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Newspaper: Cocaine May Have Contributed to Death of Basketball Star

March 9, 1995

NEW YORK (AP) _ Cocaine may have contributed to the death of basketball star Reggie Lewis, but people around him ignored that possibility to protect reputations and financial interests, The Wall Street Journal reported today.

The newspaper said that while a definite connection cannot be shown, many doctors suspect that the Boston Celtics captain died in July 1993 from a heart damaged by cocaine.

``What is undeniable: 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 newspaper said.

Officials of the Celtics front office and the NBA had no immediate comment.

But Lewis’ coach and a former teammate were surprised about the reported cocaine use.

``To my knowledge, seeing Reggie on a regular basis, I would be shocked,″ coach Chris Ford said.

Teammate Dee Brown said Lewis was clean ``in every way possible.″

The death certificate said a viral infection severely damaged Lewis’ heart, leaving him vulnerable to the fatally abnormal heart rhythm.

About three months before his death, Lewis collapsed during a game and was hospitalized. At the time, Lewis refused to consent to drug testing. Dave Gavitt, then the Celtics chief operating officer, denied the player was involved in drugs.

Lewis, just 27 when he died, was a much-loved player in Boston. More than 15,000 people attended his funeral. The Celtics are set to retire his number March 22, and Mayor Thomas Menino last month proclaimed that the date will be ``Reggie Lewis Day.″

The newspaper said information about a drug link may have been supressed because it would have created bad publicity for the Celtics and the National Basketball Association and would have invalidated $15 million worth of insurance coverage.

Lewis collapsed dring a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets on April 29, 1993. The next day, he entered Boston’s New England Baptist Hospital for a battery of tests.

Printouts from a test that illuminates how blood moves through the heart showed three black patches _ dead spots _ on the left ventricle.

Because of Lewis’ age and physical condition, two doctors at the hospital suspected cocaine. The NBA’s drug policy, however, does not allow its veteran players to be tested for drugs except under unusual circumstances.

Dr. Thomas Nessa, Baptist hospital cardiologist, said he told Lewis that ``we’d be pushing him and the Celtics to get to the bottom of the issue of causation. Reggie knew what we meant. We’d been pressing him about cocaine for days.″

On Lewis’ third day in the hospital, a team of doctors from the area’s top hospitals went over the test results. Shortly after Lewis learned about the doctors’ assessments, he checked himself out and was admitted to another hospital, Brigham and Women’s, where another doctor gave him a more optimistic diagnosis.

On July 27, 1993, while shooting baskets, Lewis collapsed and died.

A preliminary autopsy report, the Journal said, found that Lewis’ heart was ``abnormal, enlarged and extensively scarred.″ It said preliminary drug screenings show no evidence of drug abuse.

Two other doctors who examined the heart, however, said they found scarring that they described as consistent with cocaine damage, the paper reported.

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