By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
His son steals a pass in a wink and flies down the court for a layup, bouncing high on the last dribble and rising toward the rim to tap the ball off the glass. Lewis nods with a restrained kind of satisfaction.
Lewis still has a youthful smile and a twinkle in his eye, but behind it, you can still sense the intensity that made him the player he was. And for the source of that intensity, you have to go back with Lewis to his days growing up in Crown Heights and attending Grady High School.
As a senior, Lewis tried out and made the team at Riverside. The practices, he recalls, were very intense, and the level of competition was high. "There was a lot of flashiness in the game of guards from Brooklyn, so they worked with me to develop my shot," he says. "I would ride the train two hours just to work on shooting."
Neil Federer, whose sons both play for Riverside, described those practices this way: "It was like they were training pit bulls. There was a lot of one-on-one full-court stuff, a lot of in-your-face. Nothing was out of bounds, and if you didn't work hard on one play, God forgive you."
There was a shady side to that world, too. Teams, Lewis says, thought nothing of offering cash and other incentives to players for their participation in tournaments. He recalls refusing to play in one tourney because he surmised that the organizers were drug dealers.
It was also not uncommon for most of the kids on Riverside's senior team to earn full scholarships, which is staggering when you realize that most high-school teams never send anyone to Division One.
Lewis traveled with Riverside to Arizona, where he impressed scouts so much that he earned a full scholarship to Kansas.
"A lot of schools recruited me—one of them offered me $10,000 and a Jeep Cherokee," he says. "My mother told them no."
Lewis would have been on Kansas's 1987 national championship team, but he was forced to sit out a year because he didn't score more than 700 on his SATs. He missed the standard by two points. A public-school kid, Lewis says he was repeatedly passed to the next grade because he was an athlete and teachers were too overwhelmed to really work with kids.
He found himself at Hutchinson Junior College, one of those JUCO powerhouses. The team had six players who would play major Division I ball.
At half-time, the coach stormed into the locker room, shouting, "You guys are playing like shit! You're flushing the season down the toilet!"
With that—and this is one of those infamous coaching moments—the guy dropped his pants and took a dump on the locker room floor. Yes, that's right, Lewis nods. It happened.
"I'd had a lot of intense coaches, so I hardly blinked," Lewis says. "I just thought, 'Oh, he took a dump on the floor.' But the other guys were in shock. We went out in the second half and buried them by 25."
After that period at Hutchinson, Lewis had planned to return to Kansas, but his mother and grandmother were ill and he was needed back home in Brooklyn.
He left the Midwest and came home, enrolling in Farmingdale State College. After a season there, he transferred to Iona College, whose coach had stayed in touch. He played two good years there, and then his thoughts turned toward the pros.
As I speak with Lewis, I am watching my son intently, almost playing the game with him in my mind, but trying not to let it show.
Late in the second half, he takes a pass off a steal and scores a twisting layup in traffic, and I think, Whoa, he's never done that before.
On the next play, he misses an assignment, and the other team scores, and I feel that one, too. You live and die on every play.
Lewis began working out with NBA players at Columbia University the summer after he graduated from Iona. He met an agent who pledged that he would help him find a slot in one of the European pro leagues.
Lewis paid the agent to compile promotional material. The agent claimed that he had interest from several overseas leagues.
Then, the agent wouldn't return his calls. Lewis took the subway to Manhattan to see him. When he reached the office, it was empty. The agent had disappeared and taken his money.
"After that, basketball just wasn't the same to me," he says. He walked away from the sport.
He found work as a foster-care caseworker and began a long career of service to people on the margins of society. Today, he works with homeless adults in Westchester County.
When his eldest son began to show interest in basketball, Lewis grudgingly decided to return to the sport. He played in a couple of men's leagues and started coaching.