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Brandeis and the Boston Celtics: a tragic partnership

Published: February 10, 2012
Section: Sports


The Boston Celtics are one of the most iconic franchises in all of sports. Their past success is unparalleled in sports and will probably never be matched. From 1957 to 1969, the Celtics dominated the NBA, winning 11 titles in 13 years including eight titles in a row. Hall of famers Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek led the Celtics during this period of unrivaled domination.

After the former big three retired, legendary Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach once again put the Celtics to the forefront of the basketball landscape by drafting Larry Bird and, in what is largely considered the biggest draft steal in the history of sports, by trading two first-round picks in the 1980 NBA draft, Joe Barry Carroll and Rickey Brown (both players would have forgettable NBA careers) to the Golden State Warriors for future hall-of-famer Robert Parish. The third pick of the draft was future hall-of-famer Kevin McHale.
With this new Big Three, the Celtics once again dominated the NBA, appearing in five NBA finals during a 10-year span in the 1980s and winning three titles.

With Bird, McHale and Parish starting to decline and near retirement, it seemed Auerbach had once again positioned the Celtics for continued success until tragedy struck.

In the 1986 NBA draft, the Celtics selected forward Len Bias with the second overall pick. Bias had played college basketball at Maryland University and was widely considered the closest player in terms of talent and explosiveness to legendary Michael Jordan. Shortly after being drafted by the Celtics, however, Bias died of a cardiac arrhythmia stemming from cocaine usage. Experts maintain that Bias is one of the greatest players never to be able to play at the professional level.

In the following year’s draft the Celtics selected Reggie Lewis. In his first few years with the Celtics, Lewis emerged as one of the best young talents in the league, averaging 20.8 points per game. Tragically, Brandeis University will always be connected to the horrible death of Reggie Lewis.

In an off-season practice at Brandeis on July 27, 1993, where the Celtics used to hold their off-season training camps, Lewis collapsed. The shift sergeant was performing a routine check of the Gosman facility when he was approached by a patron telling him of a “person down” in the Shapiro Gym, Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan said. Several individuals, mostly fellow players and coaches, were surrounding Lewis when the officer arrived on the scene at 5:15 p.m. Additional officers arrived just a few minutes later.

Upon arrival, the first-responding officer initiated a primary survey and determined that Lewis was not breathing and did not have a pulse. The officer attempted to revive him with CPR but his efforts were unsuccessful. After Lewis’ vitals failed to improve following CPR, he was transported via ambulance to Waltham/Weston Hospital, where he died shortly after arrival. Lewis was just entering his prime at the age of 27.

A 2009 Boston Herald article concerning the controversy between Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley identified Crowley as the officer who tried to save Lewis.

“I wasn’t working on Reggie Lewis the basketball star. I wasn’t working on a black man. I was working on another human being,” Crowley told The Herald. “Some people were saying ‘there’s the guy who killed Reggie Lewis’ afterward. I was broken-hearted. I cried for many nights.”

Lewis had shown signs of a heart condition in the previous season when he collapsed on the court during a first round playoff series against the Charlotte Hornets; however, nobody expected it to threaten his life. The cause of his death was subsequently attributed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a structural heart defect that is widely considered to be one of the leading causes of death in young athletes.

Following the deaths of Bias and Lewis, the Celtics entered a period of relative irrelevance for roughly 15 years. The Celtics did not make it back to the NBA Finals until 2008; they won the title that year as well, when the general manger, Danny Ainge, formed a new Big Three consisting of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.
In a nod to the connection between Brandeis and the Celtics, the Judges play all of their home contests in the Red Auerbach Arena.

The Celtics are one of the most storied franchises in professional sports. As in any story, however, there is a dark point. Through no fault of the university, Brandeis will forever be linked to the rapid decline of the Boston Celtics following the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis.

While the Celtics no longer use the Brandeis facilities for off-season training camps, opting to use a larger facility in Waltham, the tragic link between the two will forever remain in the blood, sweat and tears shed on that fateful day 19 years ago.