The Celtics are the most storied franchise in NBA history. The 16 banners hanging from the rafters attest to this. But it has been 21 years since the last championship. It has also been 21 years since the death of Len Bias, and the Celtics have never recovered from that tragedy. I have to tell you that as a fan, I have never gotten over it either. 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. I have to admit that even now, watching the above video brings tears to my eyes.
On June 8, 1986, the Celtics beat the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. They were on top of the NBA world. They were World Champions and owned the 2nd pick in the draft that season thanks to the trade of Gerald Henderson to Seattle. A little more than a week later, the Celtics selected Maryland star Len Bias with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
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. 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.
The championship in the spring of 1986 was the second in three seasons and third in six years for the Celtics. And, unfortunately, it was the last of the 16 championships to this day, 21 years later.
But the tragedy for the Celtics didn't end with the death of Len Bias. The next year, the Celtics chose Reggie Lewis with the 22nd pick to try to fill the void left by the death of Bias. Reggie succeeded Bird as captain and was just reaching the peak of his career when he died of a heart attack in the summer of 1993. The back to back deaths took an emotional toll on the franchise, but they also sent it into a tailspin from which it still hasn't recovered.
There was no financial relief from the league to help the team after the two deaths. The Celtics were not allowed to sign another player to replace Reggie. They were given no salary cap compensation. The league eventually changed the rule, but too late to help the Celtics recover from the dual tragedy that had hit them.
The deaths of Bias and Lewis basically turned the NBA's most successful franchise into a mediocre team. They reached the Finals in 1987 and lost to the Lakers in 6 games. They reached the Eastern Conference finals in 1988 and lost to the Pistons in 6 games. Since then, they have been to the playoffs only 10 times and made it to the conference finals only once, losing to the Nets in 2002.
The ball that started rolling on that fateful morning back in June 1986 still haunts the franchise to this day. Of course there have been a series of bad decisions and bad management in between, but chances are good that had Bias and Reggie lived, the fortunes of this franchise would have been very much different. We can only hope that the franchise is finally headed in the right direction to get back to the top again. This year we have the highest draft pick we have had since Bias was picked 2nd in 1986. We can only hope that whoever we choose with this 5th pick can finally fill the hole that was left by the death of Len Bias which has not yet been filled to this day.