The following article was contributed by Sean Sylver. Sean is a writer, hoops fan and avid gardener who considers himself a Sikma-like presence in the paint. He lives in Boston, MA. You can follow him on Twitter at @sylverfox25.
On a chilly spring night in April 1993, the wood-paneled Magnavox console TV, its clunky dial tuned to TNT, beamed Game 1 of the NBA Playoffs between the Celtics and Hornets into our living room. I remember the lush green of the Boston Garden parquet floor, the bold teal of the Charlotte road uniforms as they took the court for their first ever playoff appearance, the excitement as my dad and I wondered if the Celtics could withstand the younger and more physical Hornets, led by Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning.
Our hopes no longer rested with Parish and McHale. Two-thirds of the Big Three were still intact, but they could hardly keep pace with LJ and Zo. The ‘93 Celtics were Reggie Lewis’ team. The lanky sixth-year swingman got off to a hot start, frustrating Kendall Gill with smooth dribble drives and pull-up jumpers. He used his lightning quick hands and feet to stifle the opposition and his length to haul down rebounds. But with 6:26 left in the first quarter, Lewis suddenly dropped from the TV screen. The Celtics were playing four-on-five.
Where was Reggie?
I was born in April 1983, the Celtics (and coach Bill Fitch) sent packing that year courtesy of a second round sweep at the hands of the Bucks. Celtic Pride came roaring back in ’84 under new coach K.C. Jones, beating the Lakers for the title in seven games. It was the first of four consecutive Finals appearances for Boston, snagging another title in 1986 with the greatest team in NBA history. But if you think I remember the ’86 Celtics, you’re sorely mistaken. I was a toddler, pretty focused on things like not pooping my pants. My hoops memory kicks in during the late 80’s – around the time Larry Bird split his Achilles tendon and missed all but six games of the 1988-89 campaign.
If the curtain was closing on the Big Three era, I was oblivious. I was a kid. My basketball infancy was rich with bedtime stories of Bird’s last minute heroics, Chief’s stoic consistency and McHale’s encyclopedia of pivot moves. And though the story was sad and hard to understand, I’d missed the Len Bias tragedy. I believed in my heart that the Celtics teams of the late 80’s and early 90’s could beat the Bad Boy Pistons and the Jordan Bulls. What I saw with my eyes was a talented but creaky Boston lineup, capable of playing beautiful basketball but often discarded in a bin of playoff also-rans alongside Barkley’s Sixers and Ewing’s Knicks.
The silver lining among Boston’s fading gold was Lewis, who Red Auerbach snagged out of nearby Northeastern University with the 22nd pick in the ’87 draft. He could do it all: zipping long outlet passes to start the fast break or running the floor with aplomb, serving as the motor of the half court offense and picking apart defenses with deft passes to cutters, getting open off curls to the basket or creating space with his rangy jumpers. He skied to snare rebounds in the lane. He slammed home two-handed dunks. On the defensive end, he had the instincts, length and tenacity to harass even MJ into a bad shooting night.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ni7t4swtdYw]
As the lights dimmed on the Big Three and Boston Garden readied itself for a wrecking ball, Lewis was assurance that the lights would be bright in the new arena, the best chance to raise a new banner to the rafters. At least he’d keep the team relevant as their marquee player and community presence to be cheered by a new generation of Celtics fans. Boston loved Reggie. He supplied Thanksgiving turkeys to the less fortunate long before another Baltimore athlete named Lewis made it his tradition. And as a little guy, I was thrilled to meet the soft-spoken, accommodating Lewis at a local sporting goods store. I noticed how he took interest in each one of his fans, in contrast to another Celtic who couldn’t be bothered to feign any.
That April night, Reggie pulled himself up off the parquet, eventually returning to score 17 points in 13 minutes of a Celtics win. It was the last game he ever played. He sat for the remainder of the Charlotte series, the Hornets knocking McHale into retirement on an Alonzo Mourning buzzer beater in Game 4. The Magnavox went off with a thud, I probably cried myself to sleep and hated Alonzo Mourning for months, and the lights went down at Boston Garden for another summer.
The July 28, 1993 edition of the Boston Globe announced the death of Reggie Lewis. His heart stopped beating at a gym on the Brandeis University campus in Waltham and never started back up again. 20 years later, the reasons why aren’t entirely clear. The Celtics sank to the bottom half of the league in 1993-94 and didn’t recover for 15 years. They won 32 games and trotted out lineups featuring Jimmy Oliver at shooting guard. While Reggie’s absence created a prominent gap on the court, the city’s heart ached for the loss of a man taken in the prime of his life.
On July 27th of this year, 20 years after his untimely passing, I sat in my third floor studio in Boston’s South End, the dying light of a summer day filtering through the blinds and across my laptop screen as I scoured YouTube for clips of Reggie Lewis. There he was, in the prime of his career, shutting down passing lanes, launching “praying mantis” jumpers and catching bullet passes from Bird for easy layups.
My eyes watered. The fans on Youtube cheered. And I smiled.