The NBA finals concluded this week, with the Miami Heat winning the title 4-2 over the Dallas Mavericks in a series that captured no one’s imagination. But this week was big for the NBA for another reason: the 20th anniversary of the death of Len Bias on June 19th.
As a University of Maryland graduate and one-time Celtics fan (I’ve all but given up on the NBA the past couple years), Len Bias has always resonated with me. He represents the greatest “what if” in NBA history. The Boston Celtics, who had been to four finals and won three championships in the previous five years, found themselves with the #2 pick in the draft and selected Bias, the dominating big man with superstar written all over him. In 1986, the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics were at the top of their game, and the addition of the young stud from Maryland seemed to indicate that Boston would remain the class of the NBA for the rest of the decade and perhaps beyond. As Bird, McHale, and Parish got older, Bias seemed to be the ideal candidate to take up more resonsibility and extend the dynasty’s half life indefinitely (kind of like Dwayne Wade with Shaq). Sadly, just a day later, Bias was dead of a cocaine overdose and the dream was gone. The Celtics limped to a finals loss to the Lakers in 1987 and haven’t been back since.
Twenty years on, Bias remains the NBA’s greatest tragedy, greatest what if, and greatest reminder of the dangers of drugs and high-stakes living. It amazes me sometimes the number of professional athletes who still get themselves in trouble with drug and alcohol abuse. I have difficulty fathoming how anyone born in the 70s or 80s (the bulk of today’s pro athletes) can’t look at the example of Bias and shed a tear over the dream cut short.