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If Len Bias had lived to play for the Boston Celtics

How No. 2 pick in 1986 might have changed the NBA

Had he lived, Len Bias would have turned 60 on Saturday.

Born the same year as Michael Jordan, Bias died from cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose on June 19, 1986, two days after the Boston Celtics chose him second overall in the 1986 NBA draft. We will never know what level of pro player Bias would have been, or how the Celtics would have fared with him as a roster addition. Fans, rivals and media can only guess what his impact was going to be on the NBA culture of the late 1980s. But there are many knowns about the league, Boston and its pro basketball fans, our society, and the players who were Bias’ contemporaries. When we weave these existing factors together, a career and cultural path for a living Len Bias in a Boston uniform takes prospective shape.

As much as his potential statistics, evolution as a player, fit as a teammate, and eventual cultural status are objects of conjecture and debate, his era, the talents of his NBA Eastern Conference rivals, and the strength of the Los Angeles Lakers are not. If Bias had not died, the 1980s would still have been defined by the advent and growth of hip-hop, the rise of the Showtime Lakers, and Boston coming off a year in which the 66-16 Celtics won an NBA title, the New England Patriots made it to the Super Bowl, and the Red Sox played in the World Series.

Through that landscape of a changing country – and within it, a hotly contested NBA full of rising superstars – we insert Bias.

Bias’ death affected U.S. laws concerning illegal drug enforcement, the University of Maryland men’s basketball program, and national perceptions about race and the Celtics. What could he have influenced had he not died that night?

I was born in Boston, and raised in Washington since I was almost 6. On the morning of June 19, 1986, my best friend called me uncharacteristically early. “Turn on the TV,” he said.

“What happened?” I wondered.

“Just turn the TV on.” He told me somebody had died, he didn’t want to say who.

“The president?”

“Just turn on the TV,” he repeated in a pained voice. We hung up. When I turned on the TV, I was greeted with the bombshell that Lenny Bias had died. I’d met and spoken with him a couple times. The first was in downtown Washington with the same buddy who called me when Bias died. We were coming from a men’s shoe store, when Bias introduced himself, and showed us some of his artwork he’d been carrying under his arm. Friendly kid. I saw him a few times in nightclubs, never with a beer or cocktail. Once, in a club called Chapter III, I wished him “good luck in the draft.” I never saw him again.

“Larry Bird said that if we draft Bias, he’s going to come up to the rookie camp,” Celtics president Red Auerbach said at the draft.

Bird, then the premier small forward, was age 30 going into the 1986-87 season. He was looking forward to grooming his successor in the position for Boston. On the 1985-86 championship team, Bird averaged 25.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 6.8 assists – the latter a career high for him at the time. It was the first season Bird averaged less than 10 rebounds. We also know Bias was a tremendous leaper, active on the offensive glass.

Bias and Michael Jordan would have been different players with different responsibilities at the outset. Bias played small forward, and likely could have spelled Kevin McHale at power forward during the 1987 playoffs and Finals when McHale had a foot injury. As a shooting guard, Jordan played on the ball — Bias would have played off it, benefiting from more setups and screens. Bird would have been tasked with finding an open Bias on the fast break and in the half court. Jordan was expected to carry much more of his team’s scoring weight than Bias. Jordan was often asked (before the arrival of forward Scottie Pippen) to defend the opposition’s most dangerous wing scorer. Bias, in the minutes he did earn his first couple seasons, would have been guarding his opposite position — players such as forwards James Worthy and Dominique Wilkins. Jordan was not expected to carry the late 1980s Bulls to the NBA Finals. Bias was joining the world champions.

When Jordan came to the Chicago Bulls, the team had never won a West Division title. Boston was one of the two most successful franchises in the game and boasted the most championships. That lack of immediate pressure would have benefited Bias, but Jordan, before 1991, was often tagged by sports media and fans as a big scorer who hadn’t won anything.

Gene Smith played basketball for Georgetown in the early to mid-1980s, was a high school classmate of Brian Tribble’s (Bias’ friend who made the emergency 911 call the night the draftee died), and played pickup ball with Bias.

“Washington, D.C., was temporarily paralyzed by the death of Len Bias and not just the basketball community. There is no way to predict what type of player or, more importantly, what type of person he would have become,” Smith said. “He was a tremendous talent from a loving family, by all accounts a late bloomer, and to see him play was waiting for the spectacular to happen and it always did. I played against him in runs at the auxiliary gym on Maryland’s campus during the summer, the Urban Coalition [a Washington summer basketball league]. He competed like he was just one of the guys and it was clear his talent level was far superior, he did not carry it that way.

“He would have become the face of the Celtics. The Celtics were coming off a championship season. Bird would play six more seasons,” Smith said. “Or was his ultimate fate a precursor? His story was almost too good to be true. It is almost like he was assassinated.”

Draft pick Len Bias (left) with NBA commissioner David Stern (right) after he was selected second overall by the Boston Celtics in the NBA draft on June 1, 1986.

Noren Trotman/NBAE via Getty Images

If Bias had played in the NBA, his emergence would have created and issue for the late 1980s Detroit Pistons and Lakers and early 1990s Bulls. Dennis Rodman was the Bad Boy Pistons’ best tall wing defender. If you assign Rodman to guard Bias, who watches Bird? Michael Cooper was the Lakers’ premier wing defender. If Bias and Bird are in the lineup together, and Cooper is shadowing the springy Bias, who guards Bird (who was not only a perimeter shooting threat, he had handles)?

Roland Lazenby, the author of Michael Jordan: The Life, Magic: The Life of Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson and Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant, told Andscape, “The passing of Len Bias was a tragedy not just for his family but for all of basketball, for the Celtics, who were ready to embrace his much-needed talents. Coach Lefty Driesell talked with me personally about the staggering loss of Len. The presence of Bias in the Eastern Conference of the late 1980s and ’90s would have amped up considerably the competition Michael Jordan and his Bulls faced on their ascension to the heights of basketball. Fans everywhere across the globe lost the joy of seeing Bias and his great competitive nature at work.”

On the No Chill podcast, Cooper, who probably would have had to defend Bias some, kept it 100.

“Had Boston got Len Bias, and they played against us, they would’ve beaten our a– every time,” Cooper said. “That’s how good Len Bias was. Len Bias was a better player, or just as good a player, as James Worthy. This kid could jump out the gym, could shoot a jump shot, run the floor, block shots with the best of ’em. Had Boston got him, it would’ve been hard for us to beat them. I don’t think we’d ever beat them again.

“Him, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, that probably would’ve gone down as the best frontline that you could ever have in the history of the game.”

Boston Celtics coach K.C. Jones (left) with No. 2 overall NBA draft pick Len Bias (right) in Boston on June 17, 1986.

Joanne Rathe/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

How did Bias’ death affect society’s views about illicit drug use? Bias had passed physicals given by three NBA teams (Boston, New York and Golden State Warriors), and at least one included a drug test. He had never failed any of the routine tests administered by the athletic department at Maryland.

“I swear on my life, I hope to die, if this kid ever used drugs before,” Maryland University basketball coach Lefty Driesell told Red Auerbach after Bias’ death.

Dan Baum wrote in his book Smoke And Mirrors, “In the month following Bias’s death, the [television] networks aired 74 evening news segments about crack and cocaine, often erroneously interchanging the two substances and blithely asserting it was crack that killed Bias. In death, Baum wrote, Bias “… would become the Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs.”

Over the years, Bias talked with Bob Wagner, his coach at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, about drugs. “He had a reputation for not being a drug user,” Wagner told Sports Illustrated in June 1986. “But I have talked to him about guilt by association. Lenny did associate with some people like that [drug users]. He always said, ‘People know I’m not using, so what’s the problem?’ ” Wagner shook his head. “I guess the main lesson is that it only takes once. When it comes time for right or wrong, there’s no timeout. It’s not a basketball game.”

House Speaker Tip O’Neill was a Bostonian. He represented North Cambridge, where my mom and I lived in the late 1970s and early 1980s. O’Neill looked toward the 1986 midterm elections thinking Democrats needed an avenue to demonstrate they were tough on crime during the Reagan administration. After Bias’ death, the speaker encouraged midterm Democratic candidates and other legislators not up for office in that cycle to champion tougher drug enforcement laws. It was not difficult because of sensationalist media coverage about crack cocaine use. For the political purposes of some, Bias’ death, and crack consumption and sales became conflated.

Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The new law created mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. Most significantly, it mandated a minimum sentence of five years without parole for the possession of five grams of crack cocaine while it mandated the same for possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine.

“I’ve never been particularly good at ‘what ifs,’ and the story of Len Bias carries so many,” said journalist Howard Bryant, who was raised in Boston and Plymouth, Massachusetts. “What does the American drug war look like had he lived, both in terms of national policy and the individual human toll that reactionary legislation imposed on so many families? What would have happened to history had the United States saw Bias’ death for the tragedy it was and an opportunity for treatment and harm reduction instead of a license for more cops, more arrests, and more jails?”

What would Bias have been like as a Celtic?

Injuries to Parrish, Ainge, and Bill Walton forced Bird and McHale to play a lot more than they would have preferred in 1986-87. The team that won 57 games that season — nine fewer than the previous one, and lost 4-2 in the NBA Finals to the Lakers — would have had a young sixth man on their front line, a finisher who could excite postseason crowds (or silence them on the road) with his thunderous dunks or steady 17-foot jumpers.

CelticsBlog contributor Mike Dynon said, “If Len Bias and Reggie Lewis had lived out their normal life spans, there might not be enough room in the rafters for all the banners. And they would now be beloved Celtics icons on the level of Bird and Pierce. My heart aches just thinking of what could’ve been.”

Bryna Jones is the daughter of K.C. Jones, who would have been Bias’ first pro coach: “When Len Bias was headed to the Celtics, we were elated. We could taste the next several championships!! Maryland Terp on his way to NBA stardom! And when we heard the painful news of his passing, we were stunned, heartbroken, and saddened. Yes, we knew we lost an awesome MVP in the making, but what we all were more sad about was that a life was lost and a family was grieving. To this day, the local community as well as the Boston community speak of him as ‘What if?’ and chat about his college games. We continually pray for his family. I envision him playing with Dad, Uncle Bill, Kobe, Uncle Sam, Reggie Lewis, and all the greats as Red Auerbach lights up a cigar.”

Cyrus McQueen, a standup comic from Boston, is the author of Tweeting Truth to Power: Chronicling Our Caustic Politics, Crazed Times, & the Great Black & White Divide. McQueen called a Celtics team with Bias, “The most potent ‘What if?’ in sports if ever there was one.

“Also, given the question and its sociopolitical implications, especially in a city like Boston, it’s right to ponder how the city itself would’ve been transformed by his presence,” McQueen said.

From left to right: William Bedford, Len Bias, Chris Washburn and Brad Daugherty attend the NBA draft in New York in 1986.

Noren Trotman/ NBAE/ Getty Images

As a Boston native, the 1980s marked the precipitous decline of the inner city. For me, coming of age in Roxbury, the ravages of the crack epidemic and AIDS, not to mention the widening of the wealth gap, meant our neighborhoods began to resemble a cavity in an otherwise predominantly white space.

Sports have always had a palliative effect in our society, and Boston is certainly no exception. It loves and cherishes its sports heritage. And given this was a time when the Celtics were the only championship-caliber team in the city, Bias was poised to pick up the torch that Bird and McHale had seized while winning multiple championships.

But the fact that he was a brotha, and by all estimations, similar to Jordan in athleticism, skill, and a sort of unquantifiable electricity on the court, meant Bias would’ve found himself in a rarefied position. Remember, the 1980s was also the beginning of the globalization of sports. The arrival of cable, satellite television, the sort of sponsorship deals the Bill Russells of the world could have never dreamed of a generation before, meant that Bias, given his undeniable talents, would have likely become a marketing juggernaut.

For us living in places like Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, it wasn’t uncommon to see Black folks rocking purple and gold Lakers gear. The bonafide Black stars of LA appealed to a Black working-class community perhaps sick of being inundated with the tired trope of the Great White Hope. For as great as Bird was, he didn’t represent Roxbury. No matter how many banners he hung in the Boston Garden. Bias, and his exceptional talents would’ve been wholly embraced by Black Boston, a community that celebrated homegrown talents such as singers Donna Summer, Bobby Brown and the boys from New Edition. It was a dynamic enjoyed by another Maryland standout, Reggie Lewis, who eventually found his way to Boston and, tragically, like Bias, died before his great potential had crystallized.

Bias and Lewis are inextricably linked, given both their untimely deaths, and that their deaths seemed to knock out a community already on the ropes due to socio-economic inequality. Sadly, Bias’ drug overdose meant he became a victim of the very devices that eroded our once-vibrant community. His death was quickly followed by the loss of the elevated train that connected Black Boston to other parts of the city. The loss of Lewis to sudden cardiac death seven years later thus represented a sort of death knell for Roxbury as we knew it. Therefore, I grew up in the shadows of what once was and what could have been.

Also, this followed the harrowing resistance to busing for school integration in the 1970s. Black Boston is disconnected from the white communities of the city and those surrounding it. It was also a time preceding the Charles Stuart tragedy, when Stuart falsely alleged that his pregnant wife Carol was shot and killed by a Black man, setting off arrests and searches in the Black community in 1989. Bias could very well have provided that much-needed palliative effect on a community that often had to look elsewhere to find relief or even faces and that mirrored our own inherent value.

McQueen added, “… it’s easy to picture Bias becoming a fixture of 80s Black Boston. It’s likely he would’ve graced billboards all over the city and, much like Lewis, made his presence felt at the Boys & Girls Club, the Roxbury YMCA, The Shelburne Center and Washington Park,” Boston’s answer to the famed street basketball court Rucker Park in New York. “We would have claimed him. White Boston certainly would have claimed him. The Bad Boy Pistons may have never gotten past a Boston team with Bias. Hell, the Maryland standout could very well have whittled down Michael Jordan’s championship total. It would have been beautiful. Ugh. What if?”

Maryland players wear shirts honoring former Maryland basketball player Len Bias before a game against Virginia Tech on Dec. 1, 2021, in College Park, Maryland.

Julio Cortez/AP Photo

Bruce Allen is the founder of the website Boston Sports Media Watch. Allen, who was raised in southern New Hampshire, told Andscape, “I really think this is the biggest ‘what if’ in sports history. Would Bias have helped the Bird-era Celtics win a couple more titles? How would Bias playing for Boston, alter national perceptions about the Boston Celtics? Remember the scene in 1987’s Do The Right Thing, where Mookie [portrayed by director Spike Lee] derides someone for wearing the same brand of sneakers as Larry Bird? With Bias, Parrish, Dennis Johnson, and others, coached by K.C. Jones, a lot of fans would have changed their minds about the Celtics.”

When Sports Illustrated interviewed Bias’ high school coach Wagner after the death, a young boy walked into the gym wearing a Celtics T-shirt.

“You know, the Celtics are hated down here, absolutely hated,” Wagner said. “Before Lenny got drafted, you wouldn’t have seen that shirt.”

Marcel Smith is a Boston native, girls basketball coach at Randolph (Massachusetts) High School, and a former girls coach at Fall River (Massachusetts) Durfee High. Smith was a college player, a community college men’s basketball coach, and founder of Elite Skills Academy. He has trained Boston Celtics and New England Patriots players.

“Not only would his youth have kept the older guys competitive in their daily practice routines, he was more than likely on a path to success by having those older guys challenging him daily,” Smith said of Bias’ death. “I think that’s one of the biggest question marks about the Bias thing, the practices. As a kid I was able to attend more than a few practices towards the back end of the big three and those things rival a Floyd Mayweather workout session. All gas, no brakes (except for Walton, Bill always was on chill). It would’ve been legendary to see the battles of a young Bias versus the vets and if he comes in handling them. He’s a Hall of Famer if he stays healthy probably. Who knows? However, I do not think his death was a deterrent on the streets, I think it’s a myth. I think kids at that time thought ‘it won’t happen to me.’ “

Perhaps by age 34, Bias is a step slower, more a threat with his jumper than with a jam. That would be 1997, when Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, Chris Webber and Shaquille O’Neal are young talents. All would have grown up watching Bias play pro ball. It’s anyone’s guess how the late 1980s Pistons, the early 1990s Bulls, or Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy’s Lakers would have done versus Bird and Bias’ Celtics.

But consider this: On Nov. 7, 1991, Johnson shocked the world by announcing his retirement from the NBA and that he had contracted HIV. Bias would have been 11 days shy of his 28th birthday.

Bijan C. Bayne, a frequent contributor to Andscape, is the author of Martha’s Vineyard Basketball: How A Resort League Defied Notions Of Race & Class.