The Possibilities, The Potential, The Death of Len Bias
June 18, 1986 The Washington Post-
The world turned green for Len Bias today.
Every time he turned around, somebody seemed to be shoving something leaf-green or forest-green or money-green at him, whether it was a green felt cap or a green silky jacket or a green nylon bag.
Make that Boston Celtic green.
The night those words were printed, Len Bias returned to his dormitory to celebrate his draft choice with his friends.
They hung out into the wee hours of the morning, rejoicing because Bias had finally made it to the greatest basketball league in the world.
They celebrated as much for the draft choice as for what was to come; Bias was destined to be an NBA superstar, destined to take the torch from Larry Bird as the preeminent NBA organization’s leading man, destined to win NBA MVP’s and NBA championships.
And then, without warning, he was dead.
While all the other Celtics legends are considered legends for what they did, Len Bias is a legend for what his cocaine overdose never allowed him the chance to do.
The second pick in the 1986 draft, Bias was poised to help the rich get richer; the 1985-1986 C’s had just stormed through the NBA, easily taking the organization’s 16th championship. Still, they had the second pick in the draft because of their 1984 trade sending Gerald Henderson to the Seattle Supersonics.
With a frontcourt that already held Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton, the Celtics’ added Bias and were instantly the deepest, most talented frontcourt of all time. They had length, height, rebounding, passing, athleticism and shooting—and that was just in the frontcourt.
Bias was set to bring a blast of youth into an aging but incredibly skilled and talented ballclub. According to Celtics’ scout Ed Badger (via the Washington Post), Bias was “maybe the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in a long time.”
In fact, he had physical talent not even Jordan possessed. 6’8” with the long reach of an octopus and the sculpted, lean build of a heavyweight champion, Bias was seemingly born to play basketball.
And he could jump. Boy, could he jump. The rumors about Bias were that he could soar into the air and take quarters off the top of the backboard.
But Bias wasn’t just an athlete—he knew how to play basketball, too. Len was great at utilizing the bounty of athletic tools at his hands and was able to breathtakingly combine the speed to get by his man, the strength to finish at the rim and the finesse to escape would-be defenders.
With all those tools, playing for the NBA’s top team and lucky enough to have Larry Bird as a mentor, what could possibly stop Len Bias from reaching the NBA’s pinnacle?
It sure wasn’t his attitude. Bias had the heart of a champion, playing every play with the ferociousness of a caged pit bull. He had the swagger limited mostly to the all-time greats, that unwavering confidence in his abilities and the knowledge that his opponent could not and would not stop him.
Len Bias had it all; talent, charisma, and an incredible work ethic raved about by none other than the great Red Auerbach. There was no doubt he was going to be one of the NBA’s all-time greats.
But it wasn’t to be.
Call it fate, call it destiny, call it God or just call it death. Whatever it was, Len Bias would never capitalize on his newfound fame.
He would never walk onto the Boston Garden’s parquet floor to 15,000 fans chanting “Lenny, Lenny, Lenny!”
He would never sit on a float in a parade as one million Bostonians came to cheer their newly crowned champions.
On June 19, 1986 Len Bias passed away and, with his death, the Celtics seemed to die, too. They valiantly struggled through the 1987 season, watching as injuries and old age derailed their championship defense. For 21 long years after 1987, the Celtics failed to make the finals, a shocking lull for a team that had won 16 titles in the 30 seasons prior to 1987.
Nobody knows how a healthy Bias would have changed the Celtics. Would his presence have added years onto Larry Bird and Kevin McHale’s careers? Would he have been the star he was supposed to be? Would he have been able to lead the Celtics to championships even as Bird, McHale and Parish faded into the twilights of their careers?
Instead of a lasting image of Len Bias lifting a championship trophy, or lifting an MVP trophy, we are stuck with the picture of Bias at the NBA draft, wearing his cockeyed cap halfway off his head, smiling and proud to be a Boston Celtic.
Bias spent only two days as a Celtic but in those two days he invigorated the Boston fan base and inspired the Celtics’ community. He was going to be our next savior, our next champion, our next leader.
Bias never became any of those things, but he will always be a Celtics legend.
It's weird. The Celtics' 22-year championship drought from 1986 to 2008 seemed like such a long time.
But for Len Bias, 22 years was far too short.
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