The sign of a great offensive player is the moment in which he can’t be stopped, and you have to pick your poison. Kobe, LeBron, Jordan – they have a countermove to everything you try to do on defense. So when you get one of those guys to start doubting their decisions, when they begin “seeing ghosts” on the court, that means you did something spectacular. That’s what Reggie Lewis did to Michael Jordan.
If you talk about a Celtic with all the potential in the world whose career was ended abruptly by death, 99% of people think of Len Bias. As misfortune had it, the Celtics had more than one player like that. Reggie Lewis was on the path of taking the torch from Bird and McHale and continuing to lead the Celtics to more titles. When he came to the league, Lewis had a good shot, and that’s about it. Despite that, Bird was confident he would leave the Celtics in good hands.
“When Reggie first came into the league, he really didn’t know how to play the game. He shot the ball. That was about it. But he was a worker. He spent a lot of time improving his game. He loved it. You could always tell that.”
Larry Bird, via ESPN
Lewis wanted to be great and knew that it means being a star on offense and defense. He would spend a lot of time talking to teammates and his friend Brian Shaw about improving his defensive game. He got to work and was on a trajectory that puts him in rare NBA air.
“By the time he died, he was one of six players who, from 1988-93, posted at least 7,500 points, 1,500 rebounds, 1,000 assists, and 500 steals. The other five — Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, and Chris Mullin– are all Hall of Famers.”
Jackie MacMullan, ESPN
Every player has one night in his career when the rim is an ocean, and everything goes in. Not everyone has such a night on defense. March 31, 1991, Reggie Lewis had a spectacular defensive performance that achieved the unthinkable – he made Michael Jordan doubt himself.
“He had my number that particular night. He had those long arms that really bothered me. I was trying to be aggressive with him. I was trying to take advantage of his passive demeanor, but he didn’t back down. He never relinquished his own aggressiveness. Every time I thought I had him beat, he’d recover and get up on me. When you have the skills to break someone down on defense and you can’t, it makes you tentative offensively.”
Michael Jordan, via ESPN
Jordan praised Lewis’s confidence. He tried to get under his skin with some trash-talking, but Lewis didn’t respond. He would smile and continue playing his game. Jordan finished the night shooting 33% from the floor (12-36). Reggie didn’t stop there – he nailed a three-pointer to take the game into overtime. His only attempt from behind the arc in the entire game, without any hesitation. Bird sealed the deal for the Celtics in double overtime, but everyone was talking about Reggie Lewis.
On April 29, 1993, in a playoff game against the Hornets, Lewis collapsed and was diagnosed with focal cardiomyopathy”, a heart muscle disease that can cause irregular heartbeat and heart failure. As the diagnosis was career-ending, Lewis got a second opinion that gave him hope that he could play.
On July 27, 1993, during an off-season practice, just putting up some shots, Reggie Lewis suffered sudden cardiac death on the basketball court. Everyone that played with him or against him, a list that includes Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, agrees he would’ve been a “perennial All-Star and Hall of Famer.” Unfortunately, we never got to see it happen. When asked about the four blocks, Jordan was clear.
“No one had ever done it before, and no one has done it since.”
Michael Jordan, via ESPN