by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

If someone created all the bad news in the world, then he would be responsible for it.

But if the bad news were already there, and that someone just told you about it, would he be the problem — or a depressing reminder?

That’s the stand-off we have this morning, the day Reggie Lewis’s number will be raised to the rafters of Boston Garden.

A cloud of doubt will ride up that rope, alongside the green and white banner. And in a country never satisfied until we blame somebody, the fingers are pointing — but in the wrong direction.

Lewis, a gifted and likable basketball player, died two years ago at age 27, while casually shooting baskets at a Brandeis University gym. A few months earlier, he had collapsed during a Celtics game. He seemed to go in slow motion, then thudded to the hardwood floor.

It was the last NBA game he played.

That July, at the Brandeis gym, he fell again. This time he never got up. His death stunned Boston, a city that loves its basketball stars. The funeral was huge. Ted Kennedy spoke. Fans wept.

Lewis’ death certificate, which was not filed until four months later, listed the cause as “Adenovirus 2.” That’s the virus associated with the common cold. This virus was blamed for the inflammation, scarring and ultimate failure of Lewis’ athletic heart.

Some doctors think this is a joke. Such news — which was revealed in a recent Wall Street Journal article — is stunning. But not as stunning as the rest of the story, which suggested Lewis’ heart problems were inflamed by cocaine use — a fact conveniently overlooked by the Celtics, some of the doctors, and Reggie’s wife, for public relations and financial reasons, including $15 million in insurance money.

“Liar!” many of those people yelled after the article was published. “How dare you?”

The Celtics called the story “racist” and threatened a $100- million lawsuit. Public opinion seemed to side with Lewis’ widow, who insisted:
“Reggie never used drugs.”

Then, on Monday, one of Lewis’ college teammates, a childhood friend, admitted he and Lewis had snorted cocaine several times together. And the former athletic director of Northeastern University told his boss that Lewis failed a drug test in his senior year. Bad news? You bet.

Who’s at fault — message or messenger? Did critics of article actually read it?

No one wants to see heroes fall. But in America we never stop. “People” magazine seems to feature a star addict/ alcoholic/abuser every other week. You need only flick on your TV set to see the once-beloved O.J. Simpson on trial for murder.

Yet when the Lewis story came out, critics went after the reporter. And tonight, in Boston, even as they glorify Reggie, people will say “Wall Street Journal” — and spit.

Well, at least get the guy’s name right. It’s Ron Suskind, age 35. He is a senior national affairs reporter for the Journal. He studied at Harvard, has a masters from Columbia, and — attention, racist-claimers — recently won prizes for a long story on a black inner-city youth who went to MIT.

The Lewis story “was the first one I wrote about an athlete,” Suskind says. He spent several months researching it. I wonder how many critics bothered to read it before reacting. I’d guess less than 30 percent.

Those who did saw a 6,200-word article — with quotes and on-the-record sources. Instead of being appalled at Suskind, fans should be shocked by the NBA’s supposedly tough drug policy, which allows a veteran player to refuse all drug tests unless his team calls in an outside expert who demands one.

The Celtics didn’t do this when Reggie refused his test. They didn’t think it necessary. No one wants to see their heroes fall. Especially not those who employ them. Story isn’t racist; it’s curious

Whether Lewis abused cocaine is not the main issue. The point of that story was how doctors may have been pressured — by Lewis’ attorneys and the Celtics
— to make Reggie’s death seem honorable, and how financial concerns and the NBA’s drug policy may have played a part. If you think this is impossible, you’re not awake.

The story quotes doctors who scoff at the virus as a cause of death. One allegedly told Lewis, “Cocaine is the only thing that would explain what we’re seeing.” The medical examiner was reportedly threatened with lawsuits if drugs were even mentioned in the death reports. This is serious stuff.

True fans would want such questions answered.

Instead, we seem to have a “No Bad News” policy. People say, “Let the man rest in peace.” Would you say that about a family member who died of neglect, or was misdiagnosed? No. Chances are you’d file a lawsuit.

By the way, is it possible to do cocaine and still be a good guy? Absolutely. Even a hero to kids? Sure — as long as the drug part never comes out. Kids liked Doc Gooden. Kids liked Bob Probert.

But did you know that cocaine use in an athlete is especially dangerous — because of muscular hearts and increased stress? That’s a lesson worth knowing — even at the risk of debunking a hero.

So I don’t understand the Celtics official who said the story was “racist. When a young black man dies, people don’t believe it’s not drugs or guns.”

Sorry. When a dozen doctors dispute a death certificate, it’s not racist — it’s curious. Tonight, Reggie’s memory lifts up to the Garden rafters. Here on Earth, questions remain.

Like it or not.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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