Donna Harris-Lewis swings her gray Range Rover into the parking lot abutting the John D. O’Byrant African-American Institute at Northeastern University, her alma mater and that of her late husband, former Celtic star Reggie Lewis. Her vanity plate reads “Nicety,” for nice and nasty, a song penned by rhythm-and-blues singer Michel’le and adopted by Harris-Lewis as her personal anthem. “Some people think I’m nice. Some people think I’m nasty,” she says at one point, giggling like a schoolgirl. “Ninety-eight percent of the time I’m nice. But I know how to get tough when I need to.”
Harris-Lewis has certainly been nice to Northeastern, donating her time and money in the name of her husband, the greatest basketball player in the school’s history. Her latest gift, $30,000, financed the new Reggie Lewis Technology Center, a small room in the institute holding 10 new computers, each with a mouse pad featuring Reggie Lewis in action. That’s the reason a couple hundred Northeastern students and officials, along with a handful of local politicians, have braved this bitterly cold Saturday morning in FebruaryÂ—to honor and thank her.
A beaming Donna Harris-Lewis takes a seat in the front row of a second-floor room in the institute. She’s dressed in a smart black pantsuit and wears the Reggie Lewis Foundation T-shirt that she sports to every event linked to his name. Her hair is knotted on the back of her head, and she wears little jewelry, save for the diamond studs in her ears and her husband’s wedding band on her middle finger (hers doesn’t fit anymore). Her seven-year-old son, Reggie Jr., sits shyly under her arm, held close to her side, while her six-year-old daughter, ReggienaÂ—”the drama queen,” Donna calls herÂ—romps through the crowd. Both children wear the same T-shirt emblazoned with the likeness of a father they are named after but never knew.
The Reggie Lewis Technology Center. The Reggie Lewis Foundation. Reggie Lewis Jr. and Reggiena Lewis. There’s no arguing that Donna Harris-Lewis isn’t doing everything in her power to keep her husband’s name and legacy of community service alive. But it’s equally true that Harris-Lewis has persisted in a protracted course of actionÂ—culminating in a highly publicized seven-week medical malpractice trial which ended last summer in a hung juryÂ—that has left his reputation tainted with accusations of cocaine use and her with an indelible image of a gold-digging, publicity-seeking widow. And absent a last-minute out-of-court settlement, a second malpractice trial, scheduled to begin this month, promises more of the same.
Even at today’s love fest, there is an almost apologetic undercurrent, an uncomfortable subtext that Tony Anderson, the executive director of the Reggie Lewis Foundation, addresses as he takes the podium. “Many people don’t understand this woman,” says Anderson, a plaintive note in his voice as he gazes fondly at Donna. “She has a passion. She is a woman of integrity. Anytime she commits to something, she’s gonna follow it through to the end.”
Finally, it’s Harris-Lewis’ turn. She saunters proudly to the podium and embraces the wild applause. She gives Anderson a big hug and kiss. She jokes and laughs and mugs, warming up the audience. Then she gets to the heart of the matter. “Reggie and I always wanted to do what is right,” she says, staring intensely into the crowd, “and, as many of you know, there can be obstacles. Even when we try to do good,” she adds with a dramatic pause, allowing her words to sink in, “there are obstacles.”
Nice and nasty don’t begin to describe the roiling cauldron of emotions that is Donna Harris-Lewis. The same can be said about the way people react to her. In fact, few, if any, public figures in town ignite such extreme reactions. Where her friends and admirers see passion, her detractors see anger, spite, bitterness, even vengefulness. Where her friends see tenacity, her detractors see that virtue to a fault bordering on obsession. Where her friends see a loyal widow and a protective, loving mother who home-schools her children, her detractors see a control freak, period.
Indeed, friends and detractors alike agree that Donna Harris-Lewis is all about control. That was the case when she ignored the diagnosis of 12 leading Boston cardiologists who said her husband should never play ball againÂ—and instead sought out yet another doctor, Gilbert Mudge of Brigham and Women’s, who gave the diagnosis that she and Reggie wanted to hear. And after her husband died of heart failureÂ—and Mudge was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying Reggie had admitted using cocaineÂ—she sued for malpractice, even if it meant opening her husband to further accusations of cocaine use.
“She is a totally controlling woman,” one of the doctors involved in Reggie’s care says. “She has to have control over everything. She was at the hospital 24 hours a day.” Harris-Lewis sees it another way. “People have to call me controlling,” she says. “Why can’t they just say I was a loving, supportive wife trying to help my husband as any wife would?”
Still, no matter what happens this monthÂ—whether she reaches an out-of-court settlement or drags her case back to courtÂ—Harris-Lewis will likely be remembered as a greedy “professional widow,” in the words of Boston Herald columnist Margery Eagan: a woman who is suing for money she doesn’t even need, considering the more than $10 million she was guaranteed on the remainder of Reggie’s Celtics contract. Consider the public reaction to Harris-Lewis. “A money-hungry, gold-digging witch,” sports fans screamed on Boston Herald sports columnist Gerry Callahan’s radio talk show on WEEI. A woman who is suing because she just “misses the limelight,” sports pundit Upton Bell said on Bob Lobel’s “Sports Final” on Channel 4. Even the student newspaper at her beloved alma mater views her as a “malpractice-seeking widow” who needlessly destroyed her husband’s reputation. (“Sadly,” one article said, “his memory has been dusted over in cocaine powder.”)
Bob Lobel probably best sums up the prevailing sentiment: “Like most people in this town, I just wish it would go away. I’d tell her to let it go.” Adds Upton Bell: “I feel sorry for her denial of reality. I feel sorry that she doesn’t recognize the end. We’ll never find out if he did drugs or not. There’s going to be no answer. What we have is a Shakespearean tragedy, but at least in Shakespeare you have an end. Hamlet, Othello, they all die in the end, and it’s over. How many more verses can we read?”
No surprise then that Harris-Lewis has had to hire not one, but two public relations firms, Morrissey & Company and Corrigan Communications, to help rehabilitate her image, so she can carry on with the foundation. (“To the extent that her reputation suffers,” says Morrissey’s Ed Cafasso, “so does the foundation.”) In fact, Morrissey’s polling shows that while Harris-Lewis plays well in black working class neighborhoods, she couldn’t get elected dog catcher in the predominantly white suburban precincts.
Spend some time with Donna Harris-Lewis, however, and it’s apparent that she won’t let it go because she can’t let go. Even she’s at a loss to explain why. Her pat answer runs along these lines: “I think I owe that to him as his wife, the executrix to his estate, the legal guardian of his children, the mother of his children, and for future generations and for his current family now.”
The truth, of course, is more complicated. At the age of 35, Harris-Lewis has been grieving for seven years, mourning the loss of the love of her life; it’s a pain made more piquant because her 27-year-old husband suffered the untimeliest death of all, that of a sports deity struck down at his athletic peak. And though she denies it, it’s hard to believe that she’s not harboring some guilt for her role in steering him to that wrong diagnosis. That would explain her lingering anger toward Gilbert MudgeÂ—and perhaps toward her husband, too, if allegations of his cocaine use are true.
The Reggie Lewis who arrived at Northeastern had overcome plenty of obstacles, beginning in the mean streets of Baltimore. Likewise, Harris-Lewis had seen her share of obstacles, coming as she did from a housing project in Connecticut. The two became partners in college, and this was their deal: He would become a big-time professional basketball player, and she would manage every aspect of his life. His death, as inexplicable as it was untimely, was not part of the deal.
Donna Harris always knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. She and her twin brother, Donald, were raised by their single mother, Sarah, a maid and nursing-home aide, in a housing project in the north end of Bridgeport. “I watched my mom working two jobs, and I said I don’t want to work two jobs,” Donna recalls. “I want to work one good-paying one.”
Despite her hardscrabble origins, hers was not a childhood narrated by hard luck. She grew up in a tight-knit neighborhood populated by a patchwork of races and ethnicities more or less at peace with one another. “It was a great childhood; I had fun,” she says. True, she didn’t have “a lot of resources,” but she had all she seemed to need: “food, shelter, clothing, and lots of love.”
As a teenager, she was cordial, friendly, and popular. Elected to Central High School’s student council every year, she was voted president and named Christmas Dance Queen her senior year. But she also had a serious side. Even when she was younger, while other kids ran around the playground during recess, Donna and a friend would take over the principal’s office, answering the phone, directing visitors, and playing secretary. In high school, she chased smokers out of the bathroom.
She was also completely obedient. When her mother worked nights and told her to stay put, she did. “I was totally regimented,” Donna recalls. “I got up at 5 a.m., exercised, went to school, went to work, came home, did homework, got up at 5 a.m. again. I was very orderly.”
Not surprisingly, she graduated in the top 10 percent of her class, and in 1983 she enrolled in the co-op program at Northeastern University, which allows poorer students to alternate between class time and work-study programs. To pay her way through school, Donna typed weekdays and weekends; she also worked as a dorm proctor from midnight to 8 a.m. for several years. It all added up to a 40-hour work-week, on top of her obligations as a full-time student majoring in business.
In 1984, while Donna was working that graveyard shift her sophomore year, she started dating Reggie Lewis, who was a freshman. They had met earlier that year at a party. She thought of him as really nice, not all sweaty testosterone and beefed-up machismo like most athletes. And he was cute. “I tend to be attracted to tall men,” she says. Plus, he was a basketball player, and she loved basketball.
Reggie Lewis wasn’t just any basketball player, thoughÂ—he was the star. And he eventually became the greatest player ever to grace the court at Matthews Arena, the only one whose jersey hangs from its rafters and whose number was retired. Reggie was the Big Man on Campus, and Donna was his proud girlfriend. Her social life revolved around his games, where she and her friends would yell at the referees and tease the male cheerleaders from the stands.
The rest of her life soon turned around Reggie as well. “She was pretty much never seen without Reggie,” says Tony Anderson, the Lewis Foundation director and a close college friend. “You would never see one without the other.”
By the time Reggie was crowned the North Atlantic Conference’s Player of the Year for the third time in 1987, the couple was sharing a small apartment on St. Botolph Street, in the South End. On the surface, they were an odd match. Donna was loud and outspokenÂ—a take-charge personÂ—whereas Reggie was quiet and earnest. “When Reggie met Donna, she was an aggressive type of woman,” recalls Paula Dozier, Reggie’s cousin and Donna’s friend. “I knew the women Reggie had previously dated, and Donna never seemed to be like any of them.”
For Reggie, Northeastern represented a whole new world and a whole new life. Raised by a single mother in a drug-infested ghetto in Baltimore, he was thrust into the sports-crazed limelight in Boston on a full basketball scholarship. At Baltimore’s legendary Dunbar High School, he had ridden the bench as a substitute, playing understudy to the likes of such future NBA standouts as Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Williams. At struggling Northeastern, Reggie was suddenly the superstar. Named Rookie of the Year his freshman year, he led his team to the NCAA post-season tournament four consecutive times. And to the victor came the spoilersÂ—the gladhanders, the hangers-on, the would-be agents, and the like. It was hardly surprising that he quickly gravitated to a strong, determined woman like Donna Harris.
Donna saw their relationship as a kind of synergy “between the way of me being more outgoing and him being more reserved. And that balance was good.” Interestingly, she saw herself as the hare, her fleet-footed boyfriend as the tortoise.
“He was one of those easygoing guys, and she made him more assertive about his business behaviors and contractual issues,” says Jim Calhoun, Reggie’s basketball coach at Northeastern. “Donna did a great job helping him with all the things he needed to do. She gave him a lot of strength and direction.”
The day after Donna graduated from Northeastern, in 1987, the Boston Celtics made Reggie their number one draft choice. He was ecstatic; she was far from it. “I said, Why couldn’t you have been drafted by the Lakers?” Donna recalls, laughing. Though they weren’t married yet, she was determined to follow Reggie wherever he went; she had just hoped that it might be to sunny California. Instead, they used his rookie salary to trade up to a larger condominium in Dorchester.
Her deal with Reggie took on added freight. No longer was she just the girlfriend of a college basketball star; she was now the handmaiden of the man who was being groomed as the heir apparent to Larry Bird, the reigning deity of the Boston Celtics. Donna embraced her lofty role with relish. She took a position in human resources at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, but job one for her was always Reggie. She took care of him completely, cooking his breakfast, lunch, and dinner; making sure he paid his bills and filed his taxes; and creating his daily schedule. She even helped him open his first checking account. “With the commitments he had, it was just to keep him channeled,” she says matter-of-factly. “It was like being an administrative assistant.”
By 1990, she had quit her job at the Brigham and promoted herself to chief executive officer of Reggie’s life. She chose his agents (and fired them when she disagreed with how they handled her husband’s affairs), helped negotiate his contracts, and managed his public appearances. That year, Reggie signed what was then a staggering deal, a $16.5 million, five-year agreement. A few months later, the couple moved into an $850,000 home in Dedham. As a bonus, Reggie bought Donna a Nissan 300ZX, to which she attached her “nicety” vanity plate. “He needed someone to take care of him,” she says. “People were taking advantage of him. I had to teach him.” Adds coach Jim Calhoun: “She made sure he got all he was due. She told him, ‘Yes, Reggie, this is something you love, but this is also business.'”
Their marriage in 1991 was just a formality. “My job was to make sure that everything in his home life was done,” she says. But now that she was his wife, she also made sure he held up his end at the house. “I couldn’t wait for him to come home from road trips [so I could] say, It’s your turn to take out the garbage.”
Having taken control of every aspect of Reggie’s life, she now went to work on the man himself, beginning with his public speaking skills. “There were certain times when I thought the way he was standing or the way he would articulate himself, that he needed to be conscientious of what he said,” she says.
She also urged him to return to Northeastern to get his degree. “I constantly reminded him, Make sure you go back and get your education,” she says. “I kinda nagged him for three years actually, until 1990 when he finally decided to go back. I stayed on him.” When he tried to drop a course out of laziness, she stayed on him to finish it. “I said, Don’t drop the course, apply yourself, just work a little harder. And guess what? He ended up with an A, and he thanked me.” He also thanked her when he had to miss a week of classes to honor a contract obligation with Reebok in Europe, and Donna, eight months pregnant with Reggie Jr., agreed to sit in for him and take notes.
As Donna tells it, they had a supportive, “brutally honest” relationship. She could tell him the bad as well as the good. Then and now, she has always been a woman who speaks her mind. If he played poorly in a game, she had no problem telling him. “He dreaded those car rides home [after the Celtics] they had lost and he didn’t play well,” she recalls. “That car ride home was just like, Ugh, she’s gonna give it to me.”
True, Reggie’s friends made jokes about his “domineering” wife, but he shrugged them off and told them he’d be lost without Donna. Those friends soon stopped laughing, however, when she effectively cut all but one of them, his college pal Mark Reeves, out of Reggie’s life.
She performed similar surgery on Reggie’s family back home. He had bought his mother, Inez Ritch, a rowhouse in Baltimore, but Donna says she quickly put a stop to any more handouts when she informed Reggie of Ritch’s cocaine addiction. (“I knew he loved his mother,” Donna says, “but where would we be if he was contributing to her drug habit and she died?”) Ritch complained that she wasn’t invited to the couple’s wedding and that Donna kept Reggie from visiting his family in Baltimore. Eventually, she was even cut out of Reggie’s will.
Back in Boston, though, life couldn’t be better. In 1992, a year after Donna and Reggie were married, they brought Reggie Jr. home to Dedham. The couple was putting down deep roots in the community as well, giving out turkeys on Thanksgiving and talking about starting a charitable foundation to give back to those less fortunate. Reggie, meanwhile, ratcheted his game to the level of super star, and earned a spot on the NBA All-Star team. That year, with Bird in retirement, the mantle was passed to Reggie, who was named team captain of the Celtics. Reggie Lewis was a certified Boston sports hero. His wife had it all under control.
Clutching her cellular phone, Donna crept quietly into a bathroom at the New England Baptist Hospital and placed an urgent call to her old boss, George Kaye, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. It was a late Sunday night in May 1993, and her husband was lying in bed on the other side of the bathroom door, attached to a heart monitor and being watched closely by a round-the-clock team of nurses. He had collapsed on court four days earlier during a playoff game.
He and Donna had just received the bad news from the Celtics’ team doctor, Arnold Scheller: A team of 12 leading cardiologists had reviewed Reggie’s extensive tests and concluded that he had a potentially fatal heart arrhythmia that might require a defibrillator. Reggie would never play basketball again.
After Scheller delivered the verdict, Donna had looked at her husband, his finely tuned muscles hidden beneath a hospital gown. Her first thoughts were, “My God, this can’t be. He’s 27 years old, and he’s always been relatively healthy. He’s a professional athlete.” Donna was already angry that she had been excluded from the diagnostic conference with the doctors, though that’s normal procedure at hospitals. She was also upset that none of the doctors had examined Reggie in person, though that too was not unusual. Even worse, the doctors had raised serious questions about her husband’s possible use of cocaine. Donna thought that was flat-out racist. “So we said, Okaaaaay, can we talk to some cardiologist, so they can come and tell us what’s going on?” she recalls.
But no one was available, and the press release announcing his arrhythmia was already being prepared. Donna had to act fast. On the phone with George Kaye, she took back control.
She wanted a second opinion, although in this case, it would amount to a 13th opinion. Kaye called the president of Brigham and Women’s, who in turn phoned Gilbert Mudge, a cardiologist at the hospital. Mudge agreed to take the case, and the Brigham’s president approved Reggie’s transfer from the Baptist. When Kaye arrived at the Baptist around midnight, Donna escorted him past a security guard. She had Reggie strip off his heart monitor, much to the nurses’ horror, and they both left with Kaye through the back entrance, where a van was waiting to take them to the Brigham.
Donna caught heat in the press for spiriting him out of the hospital in the middle of the night and for shielding Reggie from a drug test. But she insists she did nothing sneaky and that Reggie phoned both Scheller and then chief operating officer Dave Gavitt before leaving. Her husband was scared, she says, and she felt helpless. The doctors had said her husband might never play basketball again, that he might even die. Though their diagnosis “registered with both of us,” she says, Donna wanted explanations.
Mudge proved to be the sort of doctor Donna was accustomed to. Unlike the 12 anonymous doctors at the Baptist, Mudge talked to the Lewises and answered their questions. He seemed kind and concerned. He didn’t ignore Donna. And he had happy news. Reggie, he said, had only a benign fainting disorder. On May 10, 1993, Donna gave Mudge permission to hold a press conference. “Mr. Reggie Lewis will be able to return to professional basketball,” he announced. “Without limitation.”
Still, Donna felt uneasy. “It was like, okay, this is nice, but . . . hmmm,” she recalls. “We’ve got one diagnosis here, another over here. Two different extremes.” She, Reggie, and Mudge requested a meeting with the original 12 doctors, but perhaps concerned about their potential liability, none of them showed. Donna and Reggie then traveled to California to consult with four other doctors, but they couldn’t come to an agreement. The Lewises decided to stick with Mudge and continue his course of treatment. If Mudge’s diagnosis was correct, Reggie could continue to play. Meanwhile, Donna and Reggie tried to relax that summer. He had been poked, prodded, and pricked since his collapse. They both just needed to unwind, watch movies, and play with Reggie Jr.
‘I’m going to be a mommy again, Donna squealed into the phone when her friend, radio talk-show host Jimmy Myers, called her at home on the evening of July 27, 1993. Donna had just found out she was 10 weeks pregnant. She had felt exhausted while attending a funeral in California over the Fourth of July weekend with her husband and 10-month-old son. At first, Donna thought her fatigue was simply a byproduct of a stressful summer. Now she knew different.
Myers interrupted her bright chatter. “Donna, sit down,” he said, before relaying the bad news. Reggie had collapsed while casually shooting hoops at Brandeis University and was rushed to Weston Hospital, in Waltham. She needed to get there right away. As Donna rushed into the emergency room, doctors and nurses were busy trying to resuscitate Reggie. Unbeknown to her, her husband’s brain and heart had already stopped. She grabbed his hand and whispered in his ear that everything was going to be all right. “Hang in there,” she told him. “Come on, wake up.”
It was too late. Reggie was dead. “I know you’re in heaven,” she said as she kissed his face, “because you’re too good to go to hell.”
Back home, she collapsed with the knowledge that her husband was gone. Caring for her toddler son, pregnant with her daughter, Donna couldn’t function. She let the Celtics and Northeastern University organize the funeral arrangements. “It broke her,” Paula Dozier says. “It really broke her.”
On August 2, 1993, a line of 15,000 people stretched from Matthews Arena, around St. Botolph Street, and down Massachusetts Avenue for Reggie Lewis’ funeral. The mourners, including Jesse Jackson, Larry Bird, and Ted Kennedy filled the arena. All the local stations covered the two-hour tribute and followed the procession as it snaked through the cityÂ—and at Donna’s behest, through the minority neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, and MattapanÂ—before coming to a stop at Forest Hills Cemetery.
“Reggie Lewis fell victim to natural causes,” it said on the back of the funeral program.
It was Wednesday night, March 22, 1995, and the Celtics faithful were gathered in Boston Garden to witness the ceremony to retire Reggie Lewis’ number, 35. Donna walked out from Loge 1 onto the fabled parquet to read a poem she had written called “Always Believe What Your Own Eyes See.” High above her, two billboard ads were draped in black shrouds, which hid the words: “Coke Is the Real Thing.”
“He was honored to wear the Celtic green,” Donna began. “Those close knew he kept himself clean. Though rumors now surround his death, he cared too much for basketball to risk his health. Character is one thing that never dies. Let’s not believe these harmful lies.”
Donna and Reggie’s mother, Inez Ritch, who had ignored each other the entire evening, held opposite ends of the banner sporting Reggie’s number as it was hoisted to the rafters. The crowd, nearly 15,000 strong, chanted, “Reg-gee! Reg-gee!”
Donna was relieved. The Celtics had flirted with the idea of postponing the ceremony, given the fallout from a front-page Wall Street Journal scoop two weeks earlier that had detailed doctors’ fears of Reggie’s cocaine use. The article also included an allegation from Mudge that Reggie admitted to him that he used drugs. The story couldn’t have come at a worse time: just weeks before the retirement ceremony and a telethon for her new charity, which raised almost $350,000. Donna had a new job now. She was de facto CEO of her husband’s legacy, the Reggie Lewis Foundation.
Though the Wall Street Journal article hit like a bombshell, Donna was well aware that questions were being raised about her husband’s possible cocaine use. Days after Reggie died, the Globe’s Will McDonough wrote a piece on the possible role cocaine had played in his death. Indeed, Donna herself had first raised the specter of cocaine, just after Reggie transferred hospitals, when she told Jimmy Myers on the air that the 12 doctors at the Baptist wouldn’t stop harassing Reggie with cocaine questions.
But now Mudge was adding his voice to the chorus of accusers. Donna was incensed. After Reggie’s death, she had staunchly defended Mudge, who was being villified in the press and had even received death threats. Soon after the Journal story broke, she marched over to Mudge’s office and confronted him. “When did Reggie say he did these drugs?” she asked. Mudge declined to comment for this story. But as Donna tells it, he said he didn’t press Reggie for details. “I’m thinking, what? That don’t seem right, right there,” she recalls today. “Right there, I’m thinking cover-up.”
Donna saw where the conversation was going and stormed out of his office. Back home, she brooded. She couldn’t bring herself to believe her husband had used cocaine. Their relationship, after all, was predicated on brutal honesty. Given his mother’s admitted addiction and his Boy Scout image in the community, if he had used cocaine, even recreationally, that meant he had lied. And Donna couldn’t believe that. This was a cover-up, pure and simple. “I’m more of a defensive person,” she says. “I don’t like to fight, but if I have to defend myself, I will.”
A year after the article came out, just before the statute of limitations ran out, Donna brought suit against Mudge and three other doctors who had consulted on the Lewis case. What followed was three years of exhaustive depositions and discovery hearings. Donna attended virtually every one of them. She had plenty to lose. By dragging the drug question into court, she was risking the millions the team’s insurance company had paid on Reggie’s contract. If it was proved he had done cocaine even once, the insurance company could claim fraud and try to recoup its money.
Finally, On May 3, 1999, attorneys for both sides made their opening statements. Donna’s lawyer naturally maintained that cocaine was irrelevant in the case, while Mudge’s attorney argued the opposite. Not that it mattered. The headline on the front page of the Globe’s Metro section the next morning read: “Cocaine issue opens Lewis trial.” That was the start of nearly two months of drug headlines.
Thus began weeks of complicated testimonyÂ—medical experts debating words like neurocardiogenic syncope and ventricular arrhythmia; a widow grieving the loss of her husband and partner; a doctor defending his fatal diagnosis by saying his patient lied about using drugs.
On June 11, five weeks into the trial, the defense called a doctor it believed to be its most damning witness: Job Fuchs, the former health director at Northeastern who had administered a drug test to the basketball team in 1987. Fuchs was expected to repeat what he’d said in the pastÂ—that Reggie had tested positive for cocaine. Once on the stand, however, the befuddled 82-year-old doctor proceeded to flip-flop, first testifying that Lewis had not failed the drug test, then admitting he had told Mudge’s lawyer earlier that day just the opposite. Not only did the judge strike Fuchs’ testimony from the record, he dismissed another Northeastern witnesses the doctor had told about Reggie’s drug test; he also threw out a semi-independent report commissioned by the school investigating Reggie’s cocaine use.
The defense had two other key witnesses. One, a former college friend who testified that he and Reggie did cocaine together on six occasions, and that he sold it to Reggie at least a dozen times, was characterized by Donna’s lawyer as a “pathetic loser [with] a drug-addled brain.” The other, a middle-aged man who said that he saw Reggie snort “a white, powdery substance” in a bathroom at a Celtics charity event, was discredited as a “creep scraped from the gutter,” not to mention a convicted drug offender whose wife accused him of trying to run her over and spraying Lysol in her face.
After six days of deliberation, the jury was split, nine to six in Mudge’s favor. As for the three other doctors, one had already settled for $500,000, and two were exonerated by the jury. The judge declared a mistrial and delivered the trial’s epitaph. “In a sense, nobody’s a winner or a loser here,” he said. “Everybody is a loser. We’ve all lost Mr. Lewis. Everybody’s reputation has been attacked on both sides of the case. I think it’s a sad situation.”
Afterward, jurors said that cocaine didn’t play a part in their decision. “Personally, I didn’t feel that it was an issue,” one juror said. “There was no substantiated proof so I didn’t even use it in my deliberations.”
But the headline atop the next day’s story by Will McDonough reflected the damage to Reggie’s name and legacy. “An obvious verdict: Lewis used drugs.”
As for Donna, her image was tattered in many minds, perhaps beyond repair. As one ally of hers put it, “People just think she’s a greedy bitch.”
One fall day about three years ago, when lawyers for the Lewis case were in the midst of taking depositions, Will McDonough yelled over to fellow scribe Howard Manly in the Boston Globe newsroom. “Hey, Howard,” McDonough bellowed. “Did you know that Reggie has no gravestone?”
“That’s bullshit,” Manly said, his deep voice more annoyed than curious. Like McDonough, Manly had reported on the Lewis case, though with none of the obvious partisanship evident in the older writer.
“No, it’s true” McDonough responded, clearly enjoying the reaction.
“I don’t believe that shit,” Manly said.
So the two drove out to Forest Hills Cemetery. They pulled up to the gatekeeper and asked where Reggie’s grave was. “He said, ‘Well, he doesn’t really have a grave,'” McDonough recalls. Instead, the gatekeeper pulled out a map and pointed to the corner and said, “Right about here.” The two reporters followed the meandering roads to the spot on the map. They saw a huge mausoleum for the late Boston School Committeeman, John O’Bryant, who gave his name to Northeastern’s African-American Institute. But no Reggie. After searching around, they asked some workers raking leaves where Reggie was laid to rest. They pointed to a bush. Reggie, the workers said, was underneath the bush.
“I can’t believe this,” Manly said. He Started to cry.
Today, he feels the same way. “In my mind, there’s no excuse, no reason that there isn’t a headstone,” Manly says. “I just can’t get past it.”
About a week and a half after the dedication of the Reggie Lewis Technology Center, Donna is sitting in a booth at T.G.I. Friday’s in Dedham, close to her home. She’s just come from a board meeting of the Roxbury College Preparatory Charter School. Before that, it was yet another deposition in round two of her malpractice suit.
From the looks of her this evening, she’s beyond exhaustion, but she neither eats nor drinks during the three-hour convention, not so much as a sip of water. She is told that people don’t understand why Reggie doesn’t have a headstone. “I don’t think that with all the stuff that has taken place, I don’t think he’s really at rest right now,” she says. “Nothing about him passing this earth has been right. I think the record needs to be set straight.”
She’s clearly a different woman tonight from the sparking lady who graced the podium at the tech center’s dedication. More than once, she bends over and rests her chin on her hands, which are balled fists on the table. But she’s still feisty.
For Donna Harris-Lewis, CEO of the Reggie Lewis legacy, it all comes down to a matter of principle. The more than $100,000 she donated to the Reggie Lewis Foundation; the $30,000 she gave to the Reggie Lewis Technology Center; the $50,000 check she wrote out in his name to the Courtside Club, which supports the basketball program at his alma matter; the $50,000 she gave to Team Harmony to promote racial toleranceÂ—it’s all tainted if what they say about Reggie is true.
No, Donna says, she is not at all worried that the second trial will turn up evidence her husband used cocaine, thereby jeopardizing the insurance money. “So people ask, ‘What if you sue and find out about drugs?'” she says “I say, Let the chips fall where they may. I’m prepared. But don’t come to me with no bullshit.”
But her feistiness eventually gives way to fatigue and tears. And concerns about money, namely the $2 million she says the last trial cost her.
“You know, I think about those firefighters in Worcester,” she says tears rolling down her cheeks. “Lots of money is being raised for those families, and I need to be taken care of, too. Everybody has to say I’m greedy. But I do want my money back this time around. Why should I lose?”
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2006/05/woman-obsessed/