There was a time in Boston when Donna Harris-Lewis, the widow of Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis, was derisively dubbed by local media a “professional widow” who “misses the limelight.” But in the decades since, as her profile turned private, she has proven above all else that what always mattered most to her was keeping her husband’s legacy alive and well, in the NBA community and beyond.
It has been 25 years to the day since Lewis collapsed while shooting baskets at Brandeis University and died from heart failure at a nearby hospital on July 27, 1993. The tragedy that befell the first Celtics captain after Larry Bird’s retirement was followed by years of controversy, including a malpractice lawsuit against the doctor who cleared Lewis to play, rejecting the findings of a medical “dream team” that diagnosed him with a heart arrhythmia that should have spelled the end of his basketball career.
Harris-Lewis filed suit three times against Gilbert Mudge, the doctor whose second opinion she and her husband sought in hopes he could continue playing for the Celtics. The first ended in a mistrial. The second cleared Mudge of malpractice. The third was denied in appeals court. Harris-Lewis reportedly spent millions defending her deceased husband against still-unproven allegations of cocaine abuse, allegations that also threatened an insurance payout to the Lewis family in excess of $15 million. For that, local newspaper columnists wondered, “Why is Donna Harris-Lewis doing this?”
A quarter-century later, the answer seems obvious: Reggie Lewis could no longer defend himself, and his wife was left to bear the torch for his name. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Lewis’ death, I reached out to the National Basketball Wives Association, of which Harris-Lewis is the director and treasurer, to see if she’d be interested in telling the story of how she and her children, Reggie Jr. and Reggiena, have honored his memory these past 25 years. After years out of the limelight, Harris-Lewis responded with the following letter:
An open letter from Donna Harris-Lewis
Thank you for your interest in honoring Dr. Reginald “Reggie” Lewis, Sr. (honorary doctorate humanities 1994.). He was an extraordinary young man, husband, father (11 months), son, brother, friend, professional athlete — NBA All-Star, Boston Celtics captain (sixth following Larry Bird), Northeastern University captain (No. 35 retired in Matthews Arena), infamous Dunbar High School graduate and humanitarian. He accomplished a lot during his short tenure with us.
Reggie’s interest to give back to underserved communities germinated from a sincere concern for young people to utilize academics and athletics (just as he did) to improve their quality of life and to inspire the next generation to do the same. During my 1994 Northeastern University commencement address (accepting posthumously Reggie’s Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice and an honorary doctorate degree in humanities) to fellow alumnae, I encouraged them, “To invest their considerable knowledge, talent, time and resources to underserved communities or non-profit charitable organizations.” Reggie’s life inspired those sentiments. The Lewis family remains committed to supporting secular organizations that promote athletics, academics and the arts.
The Lewis family commitment to giving our time and resources to help others has been achieved in a variety of ways over the past 25 years. Whether it is via our volunteer time teaching Bible truths with our Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses or supporting the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center at Roxbury Community College; the Roxbury Community College Foundation; Northeastern University men’s basketball; Northeastern’s Reggie Lewis Memorial Scholarship, Jack Grinold Media Center and Annual Leadership Circle; the Urban League; the National Basketball Wives Association Inc.; NBA Cares; the Boston Celtics; the Boston Arts Academy; WGBH; all of the Boston community centers (especially Shelburne); Roxbury Charter Preparatory School; the National Council of Negro Women; Boys and Girls Clubs of America; Rosie’s Place; The Dimock Center; the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League; Dunbar High School; and the Cecil Kirk Community Center, to name a few.
Reggie left an indelible footprint on our minds and hearts. He led by example. We are grateful to the Boston fans and world for the continued love and support shown to his family.
Donna M. Harris-Lewis
Boston, you’re my home
Donna Harris-Lewis was pregnant with their second child when Reggie Lewis died on July 27, 1993. At the time, the couple also had a 1-year-old son, Reggie Jr. Their daughter, Reggiena, was born some six months later. The children are in their mid-20s now, and the family still calls the Boston area home.
“Reggie and I always wanted to do what is right, and, as many of you know, there can be obstacles,” Harris-Lewis, donning a Reggie Lewis Foundation T-shirt, told a crowd gathered for the unveiling of the Reggie Lewis Technology Center, thanks to a $30,000 gift from the Lewis family, according to a Boston Magazine profile at the turn of the century. “Even when we try to do good, there are obstacles.”
Those obstacles included fielding questions first about why they pursued a second opinion when 12 doctors determined Lewis should not play again after a frightening fall during a 1993 playoff game led to the discovery of his heart condition, and later about the aforementioned alleged cocaine abuse — allegations Harris-Lewis steadfastly denied while mourning her husband’s death as a single mother.
Those questions have faded in favor of what was mired in the controversy and has been uncovered by the Lewis family in the 25 years since: Reggie Lewis, the 27-year-old Northeastern legend who became the All-Star heir to Bird’s Celtics and was beloved in the Boston community, left us too soon.
In their place is a legacy preserved by Harris-Lewis that continues to leave his footprints all over the city — at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, on Northeastern’s annual Reggie Lewis Memorial Scholarship, through the Reggie Lewis Foundation and by the two children named for their father.
When I reached out to confirm that the family still made their home in the Boston area, Harris-Lewis answered in the affirmative and signed off with, “Go NU Huskies! Go Celtics!” before granting us permission to use this photo of her and her daughter at a Celtics-Lakers game early this past season:
Harris-Lewis added, “It was nice to see Reggiena wearing her dad’s No. 35 jersey.”
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