Discussions around the greatest shooting guards of all time often go straight to Michael, Kobe, The Logo, The Iceman, Clyde and The Answer. Some others may mention John Havlicek, Earl the Pearl, Ray Allen or even Reggie Miller.
However, there was another SG – another Reggie for that matter – who was headed towards the Pantheon of greatness before his time was cut short; way too soon.
This Saturday, November 21, 2015, would have been the 50th birthday of Reggie Lewis.
Lewis was just reaching the apex of his career when he suffered a fatal heart attack, now 22 years ago, on July 27, 1993. It was a shocking tragedy for his family, friends, the Celtics organisation as well as the sport of basketball.
Lewis’ talent was just emerging at the time. He’d been an All-Star one time in his penultimate season and led his team (which included an ailing Larry Bird in his final run) to the 7th game of the 2nd round of the 1992 playoffs before succumbing to a Cleveland team aiming to challenge Jordan’s Bulls.
However, Lewis’ game was often foreshadowed by the lingering presence of Bird, McHale and Parish; the latter two still playing at the Boston Garden through Lewis’ final season.
Despite him being the team’s leading scorer in 1991/92 and 1992/93, as well as being named just the 6th team captain in Franchise history after Bird retired, most casual basketball fans weren’t aware of who he was. This was, in large part, because he was soft-spoken, rarely engaged in trash-talk and led a humble existence off the court.
“Reggie doesn’t say a lot of words, he lets his game speak for him,” said Celtics legendary Coach and GM, Red Auerbach.
His game started speaking loudly in those final few seasons. In addition to being named an All-Star in ’92, Lewis averaged a whopping 28.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.4 steals, hitting at a .528 clip from the field through 10 games in those 1992 playoffs.
In Game 3 of the semi-final series against the Cavs, Lewis took control with Bird out, leading the way with 36 points, 7 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks to put the Celtics up 2 games to 1. The next night in a tough 2-point loss, he had 42 points, 6 assists and 5 steals.
Lewis had arrived and the league’s greatest players and his teammates were taking notice. Following the game 3 win, McHale emerged from the shower and shouted jokingly “Who took my table!?” McHale was referring to the table in the middle of the Celtics’ locker room where he and Bird would sit after games as reporters circled. It was reserved for only the best players.
That night Lewis propped himself there following his performance.
“You can kill [the Cavaliers] all you want,” McHale continued on his mock tirade, “but don’t take my table.”
Lewis’ response? “It’s still yours. I’m just keeping it warm.”
But the truth was both Lewis and McHale knew that Reggie now belonged there and wouldn’t be leaving any time soon.
Jackie MacMullan, a long-time Celtics reporter wrote a touching piece for ESPN about Lewis on the 20th anniversary of his death, which detailed his coming out party against the games’ best; Michael Jordan in March 1991.
In that game, a 3-point win over the Bulls, Reggie had 25 points, but more impressively he blocked Michael Jordan 4 times. That’s right – not once, not twice, not three times, but on four different occasions, Lewis’ defensive prowess and length denied the games’ greatest from getting his shot off.
“Oh, I remember it well,” Jordan laughed as he recalled that game to MacMullan. “He had my number that particular night.”
“He was a tough matchup,” Jordan continued. “He had those long arms that really bothered me.
“I was trying to be aggressive with him. I was trying to take advantage of his passive demeanour, but he didn’t back down. He never relinquished his own aggressiveness. He shocked me a little bit.”
It seems Lewis shocked him more than a little bit.
“His length confused me,” Jordan finally conceded. “Every time I thought I had him beat, he’d recover and get up on me. When you have the skills to break someone down on defence and you can’t, it makes you tentative offensively.”
I think you could count on one hand the number of opponents that made Jordan tentative over his career. The list probably starts and stops with Joe Dumars and Lewis.
“When someone with his talent does that to you, you can live with it,” Jordan continued.
Asked if anyone else had ever blocked four of his shots in one game, Jordan answered, “No one had ever done it before, and no one has done it since.”
As amazing as that night was and Lewis’ defensive endeavour was, it was his all-around talent that made him special. He played both ends of the floor, routinely made plays for teammates and knew how to dominate offensively when he needed to as the great ones tend to do.
“He was on his way to being one of the best 2-guards in the league,” said Brian Shaw, who was Lewis’ teammate in Boston and a close friend.
“Reggie was hard to stop,” Bird said. “He kept you off balance all the time. There were a few guys in the league I hated to guard because you didn’t know what they were thinking. I’m glad Reggie was my teammate, because he was one of them.”
Lewis came to the Celtics as the 22nd pick in the 1987 draft out of nearby Northeastern University, where he was coached by up-and-coming college coach, Jim Calhoun. There he broke the Northeastern scoring record and helped put Calhoun on the map.
As a rookie, Lewis was tentative and wasn’t yet sure what his role would be.
“When Reggie first came into the league,” Bird told MacMullan, “he really didn’t know how to play the game. He shot the ball. That was about it.
“But he was a worker. He spent a lot of time improving his game. He loved it. You could always tell that.”
MacMullan recalls talking with Reggie half way through his rookie season, where he played just 8.3 minutes per game, averaging a mere 4.5 points per game. However, he did so efficiently at a .504 TS% and a 14.3 PER.
His sophomore season saw his minutes leap to 32.8 per game with Larry Bird missing all but 6 games. Lewis’ efficiency continued as he started to introduce himself to the league with 18.5 points per game at a .486 clip, adding 1.5 steals and nearly a block per game.
Lewis became a full-time starter in his fourth season, where he led the team in total points and averaged 22.4 points, 6.2 rebounds 2.9 assists and 1.1 steals in the playoffs. From that point on, with Bird clearly on his last legs, the team was slowly shifted over to Reggie as their next leader. He was ready.
In April 1993, Reggie laced them up for his first playoff game as the Celtics Captain. He scored 10 points in the first 3 minutes on the famous parquet floor at the old Boston Garden before stumbling and falling with no-one near him. He became dizzy and short of breath. After collecting himself on the bench, Lewis returned and finished the game with 17 points in just 13 minutes of playing time. Nobody knew at the time that those 17 points would be his last.
He died just 3 months later while going through a light workout.
Lewis was one of six players who, from 1988-93, recorded at least 7,500 points, 1,500 rebounds, 1,000 assists and 500 steals. The other five players – Jordan, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone and Chris Mullin – are all now Hall of Famers.
Lewis’ Number 35 jersey hangs in the rafters of the Celtics TD Garden, sandwiched between the numbers of Bird, McHale and Parish. It’s almost like they’re protecting him up there, watching over him. It’s a constant reminder of the legacy that was meant to be, but never really materialised.
Still, Lewis is remembered fondly amongst the Celtics faithful and the City of Boston where he was known as much for his warmth, compassion and sense of community as he was for his basketball prowess.
“There was something about Reggie that was irresistible. Maybe it was his smile. It reminded me of Isaiah Thomas’ smile or Magic Johnson’s smile. Reggie had warmth,” said Paula Stone, a local who recalls Lewis’ generosity.
“At Thanksgiving and Christmas, Reggie handed out turkeys to the poor. He hadn’t forgotten what it was like to be poor. Sometimes, he’d stop and join a bunch of kids on the basketball court. He didn’t have any idea who they were. He’d just join in,” Stone continued.
“His reputation was a lot bigger than basketball,” said Larry Turner, a security guard from Northeastern University. “Mostly, it was the way he carried himself. There was an aura around the man that made you feel what he felt.”
His impact on the greater Boston community clearly extended beyond the parquet floor of the Boston Garden, but it was there that he built his reputation.
“Reggie was on his way to being something really special,” said Michael Jordan. “Here’s this talented guy who had never done anything wrong, who did so much for the city of Boston, and the next thing you know, he’s gone.”
Gone too soon.