The Journalís Reggie Lewis Bombshell
By Alicia C. Shepard
Nearly two years ago, Boston Celtics basketball great Reggie Lewis died of a heart attack at age 27. The death of the beloved sports star was covered extensively by the Boston media.
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
Then the story faded--until this past March, when the Wall Street Journal published a 6,200-word front page story suggesting Lewis' medical treatment had been thwarted by the self-serving interests of the Celtics, the NBA, the medical establishment and perhaps Lewis himself. The piece concluded that had Lewis been accorded the medical care of an average citizen, he might well be alive today.
The Boston Globe told a somewhat similar tale in an eight-page special section in September 1993, but the Journal went much further. It introduced the possibility that cocaine--not a cold virus, as the autopsy concluded--may have caused Lewis' July 27, 1993, death while shooting baskets.
Journal writer Ron Suskind, who last month won a Pulitzer for a feature he wrote last year, raised the ugly specter that no one pursued the possibility of cocaine use while Lewis was alive because of misguided NBA drug policies, the Celtics' fear of bad publicity and Lewis' refusal to take a drug test. Even after he died, Suskind wrote, cocaine use may still have been ignored because Lewis' widow and the Celtics stood to lose millions in insurance claims.
"What is undeniable," Suskind concluded, "[is that] cocaine was a central, explosive issue for the doctors, the Lewis family, the Celtics and the pathologists who conducted his November 1993 autopsy--an issue that became untouchable because Mr. Lewis was a basketball superstar."
The Journal story alluded to the strong possibility--but did not conclude--that Lewis had used cocaine. No doctor said on the record that cocaine was the cause of death, nor did anyone say they had ever seen the Celtic team captain use the drug.
Nonetheless, the story sent the media into a frenzy, especially in Boston.
"By acceding to the naive wishes of their readers and viewers that their memories of Reggie Lewis remain pristinely drug-free," wrote Dan Kennedy, the Boston Phoenix's media writer, "the Boston media helped create something much worse: a cover-up of nearly two years, followed by a degrading, tabloid-style slugfest to catch up" to Suskind's story.
Two Globe columnists did speculate at the time of Lewis' death that drugs might have been involved; the response was angry telephone calls and letters. In Boston, Lewis was a genuine, hand-out-turkeys-at-Thanksgiving hero. Fifteen thousand mourners turned out for his funeral.
Not surprisingly, the Globe and the Boston Herald mobilized to pursue the story, which also received heavy national attention. Suskind was deluged with calls. Sports Illustrated panned his work. NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol dismissed the story as "unbelievably unfair." Columnists weighed in everywhere, some praising the Journal, some accusing the paper of racism and trying to tarnish the reputation of a black hero.
Kennedy criticized Suskind for failing to mention that Lewis had had a heart murmur as a child and that his family history was plagued with heart problems.
The Celtics' top brass denounced the story as false and racist, and Celtics President Paul Gaston threatened to file a $100 million lawsuit. Lewis' widow, Donna Harris-Lewis, vehemently denied that her husband had ever touched cocaine.
"The racism-baiting, the threat of a suit, were all designed to caricature the story as an attack on Reggie Lewis and divert attention from the issues the story raised," says Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger.
To the Journal, Steiger says, this was a business story. The NBA, after all, is a very big business. The story involved potential insurance fraud, mismanagement in the medical community and the self-serving behavior of a major sports franchise, he says.
"We didn't want to do a story about whether Reggie Lewis used coke or not," says Steiger. "The issue was: Did the medical establishment, the Celtics and the NBA have interests that were counter to the best medical interests of this young man? That was the story we did."
But that's not what most people talked about.
"When I read the Journal piece, I thought it was well-written, powerful," says Boston Globe Ombudsman Mark Jurkowitz. "I know it was a business story but the impact was, 'Oh my God, Reggie did cocaine.' "
Suskind, who previously worked in the Journal's Boston bureau, began reporting the story last August after receiving a tip that cocaine might have been involved in Lewis' death. Steiger set the bar high on the reporting: Unlike the Globe's special section, the Journal wouldn't use any anonymous sources.
Suskind quoted two doctors involved with Lewis' autopsy as saying that the scarring on the superstar's heart was consistent with, but not exclusive to, cocaine use. His coup was getting Dr. Gilbert Mudge, Lewis' primary cardiologist, to speak on the record for the first time. Mudge explained to Suskind that he had once told Lewis cocaine was "the only thing that would explain what we're seeing."
"I really credit the Wall Street Journal," says Andrew F. Costello Jr., editor of the Boston Herald, who says Suskind did some great digging. "I wish we could have done it."
Last summer, the Globe investigated possible drug use by Lewis but didn't come up with anything conclusive, says Ben Bradlee Jr., assistant managing editor for projects. "We heard the Journal was in it and we were playing a little defense," he says.
Bradlee says the Globe wouldn't have printed the Journal's story because it was too speculative. "We would not have run much of that story because it never closed the loop on drugs," he says.
After the Journal story ran, the Boston papers published numerous stories linking Lewis to drug use.
On March 22, as the controversy raged, the Celtics retired Lewis' number 35, raising it to the rafters at Boston Garden. But no definitive resolution of the debate over his death seems in sight.###