HE was the quiet, gentle captain of the Boston Celtics. His fluid jump shots, winsome smile, and incorruptible sportsmanship endeared him to fans, and gave a puff of warmth to this city of brick chimneys and beans-for-dinner.
Wednesday night, a white banner bearing Reggie Lewis's No. 35 was hoisted to the riveted rafters of the Boston Garden in tribute to a life cut short, a life devoted to the pursuit of grace. Lewis collapsed and died in July 1993, apparently of a heart ailment.
As the banner crept upward, fans rose from the canary-yellow seats to applaud. Camera strobes flashed. The corridors of this storied arena rang with the name ''Reggie'' once again.
''Reggie Lewis did not see himself as special,'' his widow, Donna Harris-Lewis, told the crowd, ''but as an ordinary person who did special things.''
But the halftime celebration had a dark subtext. In recent weeks, allegations that Lewis used cocaine, and that the drug may have contributed to his death, have rekindled debates about athletes as role models, and the impact their private lives can have on the thousands of fans, young and old, who emulate them.
To some people, No. 35 will hang in the Garden as a reminder of a shameful, pointless waste of life.
''Kids are always told not to do drugs,'' says Tim Ward, a young fan in a shiny new Celtics jacket. ''If the allegations are true, I don't think anyone should consider Reggie Lewis a role model anymore.''
But the overwhelming response to the reports here was a combination of sadness and anger.
''Why are they dragging this out now, on a day like this?'' asked Mike O'Brien, a longtime popcorn vendor at the Garden. ''The guy can't even defend himself. I don't think it's fair to his family.''
''I'm a ballplayer myself,'' says Shawn Armstead, a lanky power forward at Boston's Dorchester High School. ''I think I speak for all ballplayers when I say that Reggie was a hero, straight up.''
But just as the Lewis controversy darkened the mood, Wednesday night's game between the Celtics and the Chicago Bulls offered a breath of life to professional basketball.
Not only was it one of the final games that will ever be played in the Boston Garden, it also marked Michael Jordan's second game since quitting his retirement.
In a performance that ended any speculation about his ability to come back, Jordan, arguably the best basketball player of all time, scored 27 points in a Chicago rout, 124-104.
But after the game, as the fans streamed out the tunnels of the old building buzzing about Jordan, Nikki Caldeira turned back to pay final homage to Lewis, the player that she most admires in the 14 years she has been following basketball.
''He led by example,'' she said. ''You never saw him get into any fights with other players, no matter what. If he had a problem, he would talk to the referees. I know it's fun to talk trash to other players, but he didn't do that, and he was still the best player out there.''