The '87 playoffs slapped a lot of mileage on the Big Three. McHale never regained the same lateral movement and foot speed. The heroic Bird logged more than 40 minutes a game and never enjoyed another healthy NBA season. Even the steady Parish's production began to decline. If Bias had lived, the Big Three's minutes would have been severely slashed, especially McHale's, and all of them would have taken time to heal from nagging injuries. Case in point: Bird injured his heels at the start of the '88-'89 season and needed surgery; the Celts floundered without him, and Bird tried to return too soon in the spring. He ended up missing the season entirely.
"Bias would have prolonged the careers of all those guys," admits general manager Jan Volk, who has spent 25 years with Boston. "We thought he could give us that traditional player from Bird's era to the '90s. Lenny was a potential franchise guy. No question. Any time you draft a player, you worry that you might be a little off in your estimation, but Bias was a can't-miss. He had everything."
Bias's sudden death had more than a cerebral effect on the franchise. It broke Red Auerbach's heart.
Everyone agrees that the crusty old Celtics president was never the same after the Bias tragedy. A native of Washington D.C., who still makes his home there, Auerbach has a famous soft spot for hometown products. When Bias emerged after his sophomore year at Maryland, Auerbach brought him to the Celtics summer camp in 1985 as a counselor. The two were fairly close - or as close as a short 68-year-old Jewish guy and a tall 20-year-old black college student could be - and Auerbach dreamed of suiting up Bias in Celtic green some day. The lucky Seattle pick gave him his chance.
"After Bias died, I think Red was really disillusioned for the first time by modern sports," says MacCallum. "This was a guy Red had appointed the next Great One, a true Celtic, a warrior, a guy who battles to the end, the eventual successor to Bird, and so on. I think what happened was truly crushing to Red."
Auerbach maintained at the time that Bias's death was a tragedy; he believed that Bias was an innocent kid who had used drugs for the first time. As days passed and the team received boatloads of tips that no, it wasn't Bias's first time doing cocaine, old Red started showing his 68 years. Was Bias a secret drug user? Nobody knows. We do know that 1) Bias's autopsy found that he had both snorted and ingested cocaine, usually a sign of an avid user, and 2) Auerbach's relationship with Maryland coach Lefty Driesell chilled after 1986, as many believe Auerbach blamed Driesell for not telling him about Bias's dark side.
"The word was out before the draft that Bias was in some trouble," recalls NBC's Peter Vecsey. "The Celtics must have known, but they took a chance. Hey, what happens if he stayed alive? Maybe he keeps doing drugs and gets other guys involved, or maybe he drags down the whole team. There's a flip side."
Regardless, Auerbach never recovered. He had already begun to delegate responsibilities in the mid '80's, but Bias's tragedy accelerated the process, and he began to spend more time in Washington. And the Celtics suffered.