Coach’s Family Takes Lewis’ Death Hard : Basketball: Calhoun, who coached the late Celtic guard at Northeastern, is grieving along with his wife and children.
Pat Calhoun is no less devastated than her husband, University of Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, by the death of Boston Celtics captain Reggie Lewis. It is like a death in the family. Luckily, she is a strong woman who can help her husband along as he helps her.
When the coach-player relationship becomes as special and binding as this one, which is seldom, the families of both are inextricably involved. Today, the Calhoun family is grieving right along with the Lewis family.
“Reggie and Donna were going to be at the wedding of our son Jim next month,” Pat Calhoun said. “When Donna and I discovered the wedding was to fall on the same day as little Reggie’s birthday, I said, ‘Oh, no.’ But Donna said, ‘It’s all right. My mother will take care of him that day. We’ll be there.’ ”
She was speaking from her home some five hours before her husband, looking drawn and wan, conducted a press conference on the subject of Lewis’ death at Gampel Pavilion on the UConn campus. They had spent a sleepless night. The telephone calls poured in after the announcement that Lewis had died. Pat fielded most of them.
In the morning, when her husband rose and made the unspeakably sad drive to Dedham, Mass., to see Donna Lewis, she remained. The phone kept ringing. One caller was her son Jeff in Greece, where he is vacationing. “We didn’t want to call him that late Tuesday night,” Pat said. “Finally he called us. He had heard about it on CNN. He said he wants to come home.”
All the Calhouns thought the world of Reggie Lewis, who played at Dunbar High School in Baltimore on a team so talented that he was not even a starter. But he was a brilliant talent. Calhoun, then coach at Northeastern University, was first among coaches to recognize his special gifts. He recruited Lewis persistently. Later, after Lewis had been the star at several basketball summer camps, others from high-profile national colleges tried to move in on Calhoun.
“Reggie never signed a letter of intent,” Calhoun said later. “But when the others came after him, he said ‘No, I committed to Northeastern. They recruited me all year and that’s where I’ll go.’ That was Reggie.”
That began the Horatio Alger story of the kid who went from high school reserve to captain of the Celtics. “He was as proud of Northeastern as if he had been at Duke and playing for the national championship,” Calhoun said.
Basketball, however, was only the conduit that bound the families. This is about two close families.
“They are such a special part of our lives,” Pat said. “They bought a home in Dedham, the same town where we lived. We saw the ultrasound picture of their baby (Reggie Jr.). We knew his mother, Peggy, who became one of Jim’s favorite people. She is a delightful woman.
“And we remember Donna and Reggie as college sweethearts. She was often at the gym and I can see her now waiting for him after the games.
“When the Celtics played and Jim watched them on television, his attention was completely on Reggie. He’d be a wreck after a game but he would be thrilled when good things happened to Reggie.
“Reggie was very, very close to our sons. We are devastated that such a bright light should have to go out at such an early age.”
Because he is a public man who played a great part in Lewis’ career and because Lewis had become an internationally famous sports figure, a press conference was called for Calhoun to express his feelings. It was a chance to answer questions in front of a large body of news people instead of repeatedly declining comment or spending the afternoon returning dozens of telephone calls.
Calhoun is used to the rostrum and a facile, usually entertaining, speaker. This was probably his most difficult half-hour of interrogation. Yet, it might also have been cathartic for Calhoun to stand and praise the fallen athlete of whom he was so fond. The coach appeared close to tears on several occasions. He was obviously exhausted, having returned only an hour earlier from Dedham.
“There was no question our lives were intertwined,” the coach said. “We gave Reggie a pretty good stage to perform on and he built a great theater for us.”
There was really nothing new in the words of this man in pain. The important thing was getting them said. Calhoun wanted people to know what he knew: that Reggie Lewis, who died so young, was a kind, loyal, straight-arrow type who did many good things for kids who looked up to him and had a soft spot for less fortunate people.
He wanted to make sure people understood that this great athlete he had coached, this great pro who captained the world’s most famous pro basketball team, this quiet, self-effacing, determined kid from hard beginnings in Baltimore, was as much man as he was athlete.
It was not basketball talk or even coach-player talk. It was family talk.