Reggie Lewis died 17 years ago Tuesday.
Hard to believe that he would be 44 years old now, probably be six or seven years out of the league. Maybe he'd be a coach, maybe he'd be sitting next to Mike and Tommy, maybe he would have moved into the front office. Who knows?
My best guess, though, is that he would have retired and just gone away. Reggie Lewis was quiet, shy, retreating. Everything that the year or so after his death wasn't. He wasn't built like a Jo Jo White or M.L. Carr, mugging for JumboTrons or playing a million local golf tournaments. Sure, he would have shown up for the occasional playoff game. And it would have been nice to see Reggie Lewis, after a 16 or 17-year career, be able to watch his No. 35 go up to the rafters. But I think he would have followed the John Havlicek school of ducking out of the spotlight.
He would have also, I think, followed Havlicek somewhere else.
When Reggie Lewis stepped on the floor for Game 1 of the Celtics first-round series with the Hornets on April 29, 1993 it was supposed to be the start of a new era. Larry Bird had retired after the previous season and the skinny kid from Northeastern had taken over as captain. He averaged 20.8 points per game in 1992-93, shooting 47 percent from the floor and nearly 87 percent from the line. Already established as an All-Star, Lewis had proven that he could be the best player on a very good team. The Celtics won 47 games in a tough Eastern Conference (Jordan, the Riley Knicks, Price and Daugherty in Cleveland, LJ and Alonzo in Charlotte) and there could be a case made that Reggie Lewis was the second-best shooting guard in the NBA and one the 10-12 best overall players.
And he started out the first three minutes of the Charlotte game seemingly intent on making sure that everyone knew that this was both his team and his time. He scored 10 points in those three minutes, hitting a couple of his trademark pull-up jumpers over Kendall Gill. The idea that Reggie Lewis could be dominant in a playoff game was nothing new -- he was probably the best player not named Michael Jordan in the 1992 playoffs, averaging 28-4-4 in 10 playoff games in 1992, outplaying Reggie Miller for the second straight year in a head-to-head playoff matchup -- but to do it without Bird meant something else to Celtics fans. Everyone liked Reggie enough, but could be THE guy? For those three minutes the answer sure looked like "yes".
And then he staggered and fell …
Look, there is a time and place for talk of Donna Harris and Gilbert Mudge and the Dream Team and Jerome Stanley and Arnold Scheller and unmarked graves and lawsuits and did he or didn't he and why did let him back on the court. But this isn't about that. When Reggie Lewis died a father and husband died. Of course that's paramount over anything else. But it also signaled the death of the Celtics for a decade and a half. The one-two combo of the Len Bias and Reggie Lewis tragedies spiraled the Celtics into 15 years of NBA irrelevance.
Reggie Lewis, at the very worst, was going to be the best player on a year-in, year-out 45-50 win team for a decade. He was never going to be an MVP, but just a level below that. A seven or eight-time All-Star and occasional second or third team All-NBA guy. He couldn't win a title as the best player maybe, but could have done it with one or two other guys at his level. Think Paul Pierce.
(Crazy that Pierce would almost certainly not been a Celtic had Lewis lived and had a full career. Lewis would have been 32 years old -- Pierce's age now -- and a team with a still close to prime Reggie Lewis probably wasn't going to pick 10th in the draft. Plus Pierce played the same position and did a lot of the same things offensively. Strange to think that Pierce has been around here forever and it was already five years after Reggie died when he was drafted. Oh, and the NBA was just about to enter a truly ugly era when Reggie died. They sure could have used a quiet, classy guy who eschewed the trash talk and just played basketball during the years of 78-74 games and the likes of Antoine Walker demanding max contracts.)
But he never got that chance. His death is still a mystery (imagine how crazy all the stuff around his death would be today? Remember, no internet and sports talk radio was still young in 1993) but the kind of player he was is not up for argument or whacked out theories.
One of the big reasons I wanted Kevin Durant to end up in Boston in 2007 was because of how much he reminded me of Reggie Lewis. He's a better player than Reggie (not by much, though), but the pull-up jumper and where the ball is released is uncanny. When I see Durant I always think of Reggie. That's the kind of player he was.
An almost impossible cover as a one-on-one scorer. Also one of the two or three players I can remember who actually was a better shooter with a hand in his face as opposed to being wide open (the harder the shot the more likely he made it). His pull-up jumper, usually after two or three hard dribbles with his left hand, was becoming one of the NBA's signature moves by 1993. What made it so difficult to defend was what in large part made Lewis such a good defender -- his long arms. He was 6-foot-7 but seemed 6-11 with his wingspan. Ask Michael Jordan -- nobody defended Jordan better (want proof?). A terrific all-around player on the verge of stardom when it all ended.
Reggie Lewis died 17 years ago Tuesday.
And we still wonder why it happened and what could have been.
*Related audio content: Dale & Holley look back at the life and career of Reggie Lewis.