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Saturday, July 27, 2013
20th Anniversary of Reggie Lewis Death & Its Sports Law Legacy

Today is the 20th 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 my favorite basketball player of all time. Lewis was one of the most efficient players in the NBA, and had he played today in an era of basketball analytics, he probably would have enjoyed higher star power and commanded discussion at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics and similar forums.

What made Lewis so good?  Terrific defense and all-out hustle were a big part of it.  So too was scoring efficiency.  Hitting close to 50% of his shots, Lewis 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 Celtics Blog highlighted, 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. This is also the kind of topic well discussed in David Epstein's new book The Sports Gene.

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, although 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.

1. Malpractice Lawsuit against Dr. Mudge

In 1996, shortly before the statute of limitations would expire, Lewis's widow, Donna Harris-Lewis, filed a malpractice lawsuit against Mudge. She argued Mudge was negligent in his advice and care of Lewis.  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.
In other words, Mudge argued, he couldn't have provided reasonable care if the patient didn't inform him of a key (alleged) fact: the patient had a history of cocaine use.

The case took three years to litigate.  A jury was unable to reach a verdict and the case was ultimately declared a mistrial, a de facto victory for Mudge.  Harris-Lewis sued Mudge again, unsuccessfully, and an attempt at a third lawsuit was denied by a state appeals court in 2004.  Mudge is currently director of Brigham and Woman's Cardiovascular unit and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

2. Threat of $100 million Defamation Suit against The Wall Street Journal

The second legal controversy stemming from Lewis' death 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. Authored by Ron Suskind, Deadly Silence: How the Inner Circles, Of Medicine and Sports, Failed a Stricken Star attracted the outrage of Gaston, who called it called libelous.  The story 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.

Among other hurdles for bringing such a suit, it was never clear why Gaston would have had standing to file a defamation suit on Lewis' behalf or for the parts of the story that allegedly defamed Lewis.  The article did suggest that the Celtics withheld information about Lewis' health in order to increase an insurance payout, which means the Celtics (though probably not Gaston himself) could have sued on those grounds.

Critics also questioned why Gaston picked "$100 million" and the merits of such a number.  Use of such an extreme, round number has the unintended effect of diminishing the seriousness of a claim (think Dr. Evil and "$100 billion").  Similarly, many doubted the Celtics would have been willing to go through the pretrial discovery process associated with bringing the lawsuit -- especially one against the Wall Street Journal, which had the financial wherewithal to put up a good fight.  The Celtics' insurers would have surely paid attention to any findings that reflected poorly on the team.

Despite Gaston's threats, he never got around to suing the Wall Street Journal, and the 3-year statute of limitations on a claim expired in 1998.  Here is what Peter May of the Boston Globe wrote on March 18, 1998, right after the statute of limitations expired:
"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."   ...

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, check out this tribute:

This post is adapted and expanded from a post I wrote three years ago.


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