The Celtics are the most storied franchise in NBA history. The 17 banners hanging from the rafters attest to this. No other NBA franchise can match the rich history of the Celtics organization. 1981-1986 were very good years for the Celtics and for Celtics fans. In 1981, Larry Bird's second season, the Celtics won the championship. And with Kevin McHale and Robert Parish joining him, the Celtics dominated as they won again in 1984 and 1986.
On June 8, 1986, the Celtics beat the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. This 1986 team is considered by many to be one of the greatest teams ever assembled. The Big Three were at their peak and things were looking good for the Celtics to continue their domination as they owned the 2nd pick in the draft that season thanks to the trade of Gerald Henderson to Seattle. I remember being so excited about that draft. The Celtics had never had a pick that high as long as I was following them. A little more than a week after the Celtics won their 16th championship, they selected Maryland star Len Bias with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
I remember being so excited. Len Bias was an exciting player and the talk was that he could be even better than Michael Jordan. The sky was the limit. The Big 3 were getting older and Bias would come in and be able to contribute right away and then would be the anchor of the next championship. It was an exciting time to be a Celtics fan. They were champions once again and they had just drafted one of the most exciting young players ever to come out of college.
On the morning of June 19, less than 48 hours after he was introduced by NBA commissioner David Stern as the Celtics pick, Bias was dead of heart failure brought on by cocaine use. He was just 22 years old. At first it was only known that he died of a heart attack. But later as the investigation proceeded, there were reports of the cocaine use and that made his death seem almost surreal. Len Bias was religious and by all reports, a hard worker. Red Auerbach had vouched for his character as above reproach. No one thought he would have anything to do with drugs.
But the reality was that he celebrated his selection by the Celtics by using cocaine and it killed him. The basketball world would never get to see what he could do at the next level. He would be remembered only by what he had accomplished at Maryland, where he transformed himself from an athletic freshman who could do little more than dunk into one of the most explosive offensive players in Atlantic Coast Conference history.
Bias had spent hours working on that picture-perfect jumper and building that power-forward physique. By the time he was finished playing for Lefty Driesell at Maryland, Bias had become the school's all-time leading scorer with 2,149 points, a record that stood until 2002 when it was broken by Juan Dixon. Though we will never know what kind of player Len Bias might have been if he had he lived and played out a full career in the NBA, those who played against him in college and those who would have played a part in his life as a Celtic feel that he would have developed into one of the most dynamic NBA stars of his era, maybe in league history.
The Big Three were aging and the Celtics looked at Bias as the link to the future of the 30-year Celtics dynasty that began with Bill Russell in 1956 and continued to the glory days of the 80's culminating with the 16th championship in 1986. It was even felt that Bias could have been the rival that Michael Jordan never really found during his career. Bias was a better outside shooter than Jordan. He didn't handle the ball as well, but he was bigger and tougher and every bit as athletic, perhaps even more so.
As a rookie in Boston, Bias would have assumed the role of the team's sixth man, a much vaunted tradition in Boston. He would have provided young legs and instant offense off the bench to back up a starting lineup that featured Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in the front court and Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge in the back court. It is widely believed that had Bias lived he would have been able to prolong the careers of the Celtics Hall of Fame starting five and because he was so talented, he would have worked his way into the starting lineup before long, continuing the dominating play that people had come to expect from the Celtics.
As a Celtics fan, I have never gotten over this tragedy. I remember the elation I felt when I saw the Celtics make that pick. And I remember all too well the heartbreak of hearing the news that Bias had died. It's been 25 years since Len Bias died and not much is said these days about him because a new generation of Celtics fans don't remember the excitement of that draft and the shock of hearing the news of his death. But, every year as the draft nears, thoughts of Len Bias and the senseless tragedy that took his life always come back to haunt me. I have to admit that even now, whenever it gets close to the draft, or when I see videos of him in college, I get tears in my eyes, thinking of what might have been.
I recently read the book "Never Too Young to Die" by Lewis Cole that tells Len Bias' story, with an emphasis on the events surrounding his death. The book also takes a look at the epidemic of cocaine use at the time. The book is divided into three sections: a detailed account of the events leading to Bias's death, a description of the police investigation that followed, and the story of the trial of Brian Tribble, Bias's best friend who was accused of supplying the cocaine that took his life. I recommend this book to anyone who is still haunted by this tragedy as well as to those Celtics fans who are too young to remember.
I remember... and it still hurts even 25 years later.