The Curse of Len Bias

By BILL SIMMONS  |  December 14, 2011

After that fateful day in June, everything that could go wrong for the Celtics did. Their two best players, Bird and McHale, became hampered by injuries; they never played at peak again. Their aging patriarch, Red Auerbach, slowly phased himself out of the day-to-day operations; the team would never adequately replace him. Boston failed to make trades to improve the team; the trades they did make bombed miserably. They drafted horribly - a jarring fact when you consider how many sleepers they unearthed in the college draft over the years. Ownership changed hands from Alan Cohen and Don Gaston to Gaston's son, Paul, who emerged as a public-relations nightmare. And the one shining light over the nine-year span - hometown boy Reggie Lewis, whom the Celtics plucked from North Eastern in 1987 - died of cardiac arrest in July of 1993, in the final, most crushing blow of all.

Everything has changed. Today, aside from the two new expansion teams and the injury-riddled Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics have the worst roster of talent in the NBA, a group loaded with role players and devoid of stars.

"This is a franchise that for three decades had everything go their way," says the esteemed Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, who has been covering the team since the early '70s. "Now here they are. Something happened when Len Bias died."

The immediate effect was on the '86 team. Bird was in his absolute prime. So was McHale. And Parish was one of the top centers in the league. Bias would have given Boston the flexibility to rotate four stars - any combination of Parish/McHale at center, Bird/McHale at forward and Bird/Bias at power forward. And if Bill Walton had stayed as healthy in 1987 as he had during the title season, Boston would have had the best front court in the history of basketball.

"People forget now, but Lenny was really, really good," says Ryan, who remembers watching Bias score 40 points against Duke in an upset win for Maryland. "He had a power inside game, he could run, he had a nose for the ball, he played big in big games. I thought he was ticketed to be right at James Worthy/McHale level - a perennial all-star, among the top 10 or 15 players in the league. You don't just bounce back from loosing a guy like that."

The Celtics did for one season, mounting a memorable defense of their title. They ended up falling to the Lakers in six games despite playing without Walton, with guards Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge banged up and Kevin McHale hobbling on a broken right foot. Before injuring the foot, the 6-10 forward had been tearing through the league, averaging almost 27 points per game and outplaying even Bird.

"I think everyone agrees that after playing on that foot in '87 Kevin was never the same, especially defensively," says Globe basketball writer Jackie MacMullan. "But he told me once that if he had to do it over, he'd play on it again. He thought at the time that you only had so many chances to win a title, so you had to try."

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