Death & Reggie Lewis

I was 12 when I heard the news: Reggie Lewis, captain of the Boston Celtics, was dead. I didn’t know it at the time, but as Lewis was collapsing from a massive heart attack, my father was being told he probably didn’t have long himself.

The all-star basketballer was just 27 when he died of heart failure on July 27, 1993. Word filtered to me from excited schoolmates a few days later. We were on a school bus headed for a museum.

Only months earlier, Lewis had been diagnosed with heart arrhythmia after collapsing during a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets. But on the day he died Lewis was casually shooting hoops in a gym at a training session at Brandeis University, Massachusetts. Lewis’ friend and college basketballer Duo Djousson was due to meet him there. As it was, police and paramedics arrived at the gym before he did. Lewis was dead. Djousson told the New York Times: “It hurts now. The whole city is quiet.”

We boys eagerly shared the news of Lewis’ death. Most of us were devoted fans of American basketball and we played with the words “death” and “heart attack” like we were playing with some strange and exotic force. We suddenly felt grown up, until the desire for Reggie Lewis trading cards was formalised. Those in possession of Reggie Lewis cards quickly discovered the desire’s corollary—profit. Our shock and fascination with death was swiftly co-opted by market dynamics.

As the bus rolled on, we transformed a few of the seats into a trading floor and began our brief spell as speculators on death. Owners of Lewis cards argued their worth. Lewis had become mysterious and desirable, enlarged by the triumvirate of celebrity, fandom and sudden death. He was hot property. For days, perhaps weeks, this market passionately engaged boys across the country.

I owned a Reggie Lewis card. It was at home in a plastic container, sitting on a shelf, perhaps, or beneath my bed. I’m unsure how much I thought of the potential worth of the card. Seized with something approaching shock, I moved away from the trading site and mourned. Except, I wasn’t mourning. I was asking myself questions I didn’t have answers to. And I was thinking about death and its fearful capacity to surprise a sacred place like the National Basketball Association. I sat, stunned, attempting to make sense of the awful dimensions of Lewis’ death: its finality, its violence, its shocking indifference to youth, vitality and celebrity. While friends were driving up the prices of Lewis shares, I was experiencing an early crisis of confidence in the stability of things.

When I got home that evening I went straight to my box of cards and looked for him. There he was: number 35, the celebrated guard of the Celtics. I was looking at a ghost. At that age I hadn’t developed a vocabulary with which to express astonishment at the cruel ironies of life, but certainly, at some deep and inexpressible level, I would have been moved by the contrast between the figure on the card—muscular, lean, alert and handsome—and the appalling nothingness of death. My Reggie Lewis card—glazed cardboard, cynically priced—had temporarily become a sacred object.

My father was contemplating this appalling nothingness four years before when he was diagnosed with a melanoma. Pathologically speaking, the tumour had reached Clark’s level 4, a now-abandoned scale for measuring the invasion of the melanoma into the skin. Level 1 denotes minimal invasion; level 5 means the tumour has penetrated the subcutaneous fat. The prognosis was poor and my father began preparing for death. “It was highly likely I’d die in the following couple of years,” he told me recently. He was 48.

I visited him in hospital that year. I was eight. Tubes ran from my father’s face and chest to metallic machines at the bedside. His skin appeared yellow and his eyes were sunken. At least, that’s how it appeared to me. My father had become a grotesque imitation of himself. I began to gag. Observing my discomfort a nurse kindly led me from the room and into the television area where elderly patients watched Wheel of Fortune. The nurse must have said something to them because the channel was quickly changed to the cartoon series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I watched quietly and sipped water from a paper cup. It helped. Later that day I was bundled into the car. My father would return home 10 days later. He would ultimately survive, but after further, harrowing complications.

I spoke to my father about this only recently. I was embarrassed that I knew so little about that time. I asked my father if he was terrified?

I wasn’t traumatised. There was just a general sadness. I thought that if I was going to die then there was nothing I could do about it. I thought—and this was my major thought at the time—that I was the one least affected. There were three kids who needed a Dad.”

My father has always been a practical man—at times, irritatingly, inflexibly, artlessly so. But wonderfully, in this case, my father turned his practicality to preparing for his death. Without self-pity he began to put his finances in order for the family he thought he’d be leaving behind. It is as instructive a lesson in strength that I have.

It was highly likely that I’d die in a few years, so I spoke to Mum about downsizing our house. Our mortgage was $35,000 which at the time was like the crown jewels and I didn’t want Mum left with that if I carked it.”

Carked it. There is no irony or self-consciousness in his use of that idiom. No bravado. Just practical, plain-speaking Dad. Notable also is the absence of emotion in his voice when he’s telling me this. He’s almost surprised that I’d be interested in the story at all. I ask him to go on.

Well, we needed to downsize the house and reduce our debt so there was a better chance you kids could be educated without too much hardship. I also made enquiries about my super, and telling them the story so I could get some figures and work out my will.

You know, to go back to saying that I was the one least affected. It really hit your mother. She always said that suicide was an option if I dropped dead. I don’t think she would have done it. But she always spoke about it.”

Transcribing those words now is difficult. I never knew any of this.

After many tests my father was released from hospital. He may well have still been terminal—no-one really knew—but he wasn’t sick so there was nothing to do but send him home and ask him to submit to frequent check-ups to determine the progress of the tumour. Two years later, in 1991, the year the great basketballer Magic Johnson announced he had contracted HIV, my father would receive another rude shock and death would be on all of our lips.

Two years after the initial diagnosis, and with my father feeling like he had nearly crept out of some very dark woods, his routine x-rays showed shadows on his left lung. It was almost certainly secondary lung cancer.

If it’s secondaries, it’s terminal, isn’t it?” my father asked his doctor.

Yes. But we’re all terminal, mate. I’m terminal.”

I’ll never forget him saying that,” my father laughs now.

A nurse led him to a biopsy room to remove a small piece of tissue from his lung.

They stuck this huge bloody needle into my back and fiddled around trying to extract a piece of my lung. They couldn’t get a piece so I was sent to the donut [CT scanner] for some chest scans. I was in there for an hour and I was absolutely stuffed.”

After the CT session, another biopsy was tried. My father’s ribs, however, were obstinately blocking the needle’s path, but not so well that the needle didn’t pierce my father’s left lung. It collapsed.

I just read Orwell’s Down and Out […in Paris and London] and parts of it reminded me of that night in the hospital. It was dark and cold and there was coughing and wheezing all night long. There was this radio that kept playing and I said: ‘are we going to have to listen to that bloody thing all night long?’ and someone switched it off.”

My father doesn’t reflect here on the awful fact that that morning he was only in the hospital for a routine check-up. Hours later he was in a hospital bed with a collapsed lung and the likelihood of secondary cancer.

The following day my father’s lung re-inflated. He was now ready for a more invasive biopsy of his lung. They opened up his chest.

I’ll never forget waking up from surgery,” he tells me. “There’s a guy standing next to me and he says ‘Good news. There’s no sign of cancer.’ It felt terrific. ‘So that was that,’ I thought. I’d do some physio and get back to work.”

Just. Like. That.

The shadows were a strange fungal disease, often—and this is bizarre—often caused by pigeon shit. It remains a mystery today how Dad contracted it.

The NBA’s commissioner, David Stern, once said that the league’s mission was “the collective business of selling heroes.” Stern was not so much selling basketball to the public, but confirmation of the existence of American gods. Reggie Lewis was a hero to me because of his talent, but also because Stern had spent sponsors’ money and his executives’ imaginations making him one. But I had been living with a regular hero all along, my father. And the very ordinary qualities of his heroism—old-fashioned acceptance, practicality and humility in the face of death—prevented my appreciation of it. They’re not showy. My father’s response to dying was so genuine, so effortless, that he doesn’t possibly see how it could be inspirational. And that, of course, might be the most inspirational thing of all.

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