May 22, 2024

If Len Bias had lived to play for the Boston Celtics

Len Bias would have turned 60 on Saturday if he had survived.

Bias, who was born in the same year as Michael Jordan, passed away on June 19, 1986, two days after the Boston Celtics selected him second overall in the 1986 NBA draft, from cardiac arrhythmia brought on by a cocaine overdose. It remains to be seen what kind of professional player Bias would have been and how the Celtics would have performed had he joined the team. One can only speculate about his influence on the NBA culture of the late 1980s among fans, rivals, and the media. However, there are a lot of things we know about the league, the players who were Bias’s contemporaries, our society, and Boston and its professional basketball fans. When we combine these already-existing elements.

While speculation and debate surround his potential statistics, player development, teammate fit, and ultimate cultural status, his age, the skill of his NBA Eastern Conference rivals, and the power of the Los Angeles Lakers do not. The emergence and expansion of hip-hop, the ascent of the Showtime Lakers, and Boston coming off a season in which the 66-16 Celtics captured an NBA title, the New England Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl, and the Red Sox participated in the World Series would have continued to define the 1980s even in the absence of Bias.

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.

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