Thursday, June 28 is draft day. There is always a lot of excitement surrounding the draft with promises of future stars and a new iinfusion of talent to the league. While rumors swirl about the Celtics possibly trading up, trading out, and making their picks, my thoughts drift back to another draft 26 years ago. It was one of the most exciting drafts in my memories as a Celtics fan. It was also one of the saddest.
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 of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were at their peak and the future was looking bright for the green team. Not only did they own one of the most dominant front lines in NBA history, but they also owned the 2nd pick in the draft thanks to the trade of Gerald Henderson to Seattle. I remember being so excited about that draft. I believed that there was a gem in that draft who would rival any of the stars in the league to that time and was so excited for him to be a Celtic. 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 almost giddy about that pick. Len Bias was an exciting player and the talk was that he could be even better than Michael Jordan. The word from most of the scouts was that Bias was something very special. 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 generation of Celtics. It was an exciting time to be a Celtics fan. They were champions once again and they had just drafted an incredible talent to take them to their next championship.
On the morning of June 19, less than 48 hours after he was introduced at the draft as the Celtics pick, Len Bias was dead of heart failure brought on by cocaine use. He was just 22 years old. At first reports said that he died of a heart attack. But later as the investigation into his death proceeded, reports of the cocaine use surfaced and that made his death even more tragic. All reports on Bias said that was a good kid, that he was religious, and a very hard worker. Red Auerbach believed that his character was above reproach when he made him Celtics' pick. Everyone in the sports world was shocked when reports came out about the real cause of his death.
In spite of all of the glowing reports about his character, reality was that he celebrated his selection by the Celtics by using cocaine with some friends in his dorm, and it killed him. The basketball world would never get to see what he could do at the pro 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 his jumper and on his game and on his conditioning. To the eye, he was a perfect physical specimen. 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. 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.
Plans were in place for Bias to assume the mantle of 6th man as a rookie. He would have followed in the footsteps of the great Celtics 6th men who went before including Frank Ramsey, John Havlicek, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton. He would have provided young legs and instant offense off the bench to back up a potent but aging starting lineup. 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.
Every year at draft time, this tragedy still haunts me. 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 still remember where I was when I heard the news on the radio. I just sat there and cried. It's been 26 years since Len Bias died and we don't hear much about him these days. The new Generation of Celtics only know the name and didn't experience the heartbreak of his death first hand. But, every year as the draft nears, my thoughts go back to that 1986 draft and thoughts of what might have been. I think back to the excitement and to the heartbreak, and I get tears in my eyes even now, 26 years later.
Last year, I read the book "Never Too Young to Die" by Lewis Cole. This book tells the story of Len Bias' death and details the events surrounding the tragedy. 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 both for Celtics fans who remember these events of June 1986 and for younger Celtics fans to learn about this painful chapter in Celtics history.
When I watch highlights of Len Bias I think of how much differently the Celtics history over the 22 years between 1986 and 2008 would have played out.
As I look forward to Thursday's draft, I also look back and remember that draft in 1986, and it still hurts all these years later.