Monday, June 19, 2006

Len Bias

Len Bias died 20 years ago today of a drug overdose, shortly after being drafted by the Boston Celtics as the second pick of the 1986 NBA draft. The Celtics had won their 16th NBA title that season. They're still looking for number 17.

Twenty years is a long time. My children are almost grown, lifelong Boston residents, and they flat out don't believe their father's assertion the Celtics used to matter. But among Celts' fans of a certain age, like the dedicated, clueless optimists who now own the franchise, the belief has taken hold that Bias' death was the bibical plague that sent the Celts spiraling down into 20 lean years after 30 fat ones (date on first title banner:1957).

That theory is almost irresistable. It's neat, tidy, and has cosmic overtones found in all the world's major religions. The Celts acquired the pick they used on Bias by trading Gerald Henderson to Seattle. How grimly fitting that Red Auerbach's last great swindle should become the disaster cursing the franchise forevermore.

The "if only Bias had lived" wail so popular in the Celtic community is also based on some cold hard hoop facts. Bias was a monster collegiate star, a forward with quickness akin to Scottie Pippen's and strength reminiscent of Karl Malone's. The marvelous Celtics of the '80s were visibly wearing down even during the 1986 season, their best of them all. Had Bias joined them, the Celts might have stayed atop the NBA heap for a season or two more as Larry Bird and Kevin McHale's bodies began to give out.

The more time passes, however, the less enamored I become of the Bias-as-Biblical-benchmark theory of Celtics history. For one thing, it's hard not to notice that the theory excuses 20 years of franchise mismanagement since 1986. Had Bias lived, he'd be 42 now. There's a statute of limitations on tragedy. The Bias story has no effect on the fact Danny Ainge may or may not know what he's doing.

Then there's this one question that's bothered me for two decades. It's not one I brought up at the time, out of respect for human decency, or one I ever wrote about in subsequent Celtics' season because it seemed, well, a tacky thought at best. But history requires a clear look at the available facts, so here goes.

If Len Bias had NOT died on June 19,1986, if his crack overdose had resulted in nothing more than briefly losing consciousness and emerging with withdrawal pains, why are we to assume he would've then stopped using drugs? Well, crack was fun, but I'm a Celtic now. Better straighten up, get back to the weight room, and help Larry get banner 17.

Here are a few of Bias' fellow 1986 NBA high-draft choice peers. Roy Tarpley. Chris Washburn. William Bedford. All three were lottery picks, and none died of an overdose. All ruined their careers in short order thanks to ongoing drug issues. It would seem far more likely that Bias would've joined their ranks had he lived than that he'd have become the linchpin of the fourth re-incarnation of the Celtics' dynasty.

The mid-'80s was the high water mark of the cocaine/crack craze in the USA. Kids with money, whatever their social, racial, and economic background, were awash in the stuff with predictable results. It didn't get as much ink, but many more promising Wall Street careers than NBA ones were sacrificed to boosting Colombia's GDP. Had Bias survived his OD, he would have functioned in an environment where he had all the money he needed to buy drugs, and knew a great many other people who doing them. That's a tough environment for going straight.

I yield to no one in my admiration and respect of the '80s Celts. They're the first team I covered on a regular basis, and what a happy experience it was-at least for me. But they were an exceedingly tough-minded group of men, and if they found some rookie had a drug issue affecting his performance, I don't think they would have been the most supportive co-workers around. Auerbach, Jan Volk, K.C. Jones-this was a management group without either the experience or insight needed to cope with a valuable employee with a self-destructive substance abuse issue.

That's a strong assertion. Here's a fact to back it up. In the chaos of the late '70s before Bird arrived, Marvin Barnes was brought to the Celtics in yet another desperate move. Barnes was using drugs, or so the Celts thought. So a team official discreetly approached me and Phoenix colleague George Kimball for any information we might have as to Marvin's habits.

Here are two white alternative journalists with long hair and salaries at the poverty line. Ergo, they must use drugs, and further ergo, they must know where and when our very rich black basketball star is using drugs. Seldom has so much cluelessness been packed into a single thought.

The evidence convinces me that had Bias lived, the odds were much better he'd have become another Chris Washburn than another Karl Malone. That conviction may be why I never did write on the subject of his death until today.

The avoidable death of any young person is an insupportable tragedy. The idea Len Bias' might-have-beens were probably almost as sad as what did happen to him is a massive overdose of sorrow.


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