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Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Remembering Reggie Lewis and the Sports Law Issues that Followed his Death

Please Note: for an updated and expanded version of this post, see July 27, 2013 post: 20th Anniversary of Reggie Lewis Death & Its Sports Law Legacy**
Yesterday marked the 17th anniversary of the death of Reggie Lewis, an all-star Celtics guard/forward who died from a heart attack on July 27, 1993, at the age of 27.

Growing up right outside of Boston, I was a big Reggie Lewis fan. He's still one of my all-time favorite Celtics, maybe my favorite. In addition to terrific defense and all-out hustle, he averaged 21 points per game in each of his last two seasons (91-92 and 92-93) and in the 91-92 season did something that Larry Bird never accomplished -- he led his Celtics team in scoring, steals and blocked shots per game. As CelticsBlog highlights, Lewis, who was 6'7, also famously blocked Michael Jordan four times in one game.

Lewis had the unenviable task of following Bird as the next great Celtic. It was a task that, had Lenny Bias not died from a cocaine overdose the night the Celtics made him the 2nd overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft, Lewis would have shared with another potential superstar and the Celtics probably would have gone on to be one of the best teams in the 90s.

But that didn't happen.

On April 29, 1993, Lewis collapsed during a playoff game in Boston against the Charlotte Hornets. A "dream team" of 12 Boston cardiologists concluded that Lewis had cardiomyopathy, also known as "athletes heart" and a potentially fatal condition whereby the heart becomes too thick and beats irregularly. I've written about cardiomyopathy in the context of Eddy Curry and Alan Milstein addressed it when he argued on behalf of Curry that the Chicago Bulls had no right to insist on a DNA test as a condition of Curry's employment.

The doctors told Lewis that his basketball career was over.

Lewis then received a second opinion from Dr. Gilbert Mudge, a cardiologist who as Time Magazine reported, diagnosed Lewis with neurocardiogenic syncope, "a fairly benign fainting condition caused by nerve irregularities during or after peak periods of exertion." At a press conference, Mudge said, "I am confident that under medical supervision Mr. Reggie Lewis will be able to return to professional basketball without limitations." Mudge's opinion was later supported by other cardiologists, though some disagreed and supported the original diagnosis instead.

Lewis did not return to play for the Celtics, whose playoff appearance ended with a 3-1 first round loss against the Hornets, but he did resume a limited amount of practicing. Less than three months later, he would collapse and die while practicing his jump shot.

The death of Lewis raised two legal disputes.

First was a malpractice case against Mudge. The lawsuit was filed by Lewis's widow, Donna Harris Lewis, in 1996, shortly before the statute of limitations would expire. The case took three years to litigate and with a jury unable to reach a verdict, was ultimately declared a mistrial. Mudge's key line of defense was that Lewis admitted to Mudge that he used cocaine, but the admission came months after Mudge's diagnosis:
Mudge had testified that Lewis admitted shortly before his death that he had used cocaine, making an accurate diagnosis impossible. Harris-Lewis adamantly denied the charge.
Second was a threat by then Celtics owner Paul Gaston to sue the Wall Street Journal for $100 million for a front-page story it ran on Lewis in 1995. The story, which Gaston called libelous, suggested that the Celtics deliberately misled their insurance company as to the cause of Lewis' heart condition and that Lewis may have used cocaine. An autopsy of Lewis did not find any evidence linking Lewis with cocaine use.

Here is what Peter May of the Boston Globe wrote on March 18, 1998:
It has been a shade more than three years since Celtics chairman of the board Paul Gaston threatened to sue the Wall Street Journal after the newspaper suggested drug abuse and team negligence may have contributed to the death of Reggie Lewis.

At the time, legal experts said the threat sounded more like bluster than substance and predicted it would never be filed. They turned out to be correct.

The statute of limitations for libel in Massachusetts is three years - and the three-year anniversary of the Journal article passed quietly last week without so much as a piece of paper emanating from the Celtics' legal team.

"We spent quite a bit of time with a libel litigator, and as much as I hate the fact that some injustices go unpunished, I decided that this was one that was going to get away," Gaston said yesterday. "I don't see my job to go on a personal crusade against one of the foremost newspapers in the country. My job is to help rebuild the Boston Celtics and run the company which oversees them."

The Journal article appeared on March 9, 1995. It suggested, among other things, that the Celtics may have withheld medical information to collect on Lewis's insurance policy. There also was the suggestion that Lewis abused drugs.

Gaston immediately threatened to sue for $ 100 million, calling the article "defamatory and libelous." He said any proceeds from the lawsuit would go to the Reggie Lewis Foundation.

Several libel specialists contacted by the Globe expressed doubt that a suit would be filed. One said it would be an "uphill battle," and another added, "The last thing the Celtics want to do is bring this to court."

Gaston said a suit would have cost millions of dollars to pursue and that he felt the money could be more efficiently spent. "But, personally," he added, "I am equally disgusted now as I ever was by what appeared. That bitter taste will never leave my mouth."

Dick Tofel, vice president for corporate communications at Dow Jones, the Journal's publisher, said yesterday, "We said when we published the article that we were confident the article was fair and accurate, and we feel the same way three years later."
For a really good video about Lewis, here's this tribute I found on Youtube:


Not to belittle the importance of this information, but the concept of "This Day in Sports Law History" might be a great topic for the blog or another article. I didn't realize it was that long ago and on this date, so thanks for reminding us all.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/28/2010 2:56 PM  

That's an excellent suggestion, Anonymous. There is a good amount of sports law history that we could discuss on key anniversaries (e.g., day of Supreme Court's Curt Flood decision).

Blogger Michael McCann -- 7/28/2010 11:29 PM  

Plus, it gives a chance to see Olbermann sporting the early-'90s 'stache.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 7/29/2010 7:25 AM  

It was a very different Olmbermann, both in appearance and in commentating topic. He's had an interesting career in journalism - to go from sports to politics, particularly politics from a viewpoint that some will love and others will hate, could not have been an easy transition, but he's pulled it off.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 7/29/2010 10:09 AM  

For some time, I have been hoping that I could find some help in approaching ESPN about packaging some of their content for use in sports law courses. Keith Olbermann did a nice piece when Curt Flood died that I use in class because I taped it the night that It was done. They also have an interview by Dick Shapp with John Mackey. Much of their "Outside the Lines" material would be great for use in courses. The concept of a "This Day in Sports Law History" appeals to me. In fact I already have a calendar with some listings of baseball and labor history.

Blogger Ed Edmonds -- 7/30/2010 9:01 AM  

Maybe readers should supply significant dates and we can all add to our calendars?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/30/2010 10:10 AM  

Thanks Ed and Anonymous #2. "This Day in Sports Law" sounds like a very good project for us. Our posts tend to be about contemporary happenings in sports law, so to go back and discuss the history of this area of law would be a nice addition to the blog.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 7/30/2010 11:21 AM  

Mark your calendar: July 8 (Date LeBron chose Miami over Cleveland)

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/30/2010 1:14 PM  

Good call, Anonymous 1:14 p.m.! Nothing wrong with some very recent sports law history, and if we see some law review notes/articles on the Lebron contract choice in the next year, we could have an interesting discussion.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 7/30/2010 2:05 PM  

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