“For those of you who may not have known Reggie personally, let me try to explain to you why he is our hero, our role model at this university and across the city. With that accuracy, that first step, that silken jump shot, he was Superman on the basketball court and Clark Kent off it,”
– Former Northeastern president John A. Curry in his eulogy to Reggie Lewis in 1993.
By Matt Levin
On August 2, 1993, thousands of people packed into Matthews Arena, with a three-page list of approved media members there to report – from the Boston Globe to Sports Illustrated. But they weren’t there to take in a Northeastern basketball game.
They were there to say goodbye to one of the school’s – and game’s – greatest. On July 27, 1993, while playing pickup basketball at Brandeis University, Lewis, then a member of the Boston Celtics, suffered a sudden cardiac death from a pre-existing heart condition, which was diagnosed when he had collapsed during a Celtics playoff game just two months earlier.
Reggie Lewis, a shooting guard, was responsible for the best stretch in Northeastern University’s men’s basketball team’s history. In his four-year career at Northeastern, from 1983-1987, Lewis averaged 22.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. He helped carry Northeastern to four straight America East (then known as the North Atlantic Conference) titles as well as four straight NCAA Tournament appearances, after never starting a game for his nationally-ranked high school team in Baltimore. Curry said that Lewis was “Northeastern’s best athlete ever,” while current men’s basketball head coach, Bill Coen, echoed the same thought. Lewis is to him “without a doubt the greatest player that’s ever played in Northeastern history. You go back and look at what he was able to do, not only as an individual player, but what his team accomplished during his era.”
Lewis is all over Northeastern’s men’s basketball record book. He is most notably the school’s all-time leading scorer, with 2,709 career points – 419 more than second on the list J.J. Barea. Lewis is also first in career field goals made and free throws made and third in rebounds, steals, and blocks.
Lewis is the only Husky ever to get drafted in the first round of the NBA draft, where he was taken 22nd overall by the Boston Celtics. With the Celtics, Lewis would later be named team captain and make the 1992 NBA All-Star team.
“People from all over came to see him play. We were the best team in New England,” Jim Calhoun, former Northeastern head coach and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member, said. “The crowd was great. People came early to Matthews Arena and it filled up.”
Calhoun also recalled one game where the Huskies were playing in the Cabot Center and the crowd literally “broke the doors down” to watch Lewis play.
“Reggie had the best first step in basketball. He had an incredible ability to go by people and score the basketball,” Calhoun said. “He loved the gym and wanted to be good. I had to kick him out of the gym every single night after practice.”
Karl Fogel, then Northeastern’s assistant basketball coach, played a key part in recruiting Lewis to Northeastern, and said that Lewis was “a great player and a better person,” a sentiment echoed by the many people that know him.
Calhoun compared Lewis’ personality to his former player at UConn, and current Boston Celtic, Kemba Walker. “He always had a joyful smile on the court and sometimes a bigger one off the court,” Calhoun said. “When you saw him, there was nothing about him that wasn’t welcoming.”
What made Lewis so beloved in Boston was not just his talent on the court but his commitment to helping the community. Lewis helped the Boston community in numerous ways, but one of the things he was most known for was passing out over a thousand turkeys on Thanksgiving annually to the Boston community.
When Coen thinks about Lewis, he thinks “about how much he meant to the city of Boston, and how much he did in terms of community service,” he said. “I mean, the outpouring at the time of his death was just remarkable. You could see just how many lives was he able to touch and how many people was he able to impact. Most of it was in a non-basketball way.”
Northeastern gifted Lewis an honorary degree in Doctor of Humanities, saying in the degree, “With gentleness and grace, Reggie Lewis touched all our lives. We cheered as he boosted the Huskies and Celtics to victory. We smiled when we watched him surrounded by admiring young faces at the numerous youth organizations to which he selflessly donated his time.”
Lewis is the only men’s basketball player to have their number retired in Northeastern school history. Lewis’ number 35 hangs not only in both Matthews Arena and Solomon Court in Cabot, but also the TD Garden, ensuring his place in Boston sports history will never be forgotten.