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What might have been

40. That's how old Len Bias would have turned today.

B. November 18, 1963 D. June 19, 1986

It's true. Len Bias would have turned 40 today. "Wow!" says Danny Ainge.

Yeah, wow. It is more than 17 years since Len Bias's brief association with the Celtics, and he remains the greatest "what-if?" in team history. At least we saw Reggie Lewis play. Bias never played a game for the Celtics. He was a member of the organization for fewer than 48 hours, dying of a cocaine overdose in the wee small hours of June 19, hours after returning to Washington following a day in Boston as the Celtics' first pick in the 1986 draft. His death still reverberates in the team offices. Without any doubt, he would have directly affected the fortunes of the team well into the '90s, with predictable impact on the current situation.

Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and ESPN covered Bias during his first two years at Maryland, and he goes even further. "His death changed the history of the NBA," Wilbon says. "Because then there are no Bad Boy Pistons, and who knows when the Bulls would have won? Bird and McHale would never have had to play all those minutes. The Celtics would have kept winning."

So Len Bias was that good?

"This is my 24th year at Duke," says coach Mike Krzyzewski, "and in that time there have been two opposing players who have really stood out: Michael Jordan and Len Bias. Len was an amazing athlete with great competitiveness. My feeling is that he would have been one of the top players in the NBA. He created things. People associate the term `playmaking' with point guards. But I consider a playmaker as someone who can do things others can't, the way Jordan did. Bias was like that. He could invent ways to score, and there was nothing you could do about it. No matter how you defended him, he could make a play."

"He was a can't-miss, big-time player who was going to the perfect team," says Celtics general manager Chris Wallace, then at the peak of his glory as editor of Blue Ribbon Magazine, the college basketball bible. "It was almost too good to be true."

Forget the "almost," says Indiana Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh, whose team used the fourth pick in the '86 draft to select Chuck Person. "The Celtics had just won a championship. They had Bird, McHale, Parish, and Walton. And now they were getting Len Bias? I remember thinking, `This is unfair.' "

A dynamite deal That "unfair" circumstance had come about because on Oct. 16, 1984, general manager Jan Volk had orchestrated a deal that sent guard Gerald Henderson to the Seattle SuperSonics for their '86 first-round draft pick. The idea was twofold: 1) Open up more playing time for Danny Ainge; and 2) Hope that the Sonics would deteriorate and ultimately provide the Celtics with a prime pick.

The Sonics could not have cooperated much better. They won 31 games in the 1985-86 season and finished second in the lottery. The Celtics, winners of 67 regular-season games and their 16th NBA title, would have the No. 2 pick in the draft.

The consensus two best players available were North Carolina center/forward Brad Daugherty, a 7-foot finesse player with a baby-fattish body, and Maryland's two-time ACC Player of the Year Bias, a 6-8, 225-pound forward with a Greek statue body.

Red Auerbach admits he only had eyes for Bias. "Oh, yeah, I definitely wanted him," Auerbach says. "Absolutely. Because he was a ballplayer. He could handle the ball, he could shoot it, and he was just what we needed."

"Remember that in 1986 Michael Jordan was not yet `Michael Jordan,' " says Volk. "And in scouting reports, it is customary to make player comparisons. Our basic report characterized Bias as a `Michael Jordan type who was bigger, with a better jump shot, but who didn't go to the basket as well.' "

Philadelphia had the first pick, but the 76ers were strangely ambivalent. "We never could get comfortable with that draft," says Pat Williams, who was then in his final days as the 76ers GM. "We thought Daugherty was soft. And Jack McMahon, our chief scout, didn't want Bias. I remember him saying, `There's just something about him I don't like.' And Jack just passed. Jack wasn't infallible, but he was pretty good, and I didn't usually question him on personnel matters."

The 76ers wound up trading the pick to Cleveland in exchange for Roy Hinson as part of a complete makeover that also included trading Moses Malone and other considerations for Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson. None of it worked out, because of injury. "It was the draft night from Hell," says Williams.

Was McMahon prescient? Was he on to something about Bias's nocturnal habits? We'll never know. He died in the late '80s without ever specifying his reservations about Bias.

Undeniable talent Few others had doubts about Bias. Daugherty sure didn't. "The one thing I always think about is how he elevated when he shot his jump shot," says the long-time Cavaliers center, now an ESPN college basketball analyst. "He elevated higher than anyone I've ever seen to get off that shot. Most people, Michael Jordan included, might shoot on the way up, but not Lenny. Every jump shot was released at the peak of his jump. He had a great mid-range game. He was deadly from 8 to 15 feet.

"I remember a game at our place when Joe Wolf started out on him, and he couldn't do anything. Then Coach [Dean] Smith tried [7-foot] Warren Martin. Next he asked me if I wanted to try. He just took me outside. I was 4 inches taller, and I couldn't get near that jumper."

"He was a physical specimen," says Johnny Dawkins, the Duke assistant who was a high school and college contemporary of Bias. "He had a very soft jumper, and he got up so high, no one could affect it. He would have been a terrific player in the NBA."

A couple of guys down at Storrs, Conn., remember Bias very well. On Jan. 21, 1985, George Blaney put a Holy Cross team on the floor against Maryland. "He had a presence about him, and a capacity for taking over," says Blaney, now an assistant at UConn. "He sort of disregarded good defense."

Thirteen months earlier, Jim Calhoun's Northeastern team had likewise played Maryland. "We were real good, but he took over the game," Calhoun says. "He was bigger, stronger, and quicker than anyone we had. He was one of those rare guys you looked at and said, `You know, he is going to be special.' "

Ainge had played with Bias in Marshfield during the summer of 1985, and he knew.

"He was perfect for us," says the Celtics' basketball chief. "I was never so excited. With Kevin, Robert, and Larry, he would give us the perfect rotation. I looked at it as a great fit for him and the franchise."

Larry Bird was similarly smitten, declaring that he was so fired up by the pick that he was going to come back early to work with the kid.

To people in D.C. (Bias was from nearby Landover, Md.), the idea of Bias joining the Celtics was downright sinful. "Out of all the guys I saw at that time," says ESPN's John Saunders, then a sportscaster at WMAR in Baltimore, "Michael Jordan was the gold standard. But I thought Bias had a chance to be in that category. I know I definitely never saw anyone improve as much as he did during his years at Maryland."

"I saw great players from both the ACC and Big East every night," says Wilbon. "Jordan. Ewing. Mullin. Sampson. Later on, David Robinson. But Bias was the most awesome collegiate player of that bunch. That jumper was so pure. I mean, Michael Jordan, at that time, would have killed for that jumper. And Bias was 2 1/2 inches taller."

Bias was not only a great prospect but also the perfect prospect for the team he was joining. He could have played behind both Bird and Kevin McHale, and Auerbach believes that partnership would have been maintained for many years.

"He would have enabled them to cut back on their minutes and would have extended their careers," says Dawkins. "Losing him set the Celtics back for at least a decade."

Fateful decision One "celebration party" changed all that. Bias chose to commemorate his new life by partying with cocaine, and it cost him his life.

Everyone has a story.

The Globe's John Powers was in Washington to do a story with Bias the next morning. He tried the house at 9:30 to confirm an 11 o'clock appointment, but the line was steadily busy. At 10, Powers's wife, Elaine, called. What was the name of the player you're there to interview? "Len Bias," he told her. "Did he call?"

"No," she answered. "He's dead. It was just on the radio."

Daugherty was at Raleigh-Durham Airport, preparing to board a flight to Boston, where he would be signing a joint Reebok deal with his friend, Bias. He refused to believe it when the first two people he encountered told him Bias was dead and didn't believe it until he called their mutual agent, Lee Fentress.

"I remember his exact words," Daugherty says. "He said, `It's God-awful. He's gone.' I never got on that plane."

Auerbach got a call from Bias's coach at Maryland, Lefty Driesell, at 4 in the morning. Volk got a call from a Channel 4 assignment editor at 6:15 in the morning. Ainge heard it when he stopped for gas en route to a morning round of golf.

No one ever will know just who Len Bias really was. Some say he led a masterful double life. Daugherty swears Bias wouldn't even join him for a beer, let alone shove cocaine up his nose. Driesell's words during a pre-draft radio interview are still eerie:

"Leonard's only vice is ice cream," Lefty insisted.

Others say he had both good and bad acquaintances and that he knew both nice girls and naughty girls. But the one thing everyone agrees on is that he sure could play basketball.

Assuming the binge that killed him was an aberration, he is the ghost that haunts the Celtics to this day. If he was just another junkie, well, what difference did it make? But if he was just a happy kid who made one horrible, fatal judgment, then the Celtics were deprived of the perfect bridge player to get them out of the '80s and into the '90s. At the least, give them the '87 title, and say that the 1988 Finals with LA would have been an epic.

"You put an athlete like him in with a Larry Bird," says Krzyzewski, "and he would have made use of all his abilities. Bird wouldn't have seen him as a threat; he would have seen him as a treasure."

Bias's death did more than disrupt the Celtics, says Coach K. It affected all those who love the game of basketball.

"It hurt our sport," Krzyzewski says. "Above and beyond the loss of life, we never got to see one of those truly great ones become great."

But Len Bias never got to see 23, let alone 40.

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