If you could ever pinpoint a precise night when one of the preeminent franchises in all of sports began its demise, falling from its lofty pedestal only to become mired in mediocrity, the date is June 18th and the year is 1986. That team is the Boston Celtics.
Fresh off securing their 16th NBA title in 30 years just days earlier, then lucking out on the #2 draft pick in the 86 lottery, the future couldn't be much brighter. But you know the story: Len Bias died the next morning.
I’m not definitively saying the titles would’ve kept coming at such a fast and feverish pace. But surely there would’ve been a few more. Was Lenny the arch-rival Michael Jordan never seemed to have in the 90s? The Magic Johnson to the Larry Bird of his era? It's been debated a lot.
What isn't debatable is what a whirlwind the last two days of Bias' life was. What transpired in those less-than-48 hours from him being drafted is unimaginable. Len was drafted on Tuesday June 17th at the Felt Forum in New York City. Wednesday the 18th he flew up to Boston. Early morning Thursday the 19th he was dead.
But what exactly about that one day in Boston? Who else better to ask then a man very involved in Len being there for the duration of the day, John Morgan. John was the head of the basketball division at Reebok at the time and was very connected to two things Celtics-related that day: Len visiting Reebok's offices during the day and then making it over to the celebratory party at night for Reebok's other two clients, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge.
John was nice enough to take some time out and relive that unforgettable night.
Celticslife: Tell us about yourself at the time and your position at Reebok.
John Morgan: I had just come over from Nike after spending the previous 14 years working there. In 1972 they started out as Blue Ribbon Sports and became Nike in 1973 when they actually first began distributing Asics sneakers, before developing their own brand sneakers. I was living overseas in the Fall of 1985 and my contract was up. I decided to move back to take care of my Dad who was ill at the time and the opportunity at Reebok was there. They had a basketball division which I would be heading up. I began working with them in January of 1986. One of our first orders of business was getting Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson signed to contract.
CL: Bring us back to the beginning of June. The Celtics clinched their 16th NBA title on June 8th, 1986 and their starting backcourt, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge, are both Reebok clients. When did you begin putting into place the idea of hosting a party in their honor?
JM: We all collaborated on the idea, myself, Jim Barclay a co-founder of Rebook and Bob Meers who was the vice president of Reebok at the time. We thought it’d be a good idea to celebrate the Celtics winning the title and showing our appreciation to Danny and DJ for being our clients.
|DJ & Danny both wore Reebok|
CL: Leading up to the NBA draft what was your involvement with Reebok and the process of the players being selected at the time? Were their plans in place for Reebok to sign Brad Daugherty and Len Bias, irrespective of draft position? Or were they simply coming up for a “pitch” from Reebok?
JM: I was responsible for creating a list of potential college grads for us to target and those two guys were the lead guys that we focused on. Both were represented by David Falk and David and I were really good friends back from my days at Nike. I had handled negotiations with David in the past so we had that relationship. David was shopping shoe contracts for his guys back then. So it wasn't contingent on where they were picked in the draft and it could have been any NBA team that selected them.
|Len & Brad were the guys Reebok wanted|
CL:That’s interesting I had thought Len’s agent was Lee Fentress?
JM:I believe Lee was part of their team but David was definitely the lead guy.
CL: Now take us back to June 18th in Boston. There’s two big things going on for you that day. Daugherty and Bias are coming up to the Reebok headquarters one day after being selected in the draft in which Cleveland selected Daugherty first overall and the Celtics took Bias #2. And you’re having the party at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge, MA for DJ and Danny. Take us through the day as far as your responsibilities.
JM: Well David helped coordinate that. Len was up for his introductory press conference with the Celtics and then they came over to Reebok after that was over. David also had Brad Daugherty with him. We gave them a tour of the facility and they were with us, Mark Holtzman, Joanne Borzakian. Contracts were never signed but we basically had a verbal agreement in place. Len was set to have a “signature shoe,” something comparable to Michael Jordan’s “Air Jordan” at Nike. Brad was going to be wearing one of our standard models. Brad wound up signing his contract a couple weeks later.
CL:The Celtics were well known for their black sneakers and white laces at the time. Was anything ever conceptualized for Len's signature shoe?
JM: Nothing yet concrete at that point yet.
|There's a good chance Len's signature shoe would've been a black & white variation of this|
CL: Tell us about your interaction with Len. I believe his father James came with him and he was in Boston to visit Reebok but also have his Celtics’ introductory press conference with KC Jones and Jan Volk. Did you speak with him? Did he have the press conference with KC and Jan first or after visiting with yourself at Reebok HQ? What was your impression of him?
JM: They had the Celtics' press conference first. Len just tried on shoes and spent a lot of time talking about footwear. We discussed some new models scheduled to be coming out. Len had his foot casted so we’d have the exact size we needed for him. The thing I took away from interacting with Lenny Bias was that he was a really good guy. He was real personable and real genuine. When you were around him you didn’t get the sense you were with some star basketball player. He was just unbelievable there in the office.
CL: Len was supposed to fly home earlier but you (someone else?) convinced him to stay longer and come stop by the Royal Sonesta hotel at the event for Ainge and DJ.
JM: It was David again that pushed for that. He thought it’d make sense for Len to stop by there. It was pretty exhausting for Len at the time as he had just been drafted the night before and was in Boston early and would be arriving home late. But he agreed to come by and meet his future teammates.
CL: Did you introduce Len to Dennis or Danny at the event? Had he met them before?
JM: I don’t believe they had met before then, at least not that I know of. Len was introduced to Dennis and Danny by Joanne.
|Image courtesy of UMD Archives|
CL: What exactly did the night consist of at the hotel? According to Dave Ungrady’s BornReady: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias, Len received the biggest applause when he was introduced to the folks there, even more boisterous than the response for DJ and Danny. Is that true?
JM: The event consisted of us inviting some of our biggest buyers in the area. Local stores that sold our products. Paul Firemen, the Reebok founder, talked for a bit, why we were doing what we were doing. We had done a couple of commercials with Danny and DJ and those guys were just great. The bonus was when he introduced Len as the newest member to the Reebok and Celtics family and everyone gave a huge applause. Len was definitely more quiet, more reserved than Danny and Dennis.
CL:What time did Len leave? Did you arrange for him to be taken back to the airport?
JM: He left right around 10:30 and we ordered a limo for Len. He had to leave at that time in order to catch the last shuttle flight out of Boston back home.
CL: When did you hear the news the next day?
JM: First thing in the morning it came over the sports radio I was listening to when I was driving to work. I nearly lost control of my car I was so shocked. How was that possible, he was just here? I had been around pro basketball players for 8 to 10 years. I knew the game and I knew the lifestyle some of the guys had. But this was extraordinary.
CL:The Celtics as a franchise have struggled mightily since then. When you saw Bias with Danny and DJ were you like everyone else who assumed the good times would just continue happening?
JM:Yeah I mean he was another piece for their longevity to continue keeping the team relevant. I knew how excited Larry Bird and Red Auerbach were to acquire him. No doubt, he was 6’8 and was really the perfect basketball specimen that could be added to that team.
CL: Is there any one thing that Len said to you that night that’s been etched in your memory for all these years? Or any one mannerism whatsoever?
JM: The thing that struck me about Lenny Bias was just how good of a kid he was. When you were around him he wasn’t some superstar player with a huge ego. He was just like any other kid, just a real honest and sincere kid.
CL: When Len died he was wearing a blue Reebok t-shirt, probably one that you had given him hours earlier. How surreal is that?
JM: Totally bizarre. We loaded him up with a boatload of goodies, t-shirts and other stuff. So to think they found him wearing that was totally surreal.
CL: How long did you continue working with Reebok? Did you have any interaction with Reggie Lewis or Dee Brown, both future Celtics who both were Reebok clients?
JM: I sure did. I moved up to VP of product marketing for sports and wound up working at Reebok for 18 years. I was there when Dee won the dunk contest. The idea of pumping his shoes was his but obviously as the marketing folks we capitalized on that.
|The Blacktop shoes that John helped create|
When I was there I also helped launch the Blacktop shoes. It was labeled as an outside basketball shoe. We used to coordinate segments with the Reebok players that wore them. Sinbad was actually the spokesman for them. But we’d go around the country with the players and where they grew up and would refurbish the different courts, adding the lines to the court, new fences, etc. My favorite was Doc Rivers actually back in Chicago. We went back and resurfaced his court and then Doc took his own money and came back to add lights to the court so the guys could play late night.
CL: One question we had to ask: how did you become a Portland Trailblazer fan?
JM: (Laughs) I was living back in Portland right during Blazermania (1976-78). Nike's headquarters is there. I had moved there in 1976. Portland had Maurice Lucas, Dave Twardzik, Lionel Hollins. All of those guys I was very good friends with. I’m still friends with Dave Twardzik today.
CL:What are you up to today? Is there anything you’d like to promote?
Each year the Bias anniversary pops up, I find myself looking for answers, almost trying to justify (or understand and accept) the results of what took place. I start thinking how the Celtics, not the Lakers, could've been the team of the '80s (the franchises were tied with 3 titles apiece at that point). Then I recall how much the Celtics would struggle in the '90s once Kevin McHale retired, Robert Parish left and Reggie Lewis died.
I think about Reggie living, and him and Len going head-to-head with Michael, Scottie and the Bulls in the '90s. I imagine conference finals filled with athleticism and grace between Boston and Chicago, comparable to the Celtics-Sixers battles in the early 1980s. And then I think of something like this:
|Artwork courtesy of EK|
And each year I still walk away just as befuddled and disappointed and angry and frustrated.
Celticslife thanks John for his insight into that very paradoxical night in Celtics' history. A night set up to seemingly transition one Celtics' era to the next only to be obliterated by the reality of the next morning.
tb727 6/18/2015 09:00:00 AM Tweet Edit