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What if? The Legacy of Len Bias

What if Len Bias never went back to College Park that night? What if he ended up on that Celtics team? What would have happened to Maryland's basketball program? What if the Sonics had kept that pick?

Edited by Joanna Nesgoda

The decade of the 1980's is credited by some as "the golden age" of basketball, or at least the beginning of it. The NBA was blessed with stars and teams that would carry it into the next decade, along with a new commissioner to negotiate the new TV deals.  The league that was on life support in the late 70's was thriving once again.

The Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers dominated the decade with two of the greatest players of all time leading the way, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Drafted in the 80's were also some future stars of the 90's; guys like Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan, just to name a few.

Approaching the 1986 NBA draft, the late Red Auerbach, then owner of the Celtics, was looking to prolong the careers of future hall of fame forwards Larry Bird and Kevin McHale by drafting a younger forward that could reduce their load and help the Celtics remain dominant in the next decade.

The Celtics won the 1986 NBA championship in six games over a Houston Rockets team led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Usually, a team walking away from the previous season with a ring wouldn't have the opportunity to draft a player in the lottery in the upcoming draft, let alone a chance to pick a player in one of the top two spots, but the Celtics had made a deal a few years prior.

In October of 1984, the Celtics were once again coming off another championship and preparing for the next season. Starting guard Gerald Henderson's contract was up and about halfway through training camp he and the Celtics' general manager Jan Volk agreed to a contract.  Shortly after, Volk began chatting with other executives around the league and had other ideas for Henderson.

The Seattle SuperSonics were five years removed from winning the NBA finals and finished the '84 season with 42 wins and a first round loss to the Dallas Mavericks. The Sonics front office thought they were one piece away from going back to the finals, and traded their 1986 first round pick to the Celtics for Henderson.

Henderson wouldn't be the star in Seattle that the Sonics hoped for, and in his first season there the Sonics won just 31 games. The Celtics remained at the top of the NBA's food chain without Henderson and suddenly, Auerbach and Volk looked like a pair of geniuses with a future first round pick that was looking more likely to land in the lottery with every passing day.

At the end of the 1986 season, the Sonics once again finished with just 31 wins and their first round pick turned into the second overall in 1986; but not for the Sonics, but for the Celtics, a team coming off a championship victory.

With that pick, the Celtics had their eyes on a forward from College Park, Maryland.

Len Bias; a 6'8" forward from the University of Maryland would be the pick. Everyone knew it, and the Celtics were excited about their future- even Larry Bird

"Larry Bird said that if we draft Bias, he's going to come up to the rookie camp," Auerbach said at the draft.

Bird also said, to Grantland's Bill Simmons, that if Bias was around that he would have retired after the 1988 season.

But Bias wasn't around.

As kind as the 1980's were to basketball and the hall of fame players that played during the era, the drug of the decade, cocaine, still plagued it.

On June 17, 1986, (the day of the draft) the Celtics thought they had the player that would preserve and prolong the careers of their aging team and carry their dominance for the next decade. The Cleveland Cavaliers selected North Carolina center Brad Daugherty with the first pick and then commissioner David Stern headed back to the stage for the second pick:

"With the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft," he said, "the Boston Celtics select Len Bias, University of Maryland."

Daugherty would go on to enjoy a career that included five all-star appearances in eight seasons. Bias began enjoying his future career less than two days after the draft with friends and teammates in a dorm room at the University of Maryland.

In the early hours of the morning on June 19, Bias' NBA career ended before it had even started.

Bias and his friends began socializing with not just alcohol, but cocaine too.

Then, Bias began to have a seizure and his friend Brian Tribble called 911.

911: "P.G. County emergency."
Tribble: "Yes. I'd like to have an ambulance come, what, what room? What room? What, Eleven-oh-three Washington Hall. It's an emergency. It's Len Bias, and he just went to Boston and he needs some assistance."
911: "What are you talking about?"
Tribble: "Huh?"
911: "What are you talking about?"
Tribble: "I'm talking about, uh, someone needs, Len Bias needs help."
911: "Well, it doesn't matter what his name is, what's the problem?"
Tribble: "He's not breathing right."


Tribble: "This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There's no way he can die. Seriously sir. Please come quick."

The seizure led to cardiac arrest and hours later, Bias was pronounced dead. The moment shook Washington, the University of Maryland, Boston, the country and the world of basketball.

The cause of his death: cocaine intoxication.

The tragic death of Bias in 1986 would affect the lives of many who knew him and many who didn't know him. His death altered the future of the Boston Celtics and the NBA, shook up the University of Maryland's basketball program and forced major (some think unnecessary) changes in federal drug laws.

His death also cemented his legacy as a simple, yet complicated question:

What if?

What if Len Bias didn't go back to College Park that night? What if he didn't use cocaine?

Many believe that Bias would have been a future hall of fame inductee, one of the best to play in the NBA and a true rival to Michael Jordan; something that his Airness never had.

The truth is, we'll never know.

We'll never know if Bias would have been a rival to Jordan, if their rivalry would have been similar to Bird and Magic's.

Would Jordan and Bias' make-believe rivalry been a precursor to LeBron James versus Kevin Durant?

Those questions and more then spark many more hypothetical questions and barber shop talk that sports fans constantly debate although they have no way of knowing.

It's time to dive into some of those.


To quickly answer those questions: Yes, and at least three more, right?

Let's remember this, the 1985-86 Celtics were coming off of one of the greatest seasons ever played by a team up to that time and we still talk about them as one of the greatest of all-time.

And they were ADDING Len Bias.

Bias was setting up the Celtics to be even greater in 1987. But the scenario proved to be too good to be true, with Bias dying less than 48 hours after he donned a Celtics cap at the draft.

Without him, the Celtics won 59 games in the 86-87 season and lost 4-2 in the finals with Kevin McHale playing on one foot while Robert Parrish, Danny Ainge and Bill Walton also suffered injuries. Surely Bias would have eased the wear and tear that McHale was exposed to by filling in for him, and maybe the Celtics walk into the Finals that season with everyone a little bit healthier versus the Lakers - and they would have battled them with Bias on their side, too.

The Celtics swept the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs that season, but went the full seven games with the Bucks and Pistons before losing to the Lakers in six games in the Finals. Had Bias been there, maybe the almighty Celtics finish the Bucks and Pistons off in a game or two less and maybe they beat the Lakers in six games instead of losing.

Without Bias the Celtics lost and the team would never be the same, unable to reach the finals again until Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce led Beantown to a title in 2008.

Were Bias around to fill the gap in between the Bird and the "Big Three" in Boston, perhaps a trip, or two, or three to the finals would have been possible for the Celtics between 1987 and 2008.

The theory goes like this: Playing the 1987 season without Bias, and with injuries to Walton, Parrish and Ainge, forced McHale and Bird to play more minutes than they had before, harder than they had before, increasing the wear and tear on their bodies and ultimately shortening their careers. McHale injured his foot just before the start of the playoffs and said no to surgery, because, well, he felt he had to; the Celtics didn't have anyone else. McHale came back too soon, hurt the foot again, kept playing on it and screwed up his foot forever. The injury still haunts him today; you can see him limping on the sidelines coaching for the Houston Rockets.

Bird's injuries would come later; first his feet (his heels to be precise) and then the legend's back. His body would completely give out after the 87-88 season, leading him to play in just six games during the 88-89 season. Bird would play just three more years in the NBA, including a trip with Team USA to Barcelona before hanging it up.

Bird says that he would have retired after 1988 had Bias survived and played in Boston, but I'm not so sure that 33 would have.

Had Bias lived and played during that 1987 season, he would have cut down minutes for Bird and McHale and probably extended their careers. McHale wouldn't have been forced to play and would have been given more time to recover during the post season, and may have even gotten surgery on that foot. The Celtics would have won the title over the Lakers that season and had a healthier McHale and Bird for the years that followed.

The Lakers won the 1988 title before the Bad Boy Pistons won back to back and then Jordan's Bulls won three in a row. But had the Celtics had Bias with a healthier Bird and McHale? I'd give them, at the very least, a puncher's chance to take half of those titles away.

If only Bias would have had a puncher's chance to live.


When Bias died early that morning in 1986, people needed to point fingers. The media, the people in charge at College Park and the country needed a scapegoat; someone to take the blame. One of those people to take some share of the blame would be Terps head coach Lefty Driesell.

Driesell had been the coach at Maryland for over 15 years at the time of Bias' death and had captured an NIT and ACC championship during his time there, compiled a record of 348-159 and was building quite the resume at College Park while also producing multiple pro players; John Lucas, Buck Williams and Albert King (and almost Moses Malone too) just to name a few.

But when his most recent player to turn pro tragically died less than 48 hours after being drafted, it would wind up costing Driesell his job.

Why? Because people needed someone to blame.

So after 17 seasons as the head coach of the University of Maryland, Driesell resigned.

"It is obvious that the administration wants to make a coaching change and I do not want to coach if I am not wanted," Driesell said at the press conference where he announced his resignation.

To replace Driesell, the people in charge at College Park tapped Bob Wade, coach of nearby prospect factory Dunbar High School, to take over. While successful at Dunbar, winning over 250 games, Wade was anything but that in his three year tenure as the Terps head coach and did his best to try and run the program into the ground.

In his first season as head coach, Wade led the Terps to a 9-17 record and went winless in ACC play. In his second year, Wade was able to lead the Terps to a tournament appearance but took two steps back in his third season as the Terps lost 20 games. Wade resigned in May after that season, compiling a 36-50 record in three seasons as the head coach.

But the worst was yet to come. Shortly after Wade resigned, the NCAA handed down sanctions after discovering that Wade provided some illegal benefits to players, that Wade lied to the NCAA and held meetings to coordinate plans to lie to the NCAA.

Because of Wade's actions he was banned from the collegiate ranks until 1995 and the Terps were placed on three years' probation, kicked off live television for the 1990-91 season, and banned from postseason play for two seasons.

After Wade, the Terps needed somebody to fix things and lured former point guard Gary Williams back to College Park to do so. Williams took over the Terps and was able to excavate the program from the hole that the administration and Wade put it in. During Williams' tenure as head coach of the Terps, he led them to 14 NCAA tournament appearances, seven sweet sixteen appearances, two final four appearances and, with the help of Juan Dixon and Steve Blake, won a title in 2002.

So what if Bias had lived? How would the program's history from 1986 to now look?

In 1985, Maryland gave Driesell a 10-year contract extension. Driesell resigned in 1986 after Bias' death and after an investigation discovered that his staff cared little about academics and much more about athletics; Bias was 21 credits short of being able to graduate, although he had used up all of his eligibility for basketball.

If Bias lives, is that investigation even conducted? Given the length of Lefty's contract and his success on the court, probably not.

Driesell's contract was through 1995, and after leaving Maryland he went on to coach at James Madison and Georgia State from 1988 to 2003.  Clearly the fire and desire to coach basketball was still there.

My guess is that Driesell doesn't walk away from the guaranteed money and sticks it out at Maryland until 1995, at least, and who knows how long he would have stayed in College Park; maybe until 2003.

If that's the case, perhaps the Terps would have missed out on landing Williams and missed out on a title in '02.

At least they wouldn't have been missing Bias.


Another rabbit hole to travel down.

What if, in 1984, the Sonics never traded their 1986 first round pick for Gerald Henderson?

For starters, the Sonics probably would have been just as bad in ‘85 and ‘86 without Henderson, so the pick probably lands in the same spot depending on how the ping pong balls bounced.

But let's assume the balls do bounce the right way for the Sonics and they land Bias who would have been a big difference maker for a struggling franchise. Then, of course, let's assume that Bias never goes back to College Park to celebrate with coke.

Instead, imagine that Bias has a great first season for the Sonics and wins Rookie of the Year honors.

That season, without Bias, the Sonics went 39-43 under Bernie Bickerstaff and snuck into the playoffs.  Then somehow, with Xavier McDaniel, Tom Chambers and Dale Ellis leading the way, they upset the Dallas Mavericks and the Houston Rockets before being swept by Magic's Lakers in the conference finals.

With Bias, would the Sonics have won a few more games that season? Sure.

Would they have beaten the ‘87 Lakers in the conference finals? You mean that team with Magic, Worthy and Kareem? Probably not.

But they wouldn't have been swept, and with Bias, the Sonics would have been legitimate contenders in the playoffs for the next decade.

But wait, the Sonics were contenders without him. With George Karl coaching a squad led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp throughout the 90's, the Sonics were constantly in the playoffs giving teams trouble, earning trips to two conference finals and winning one in 1996, where they then lost to arguably the greatest team of all-time, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.

With Bias, could the Sonics have been something more than giving teams trouble in the playoffs? Could they have won a title? Or two? Or three?

Let's pretend that somehow, someway, with Bias that the Sonics still end up drafting both Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, giving the Sonics a starting lineup throughout the 90's that would have looked like:

Payton, Hersey Hawkins/Kendall Gill, Detlef Schrempf, Bias, Kemp

I'd say that lineup wins game seven against the Phoenix Suns in 1993, avoids a first round upset to the Denver Nuggets in 1994, beats the Lakers in the first round in 1995 and yes, beats the Bulls in 1996.


Adding a guy like Bias, who could match Jordan's athleticism, match Dennis Rodman's physicality, play and excel at either forward position, attack the basket better than Kemp and be able to carry the Sonics offensively when Kemp, Payton and others couldn't would have given the Sonics the upper hand in that series.

But for current-suffering Sonics fans, what this boils down to is this:

Would Len Bias have been able to keep the Sonics in Seattle?

Sadly, the answer is no. Bias wouldn't have stopped Howard Schultz from buying the team and he wouldn't have stopped the sale to Clay Bennett, or stopped Bennett from moving them.

The only thing Bias would have been able to change for the Sonics is the number of banners and jerseys that they would have had to hang someday in their new arena.