Boston Celtics: 32 years after one of the NBA’s most tragic deaths

CANTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 25: A detail of the General Electric logo on the jersey of the Boston Celtics' during Celtics Media Day at High Output Studios on September 25, 2017 in Canton, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
CANTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 25: A detail of the General Electric logo on the jersey of the Boston Celtics' during Celtics Media Day at High Output Studios on September 25, 2017 in Canton, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

It’s been 32 years to the very day, however the daunting memory of Len Bias’ tragic death lives on. The Boston Celtics and their fans can only wonder what could’ve been.

As the Boston Celtics prepare for the 2018 NBA Draft, it is hard not to look back at what could’ve been back in 1986.

DeAndre Ayton, Trae Young, Marvin Bagley III, and Mo Bamba. These are just a few names of the many young men with high recognition by their side entering Thursday nights NBA Draft. A night where the dreams of hundreds of the most athletically young stars of tomorrow, become a reality.

However, 32 years ago to the day was an unforgettable one. The day where one of the leagues most promising soon to be star, died in tragedy. A story that lives on through many Celtics generations in the death of Len Bias.

The story of Len Bias began in his hometown of Landover, Maryland. Bias was born on November 18, 1963 and instantly received noteworthy recognition for his outstanding athletic skill set.

To imagine the athletic promise that Bias contained, a former high school opponent of Bias was quoted saying “he’d jump and his knees would be in my teeth”. This was 6-2 Reginald Adams who faced Bias back in high school. Athleticism that was incomprehensible and unimaginable even today.

That recognition would prove to be valid. With college offers soaring in, Bias elected to play for his hometown of Maryland.

He came out of his four years at Maryland with quite the resume under his belt for teams to examine. Bias would finish as Maryland’s number 3 all-time scorer with 2,149 total points. A milestone that would not go without legendary recognition.

A star in the making

The great coach Mike Krzyzewski from Duke University stated that at the time “there [had] been two opposing players who [had] really stood out: Michael Jordan and Len Bias”.

Coach K followed that statement with “could invent ways to score, and there was nothing you could do about it. No matter how you defended him, he could make a play”. This during a 2003 interview with Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe.

As a matter a fact fans fortunate enough got to witness the two battle on the court in 1984. Bias’ Maryland squad and Jordan’s Tar Hells faced off.

This was one of college basketball’s most historic games of all-time. Bias would out-score the soon-to-be great witha 24 point game. Jordan would finish with 21 points and 12 rebounds in a 74-62 North Carolina victory. A game which to many was just a trailer of what the league was on the verge of featuring for years to come.

Bias would go on to finish his senior season averaging 23.2 points and 7.0 rebounds. These were career highs for Bias’ time at Maryland. A strong way to cap off a phenomenal career as a Terrapin.

As for the Boston Celtics, they were both rolling and preparing for the future. Coming off the sixteenth franchise title, the Boston Celtics held the number 2 selection of the 1986 NBA draft. GM Red Auerbach had sights on preparing the team post Larry Bird’s era. That blueprint for the future featured Len Bias as Boston’s next franchise player.

Hope turns tragic

On June 17, 1986 that became a reality with the Boston Celtics selecting Bias in the draft. Hopes were high with Boston landing their next franchise phenom to carry on the winning tradition.

I personally remember hearing about Bias via my father who was an avid Celtics fan back in 80’s. An era for Boston which featured Celtics legends, Larry Bird, Rick Carslie, and Dennis Johnson. However hearing that story was incomparable to say the least for someone who grew up in the big 3 era. As a Celtics fan names such as Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen are what I grew up on. Yet the story of a Maryland legend with sights of being one of the leagues greatest was ended.

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It’s nearly impossible to not think about what could’ve been as a Boston Celtics fan. To think the next Celtic great was on the verge of holding the Olympic torch. Leading the Celtics to a continuous winning tradition while getting to play alongside the leagues best at the time, Larry Bird. These thoughts remain live and heartbreaking.

The unmatched combination of Jordan’s jumping ability with massive strength; not to mention his Larry Bird like confidence or cockiness. It seemed as though Bias was born to be a Celtic great.  A 1986 roster of Bird, Parish, McHale, Johnson, and now Bias was in the hands of the Celtics and fans to witness for years to come. However the thoughts of banners, rings, and downtown parade’s were suddenly shattered.

The league’s drug problem

Len Bias fell victim to the notorious drug era which haunts many names of the NBA’s past. The evocative era of the 1970’s-80’s haunts the legacy of the NBA. This unforgettable age for many basketball fans and players involved at the time tarnished legacies and ended careers. Names such as Chris Wasburn, John Lucas II, Mitchell Wiggins, Lewis Lloyd, and even Shawn Kemp were all affected by this horrific period in NBA history.

Big-time names around the league who allowed addiction to overtake their athletic destiny.

Yet, perhaps the most catastrophic casualty to join the victims of this era never made it to an NBA floor. Just 48 hours after stepping on stage as an NBA player, Bias took his final steps on earth. He was pronounced dead due to a cocaine over-dosage. A shocking development that opened the eyes of many to the dangers of drug usage.

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This agonizing news made headlines at the time. Sports Illustrated even took the liberty of featuring Bias on their front cover. A cover which read “Death Of A Dream”.  The perfect way to word perhaps the Boston Celtics most unfortunate circumstance in franchise history.

However the pain of Bias’ death doesn’t just reach Celtics fans, but all of the NBA. The sport of basketball never got to see a legend cement his legacy as one of basketballs greats.