Injuries and the Death of Len Bias Crushed All Boston Celtics Hopes of a Title Repeat in 1987
The 1985-86 Boston Celtics go down as one of the best teams ever in NBA history. Larry Bird was named MVP for the third straight season. The team won 67 games en route to their third championship of the decade.
Why wouldn’t the Celtics have a title repeat on their minds? Nearly everyone was returning, and because of some previous work by Red Auerbach, Boston had the second pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. The Celtics hadn’t won back-to-back championships since 1969, and this was a golden opportunity.
Despite an abundance of injuries, the Boston Celtics returned to the NBA Finals
The addition of Bill Walton played a significant role in Boston’s 1986 championship. The Celtics traded for the oft-injured center before the 1985-86 season, and he played 80 games, coming off the bench to spell Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. Walton played his role to perfection and claimed the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year honor.
The following year, however, injuries caught up with Boston’s big man, limiting him to 10 games in the regular season and minimal play in the postseason. Walton was far from the only injury the Celtics had to deal with that season.
Scott Wedman, a sharpshooter off the bench, had two operations on his left heel and played just six games. McHale played much of the second half of the season with a fractured foot. Parish played three weeks with a sprained ankle. The stars were getting older, and the Celtics desperately needed some youth. They found that with the second pick in the draft when they selected Maryland superstar Len Bias.
Bias, however, died from a drug overdose two days after the draft. Still, despite the numerous injuries and the death of their teammate, the Celtics somehow found a way to win 59 games and make their way to the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season.
“The old adage is that a wounded bear is the most dangerous one,” said Boston’s Kevin McHale in May 1987, per United Press International. “We’ve got enough wounds on us to last a lifetime.”
Boston met its match and ran out of gas in the championship round, falling in six games to the rival Los Angeles Lakers.
The death of Bias had a lasting impact on the Celtics
Bias’ death certainly came as a shocker to everyone. Celtics guard Danny Ainge was on his way to play golf with a friend, who broke the news.
“I was on my way to the golf course and went to pick up a buddy,” Ainge said during the 1987 NBA Finals, per UPI. “He said, ‘I guess it’s not a good day to play golf.’ I said, ‘It looks like a great day to me, what’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Lenny Bias just died.’ I said, ‘No way.’ I was just with the guy 10 hours ago at that Reebok party. I couldn’t believe it.”
More than two years before the ’86 draft, the Celtics traded for the Seattle SuperSonics’ first-round pick. Seattle ended up with the No. 2 pick in the draft, and that became the property of the Celtics.
Bias drew comparisons to Michael Jordan and was supposed to lead the next wave of great Celtics players.
“Lenny was going to be an impact player for 12 to 15 years,” Wedman once told Michael D. McClellan of Celtic Nation. “I saw him play while he was at the University of Maryland, but I never had the opportunity to play against him. It was devastating to the Celtics because he was going to be the team’s future. A player of that caliber was also going to extend Larry’s career, so it was a tremendous blow to the organization.”
Through it all, the Celtics hung tough. They did their best to put it all out of their minds, and they came up just short in the championship round.
“You run up and down the court, you don’t think about those things,” Celtics coach K.C. Jones said then, per UPI. “You don’t wish Len Bias were here. You don’t think, ‘What if Bill Walton and Scott Wedman were healthy?”’ the coach said.'”
“I always thought Bias’s death would hurt us more down the line than it would immediately,” said Ainge. “But then we lost Wedman and Walton, and we really were hurt by not having Lenny Bias.”