After the pomp, only heartbreak

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOSTON -- For once, they pulled together.

Reggie Lewis' mother, Inez "Peggy" Ritch, took the rope in one hand, holding her 1-year-old granddaughter, Reggieana, with the other.

Lewis' widow, Donna Harris-Lewis, also grabbed hold of the rope, clutching her other child, 2-year-old Reggie Jr.

They pulled together, these women who barely speak to each other, raising Lewis' No. 35 to the rafters of ancient Boston

Garden.

And like so much else on this night, it didn't quite seem real.

"Oh man, it was like your heart just shattered," Ritch said afterward as she stood crying in a hallway outside the Celtics' locker room.

Ritch spoke to reporters while holding hands with her sister, Harriet Tisdale; her husband, Robert Fields; and her daughter, Sheron Lewis.

"Holding Reggieana -- I don't get the opportunity that often," she said. "To hold her at this event, it was just heartbreaking."

Not because of her rift with Harris-Lewis -- that meant nothing on this night. Because of who was missing from this joyous, emotional, defiant event.

The crowd kept chanting his name.

"Reg-gie! Reg-gie! Reg-gie!"

Nearly 20 months after his death, Lewis became the 18th Celtics player to have his number retired, on the day the Boston Herald reported that he was a regular, heavy user of cocaine.

The return of Michael Jordan to the Garden only added to the surreal atmosphere. Jordan scored 27 points in the Chicago Bulls' 124-107 win. "We like Mike," said one fan's sign. "But we love Reggie."

Which is why the Celtics went ahead with a 34-minute halftime ceremony to honor Lewis, a ceremony marked by the passion of the crowd, the wit of Red Auerbach and the bold words of Harris-Lewis.

So strange.

So unreal.

"The last few weeks have been trying for me, and I suspect, for many people in this building," Harris-Lewis told the crowd of 14,890, the Celtics' 653rd consecutive sellout. "To be asked to question somebody you loved and looked up to is never an easy thing.

"But we're here tonight because we knew Reggie. You watched him play night after night, scoring 20, 25, 30 points, and leading this team to victory.

"You met him at school, at camps, maybe at a community function. You shook his hand, or received his smile. Some of you even played basketball with him.

"My husband loved to play basketball in this building, for his team, for the fans. From the day he was drafted, he made a personal commitment to give his all to the Boston Celtics. He never strayed from that commitment."

Incredibly, Harris-Lewis wasn't done. At the end of her speech, she read a poem that she recently completed, a poem titled, "Believe What Your Own Eyes See."

The poem read, in part:

"His career and his life was no mystery/He was honored to wear Celtics green/Those close knew he kept himself clean.

"Though rumors surround his death, he cared too much for basketball to risk his health/Character is one thing that never dies/Let's not believe these harmful lies."

The crowd roared, and just before Lewis' number was raised, master of ceremonies Tom Heinsohn bellowed, "I hope he will finally get to rest in peace!"

Not likely.

The Herald, quoting a medical source close to the case, reported yesterday that Lewis admitted to at least one of his doctors that he used the drug before every home game as "a performance enhancer."

Before every home game.

Don't waste your time checking Lewis' home-road statistics. The news media haven't exactly distinguished themselves in this mess, either.

Still, in a pre-game news conference, even NBA commissioner David Stern said he wanted to know the truth. But, asked if the league will investigate the Lewis case, he said, "I don't think so."

Everyone else is running from the problem.

Why shouldn't Stern?

"There is this other issue," Stern said. "It should be addressed as people seek to find out what the truth is or isn't. I don't know what the truth is. I won't purport to say it one way or the other."

Stern defended the NBA drug policy, saying it was not only the best in professional sports, but also the "most comprehensive employee-assistance program in America."

However, he said it's possible the league will re-examine the importance of testing when the question of drug use is relevant to medical care, as might have been the case with Lewis.

But back to "the truth."

If the NBA doesn't pursue it, who should?

"That's a good question," Stern said. "I think that the pure truth was absolutely buried with Reggie Lewis. Only Reggie can tell us exactly what went on. That's one of the unfortunate things about what's going on now. I'd like to see reputable living people attach their names to what's going on here."

Just don't ask the NBA to help.

To think, the uproar in Boston even included a debate on whether Lewis was worthy of having his number retired. One columnist wrote yesterday that Lewis was being honored "not for his accomplishments on the basketball court, but because he is dead."

That's absurd -- Lewis was headed for major stardom when he died at the age of 27, and it wasn't his fault the team was in decline. He led the Celtics in scoring his last two seasons. He was their captain, their star for the '90s.

And, as Heinsohn told the crowd, he literally played his heart out for the team. If anyone thinks a potential substance-abuse problem should have disqualified him, other Celtics with retired numbers probably would not have passed the standard, either.

Auerbach addressed the issue during the ceremony.

"I've been here 45 years. Every one of those guys' flags with retired numbers, I helped to raise them," said Auerbach, who coached the Celtics to nine of their 16 NBA titles.

"Tonight, I'm going to get as big a thrill as I did for every other fTC one of them. To me, it's a great honor to be asked to raise the flag for Reggie Lewis."

Auerbach continued: "I've had few regrets, but I had one real regret. I never had the pleasure and honor to coach Reggie because he personified everything a Celtic should be."

And so it went.

Fans cried throughout the ceremony, but thanks to Auerbach and Larry Bird, they laughed, too.

"I get a little sick when I see Dennis Johnson and Larry Bird come up here in street clothes when we're getting our tails whipped out on the floor," Auerbach said with the Celtics trailing by 15 points at halftime.

Bird and Johnson presented Harris-Lewis with a framed replica of the banner that Lewis' No. 35 shares with Bird's No. 33, Johnson's No. 3 and Kevin McHale's No. 32.

Bird spoke before Johnson.

"Just like old times," he said. "I get to do all the work."

The ceremony was hardly maudlin. Lewis' children were passed back and forth between family and friends. At one point, Harris-Lewis had to grab Reggie Jr. to keep him from climbing off the green podium.

But the sad truth is, the whole thing should never have taken place, at least not with Lewis dead.

It should have taken place 10 years from now, when he was retired, when his children were grown, when he could cherish the honor.

Words are empty now, symbols ring hollow.

D8 Peggy Ritch crying in a hallway, that's what's real.

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