The Len Bias Tragedy: Boston Celtics Championship History Moment No. 4
Things were clicking for the Boston Celtics in the mid-1980s. They could do no wrong. From 1984 to 1987 they earned a berth in the NBA Finals, winning two championships in that stretch. They also managed to have the No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA Draft.
Red Auerbach pulled off one of his patented one-sided trades two years earlier when he sent Gerald Henderson to the Seattle SuperSonics for what turned out to be that second pick in 1986. Boston grabbed Maryland’s Len Bias, the man many compared to Michael Jordan. Bias never played an NBA game.
In honor of the Boston Celtics’ 17 championships, we’re highlighting 17 signature moments, both good and bad, that took the Celtics from a woeful 22-38 debut in 1946-47 to the current iteration of the longtime powerhouse franchise that’s now coming off an NBA Finals appearance. The 17-part series on the Celtics’ championship history will run through the summer and take us to the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season, one Boston hopes ends with Banner No. 18.
Len Bias was supposed to be the next big thing for the Boston Celtics
It’s not often a team coming off a championship has the second pick in the draft. Auerbach always thought ahead and had the Celtics shaped up nicely for the future. In 1986, the Celtics took down the Houston Rockets for their third NBA championship of the decade.
The 1985-86 Celtics team is considered one of the greatest ever assembled in NBA history. Led by arguably the best frontcourt in history with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, the Celtics were an ’80s dynasty and were about to get better.
The Cleveland Cavaliers had the top pick and selected North Carolina center Brad Daugherty. The Celtics quickly pounced on Bias, a 6-foot-8 athletically gifted forward. The Celtics expected Bias to be the face of the franchise after Boston’s Big Three moved on.
John Salley, a good friend of Bias, was also drafted that day, selected at No. 11 by the Detroit Pistons. Salley said the Bias comparisons to Jordan were no joke.
“There’s a picture of Len Bias and Michael Jordan at Five-Star Basketball Camp,” said Salley recently on The Rich Eisen Show. “You see how skinny Michael is and how tall Lenny is. Lenny is 6-9 and played like Michael. I know it sounds crazy. Everyone says it, he played like Michael.
“Every time he got the ball, you knew he was going to score. He was a beast. He was literally going to save the Celtics.”
Bias never got the chance.
Bias died two days after the 1986 NBA Draft
Tragedy struck just days after the draft in 1986. Bias died of a drug overdose, shocking the NBA world. According to The Los Angeles Times, Bias died of “cocaine intoxication” after ingesting a pure dose that stopped his heart within minutes.
Salley recalled sitting with Bias during the draft and then going their separate ways when the night ended.
“I go to Detroit right from the draft,” Salley told Byron Scott on Scott’s Off the Dribble podcast. “He goes back to DC, supposed to go out with his girlfriend but went out with this, at that time, a well-known dope dealer, who gave him pure cocaine to snort, and his heart blew up.”
While Bias never got the chance to show off his basketball talents at the highest level, Salley said Bias’ death changed people, including him.
“Len Bias changed all of sports,” Salley said to Eisen. “He changed sports as we know it, and he changed America as we know it. Why that happened is when Len Bias died in 1986 from a supposed cocaine overdose — first time ever snorting cocaine. It was 100 percent pure, and his heart turned to shreds.
“Why I say he changed the world? The war on drugs took off. They had, look what happened. He changed the hip-hop world. He changed everything.
“The guy changed my life. I have never done cocaine, never wondered what it was like to do cocaine. I’m still not interested in what it’s like. He changed my life and everybody else’s.”
Thirty-six years later, Bias remains the classic case of what could have been.