -- Maybe the program for the Reggie Lewis telethon last night at Northeastern University offers the best clue.
The cover was in black. On the cover was a picture of Lewis in his white Celtics uniform with the familiar number 35 on the front. Over the picture it said "Reggie" in big green letters.
Underneath that it said, "We hardly knew ye."
The expression was meant to say that Lewis died too soon, a life stopped short at 27.
Yet could there be a more fitting statement for the accusations that now bounce around Lewis' memory, accusations of drug abuse that have tainted the ceremony tonight where Lewis' number will be raised high into the rafters of the Boston Garden? Could there be a more fitting statement for accusations that have tainted Lewis' reputation?
We hardly knew ye.
That has been one of the lessons that seems to be emerging out of this strange saga that started 13 days ago when the Wall Street Journal published a story saying cocaine abuse might have led to Lewis' death in July of 1993.
Oh, we knew Reggie the basketball player well enough. We knew the sweet jumper and the points scored, knew the career. We also knew Reggie as one of the few athletes with a social TC conscience, one of the few who seemed to remember where he came from, best exemplified by the turkey giveaway he started for the Boston needy. We knew the public side.
What were the private demons? What did he think about when it was 3 o'clock in the morning?
We didn't have a clue.
"The stories in the papers are not the Reggie Lewis I knew," said former Celtics teammate Dennis Johnson, a touch of exasperation in his voice. "But I don't know what he did every minute of his life. No one does."
Reggie, we hardly knew ye.
Johnson was standing in a lounge on the Northeastern campus last night shortly before the actual telethon started, one designed to raise money for the Reggie Lewis Foundation, which donates money to underprivileged kids and adults both in Boston and in Lewis' native Baltimore. It was billed as a reception, but what it really was was the Celtics circling the wagons.
The concept of the "Celtic Family" has been buffeted the past few years, but like some old dowager who can paint herself up for special occasions, it was alive and well last night.
They were all there, everyone from owner Paul Gaston to the players; from Dave Gavitt to Larry Bird. The Celtic Family in a show of force for one of their own. All there on a night that Northeastern president John Curry said was a "celebration of Reggie's life."
That was the theme last night, and it didn't matter that every day now seems to bring new accusations that further throw mud on " Lewis' image. One day it's a former college teammate saying he and Lewis used cocaine five or six times together, including once with Len Bias. The next it's a New Bedford drug dealer saying he sold cocaine to Lewis. Another day, another headline.
Last night was the collective denial.
So all around the room last night you heard variations of old familiar themes: the people who are saying Lewis used drugs are either lying or self-serving. The media builds people up only to tear them down. Blah, blah, blah.
As if everything should be best left forgotten, like some bad game on the road.
"Do the recent allegations cast a shadow on this night?" Bird was asked.
"Not in my eyes," he said.
Maybe that's the best way to deal with the tragic death of a friend. Remember the good times and let him rest in peace.
But for the rest of us it's more complicated. The controversy that now surrounds Lewis' death raises questions. About values. About what messages we send to kids. About the power of perception, and the lengths people will go to maintain it. About what we as a society think of as important.
The irony is that Lewis' foundation deserves to be supported, whether he used cocaine or not. In this age where too many professional athletes give too little back to the communities that spawned them, Lewis was different. He should be admired for that, regardless of what else might also have been happening in his life. That should be his legacy, and it's not an insignificant one, regardless of why he died.
For Dennis Johnson is right.
Who ever really knows all the facets of someone's life, even people you work with, people you think you know well?
The problem is we always think we know celebrities. We know the face; we see the smile. They come into our living room so often, we eventually begin to think of them as friends we've known for years, people we truly know.
We don't. To think anything else is naive at best, sheer folly at worst.
Reggie, we hardly knew ye?