Did Reggie Lewis Commit Fraud?

February 10, 1999

Did Reggie Lewis Commit Fraud?

Nearly 50 years ago, the world shook when the Brinks garage in the North End was robbed of more than $1 million. It was called the greatest heist of all time and it spawned at least two movies and a half-dozen books. But in my opinion, the Brinks job was chump change compared to the fraud revealed when Reggie Lewis collapsed and later died on the basketball floor at Brandeis in the summer of 1993. There was more than $15 million at stake in that deal, and it was the money that was at the center of the sequence of events that will continue to unfold in a Massachusetts courtroom unless there is a settlement in the malpractice suit brought by Reggie's widow, Donna Harris-Lewis, against Dr. Gilbert Mudge and three associates from Brigham and Women's Hospital. When Lewis signed what turned out to be his last contract with the Celtics, and the insurance policy that went with it, he was asked on the form if he had ever used drugs.

He answered no. Unless a whole bunch of people are lying, that was a lie. And when he lied, that was fraud. Harris-Lewis, who steadfastly has maintained that her husband never used drugs, has collected most of the $15 million due from his contract and life insurance policies. Yet she is suing four doctors for more, saying they were the reason he died. It was written into Lewis's contract that if for some reason he could not play because of drugs, he would not get paid. So when he collapsed at Boston Garden during a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets April 29, 1993, and was taken to New England Baptist Hospital the next day, there was $15 million at risk if he could never play again. After two days of examination, 12 of Boston's finest cardiologists concluded that Lewis had a serious heart problem and thought cocaine use might have triggered it. Even though the so-called Dream Team of doctors offered it as the possible No. 1 reason for Lewis's heart troubles, the Celtics and Harris-Lewis wanted to hear none of it. Dr. Arnold Scheller, the Celtics physician, said drugs were not an issue, though the top cardiologists wanted to make it one.

And Harris-Lewis saw to it that they would not continue to make it an issue with the first of a series of strange moves on her part. While her husband was getting some of the greatest medical advice available in the world at New England Baptist, Harris-Lewis excused herself from the room and the discussion of Reggie's possible use of drugs. She went down the hall, into the women's room, and pulled out a cellular telephone. She called a friend she'd worked with at Brigham and Women's and told him she wanted to get Reggie out of the Baptist immediately. Later that night, Harris-Lewis personally took Reggie out of his room, down the elevator, and out of the hospital against the wishes of the nurse on duty.

The Globe's Steve Fainaru was in the vestibule of the hospital writing his story on the day's activities and witnessed this whole crazy episode. Have you ever heard of anyone going to a top-flight hospital late at night to transfer a patient when that patient is getting advice from a team of the greatest doctors in the world? It now became clearly important to Lewis's family and the Celtics that Reggie be cleared of any charges of using drugs. A public disclosure of drug use could forever tarnish his reputation and could jeopardize $15 million that was at stake. I found it very curious that when Mudge, whom Harris-Lewis appointed as Reggie's doctor, called for a meeting of the Celtics doctors to get all information he possibly could for background, those doctors didn't show. Dave Gavitt and Jan Volk, who at the time were the Celtics' chief executive officer and general manager, respectively, showed, but not the team doctors whom Mudge had requested. The Celtics were in for approximately $7 million in this deal. They had overinsured Lewis by that much.

Lewis signed a deal worth approximately $16 million over five years. The team insured the contract for $17 million. When Lewis died, he had played two years of the contract. Harris-Lewis would collect about $10 million from that and more from life insurance policies. The Celtics had $7 million that went directly into their pocket. It was at this meeting that the Celtics made clear that Lewis wouldn't be playing for them anymore. Harris-Lewis became upset and told Reggie that basically, he didn't need the Celtics, he could go play for Miami, because Reggie supposedly had told her previously that he would like to play for the Heat. At a subsequent meeting, Harris-Lewis, according to Mudge, told Mudge she didn't want him talking to either the Celtics or the insurance company about Reggie. Mudge says in his statement filed in court this week that on five occasions, he asked Lewis about cocaine use.

The first four times, Lewis said no. The fifth time, according to Mudge, he admitted he had. This was the suspicion of the Dream Team right from the start. Their examination of Lewis in the days after he collapsed led them to believe that the use of cocaine caused cardiomyopathy - or a scarring of the heart. Lewis died in the early evening of July 27 at Newton-Wellesley Hospital after shooting baskets at the Celtics' practice facility at Brandeis University in Waltham. At approximately 9 that night, according to depositions taken for this trial, Harris-Lewis went to the Celtics locker room at Brandeis, unannounced, and told the security guard she wanted to clean out her husband's locker, which she did. Less than four hours after her husband was pronounced dead, she was cleaning out his locker. Did you ever hear of anyone going to her husband's desk at work hours after he died to clean it out? In the days that followed, Lewis was treated as a hero. There was the televised funeral procession from Northeastern to Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, where Lewis now rests. Because I was the first one to raise the possibility that drugs had contributed to Lewis's death I am constantly being asked: what is Donna Harris-Lewis thinking about with this malpractice suit? I have no idea. Even if she convinces some judge or jury that Mudge and his associates are responsible for Reggie's death, how much more money does she need?

 Meanwhile, Reggie is being dragged through the mud. His personal life is being exposed, and as it is, Harris-Lewis sits right in front of people being deposed and never blinks an eye, according to witnesses, no matter what is said about her husband. A couple of months after the Patriots were crushed in the 1986 Super Bowl by the Chicago Bears, I was sitting with John Madden at an NFL meeting when the subject of drugs came up. Lest you forget, in one of the dumbest moves ever, coach Raymond Berry came out the day following the Super Bowl, after the Globe's Ron Borges had unearthed the details, and said at least a half-dozen members of the Patriots had used drugs that season. Madden, the television analyst and former Oakland Raiders coach, said something I will never forget: "When it comes to drugs, everyone lies. No one wants to tell the truth." In the opinion of this writer, if Lewis had told the truth from the start and leveled with the Dream Team of doctors and Mudge, he would have been treated accordingly and might be alive today. He would have never played again. And he probably would not have been paid. But he might be alive, and now Donna Harris-Lewis would not be chasing Mudge and his associates for more money. It's time for her to look in the mirror.


FLCeltsFan said...

Wow. Some interesting stuff. I hadn't read this part of the whole thing before. I'd read quite a few articles and read Quiet Grace but never saw this side of it. Some ugly stuff around a really nice guy. Too bad it ended like that.

Lex said...

Indeed. I still recall how it all ended.

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