Jamal Lewis sat near the scorer’s table waiting for a stop in the action that would allow him to enter Penn’s season-opening basketball game against Robert Morris. Because no whistles blew, the seconds turned into minutes. The delay gave Lewis time to reflect on what he had gone through to be here at this moment.
“That whole time I’m nervous, shaking, to be honest,” Lewis said. “Looking up and seeing a basketball game going by and me with my jersey on, prepared to go in, I just never thought I would be able to experience that again. It was unbelievable.”
Lewis wasn’t the only one who doubted he would play basketball again. His parents, coaches and doctors also never thought he would be on the court after a medical ordeal nearly killed him. But those who know Lewis say the 21-year-old senior guard from Springdale, Md., a graduate of Sidwell Friends School in the District, is not someone who gives up easily.
“I love the game of basketball,” Lewis said. “It’s been a part of my life for a long time. I’ve also never been a quitter. . . . I don’t think I’d ever forgiven myself had I not tried.”
It all began days after Penn’s season-ending loss to Princeton in March 2014. Lewis hadn’t been feeling well. He visited the school student health office, where he was told he likely had a virus. When his symptoms persisted over the weekend, he visited the emergency room at the local hospital. They also suspected a virus and sent him home with pain medication.
By Monday night, he was miserable. A bump in his left arm pit had swollen, and by Tuesday morning, he couldn’t move his left arm. He called student health as soon as it opened. Because he was too weak to walk the five blocks, a van was sent to transport him.
As soon as he arrived at student health, an ambulance was called to take him to the hospital. His parents, Carolyn and Wayne Lewis, were notified.
“The person said Jamal was pretty sick and that we needed to come up to the hospital,” Carolyn said. “We were very concerned.”
When Carolyn and Wayne arrived, what they saw unnerved them. Jamal’s body had turned bright red from toxic shock syndrome. He was struggling to breathe. The doctors first told Lewis’s parents it might be scarlet fever, but nothing they tried seem to make him better. By Friday, the doctors decided to put him on a respirator and induce a coma.
Jamal’s condition continued to worsen. According to his mother, Jamal developed a staph infection, pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome and a blood clot. Just 10 days after playing 20 minutes against Princeton, Jamal was fighting for his life.
“On Friday, they said that we should have the family come up,” Wayne said. “I don’t think there was ever a comfort level he was going in the right direction until a week later.”
Eventually the doctors figured out the right course of treatment and Jamal began to improve. The respirator was removed and he came out of the coma.
“I kind of freak out,” Jamal said. “Because I’m like, I’ve got to go to practice. I look at my dad and he’s shaking his head. He’s obviously worried. He’s like, ‘Do you not know how long you’ve been out?’ And I said, ‘A few hours?’ They’re like, ‘No, six days.’ ”
Jamal spent more than a month in the hospital before returning home to Springdale.
While he was home, Jamal discovered another bump forming under his arm.
“I was like, ‘Oh no, this isn’t happening again,’ ” he said. “I told my mom and I can’t even tell you how fast she got the car ready.”
The bump proved to be MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection. It took two surgeries at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital to clear it out in early May 2014. According to Carolyn, that was when the doctors figured out that a piece of hair with bacteria on it had been the root cause of his problems.
By July 2014, Lewis was back at Penn, trying to get in shape for the basketball season and finish the classes he missed during the spring semester. All was going well until Labor Day weekend, when another setback after a workout put him in the hospital for two days.
Lewis missed his entire junior season. The doctors finally allowed him to start working out again in the spring.
“At that point, I was like all right, I’ll give it a shot,” he said. “I still want to play. I’m just going to take it easy, not push myself. But it’s hard because you’re an athlete. Athletes are used to pushing themselves. It was definitely tough. I was taking a couple steps forward, a couple steps back for a while. . . . I knew I wanted to finish out at Penn. I wanted to at least give it a shot. Even if I didn’t play, if I never made it back into shape to play, I still wanted to be part of the team.”
Carolyn says the doctors told her and her husband that their son would have never survived had he not been a Division I athlete. Jamal has another way of looking at it: He believes basketball saved his life.
“I never would have been able to get through it had it not been for my teammates, my coaches and all the personnel involved with Penn basketball,” Jamal said. “The patience that they showed me. They could have easily been, ‘Oh you’re not practicing, you’re not a part of the team anymore,’ but I never felt that way. That was essential.”
Former Penn player Camryn Crocker can’t help but be impressed by his teammate’s dedication and persistence.
“People see the initial fall and then they see you playing,” Crocker said. “They don’t see all the setbacks you had. They don’t see all the times you felt like giving up. They don’t see all those times when you really doubted you could do it. . . . He definitely had more of a perspective on life because he practically beat death. If there was someone who would make it out of something like that, it would be Jamal, just because of his spirit, how strong he is as a person, the heart he has. It’s a testament to who he is as a person and his family and the support system he has around him.”
Lewis, who was an environmental studies major prior to his medical ordeal, now wants to focus on environmental health.
But first he is enjoying his final season of college basketball to the fullest. Lewis has played in every game this season, averaging 10.1 minutes. He scored a season-high 10 points in a 92-86 loss to Lafayette on Nov. 29.
“I have a new appreciation for life,” Jamal said. “I’m very thankful for it. I do appreciate every little thing. I could be up at 3 a.m. writing a paper. Instead of being like, ‘Oh, my God, I have to write this paper,’ I’m just thankful for the opportunity to write another paper.”