The Curse of Len Bias

By BILL SIMMONS  |  December 14, 2011

The 6-7 point guard had just enjoyed his finest season, leading a group of role players and vagabonds to a surprising 48-34 record. In the first game of the opening playoff series against Charlotte, a possessed Lewis scored 10 quick points before collapsing briefly on the court, an image many of us will never forget. It was quickly determined that he was suffering from a heart ailment, and the Celtics, fearful of any liability, pulled him out of the playoffs. (Boston ended up losing in four games.)

The ensuing three months saw a mass of conflicting reports and confusing medical facts. The Celtics assembled a "dream team" of Massachusetts heart specialists to examine Lewis; they recommended that Lewis retire because of an arrhythmia. Lewis abruptly sought his own opinion from respected cardiologist Gilbert Mudge, who believed Lewis could play again if a defibrillator was installed in his heart. The diagnosis was proven dreadfully wrong; Lewis had never told Mudge about his family's history of heart illness, or that he failed a drug test while at Northeastern.

"The thing I hated most about that time was the FBI-like secrecy with everything," remembers Murphy. "It was like dealing with the Vatican. Everyone became very paranoid, especially Gavitt."

It would only get worse. Just when people began to feel positive about Lewis's potential comeback, he died. Not only was the franchise devastated, but the city itself ached. It's hard to imagine a more heartfelt outpouring of affection - one that transcended race and class - than we saw at Lewis's funeral two days later.The foundation of the franchise, a father and a husband, a boon to the community - Lewis was one of a kind. Bias was a Celtic for 48 hours, but Lewis was one for six years, becoming part of the city in the process.

"It was so tragic," says WEEI's Glenn Ordway, a longtime Celtics radio announcer. "I think Reggie's death was more devastating than Bias's because we never found out if Bias could transcend his game in the pros. Reggie was taking his game to a superstar level. They were building the franchise around him. He was the one guy they couldn't lose."

It would only get worse in April 1995, two years later, when the Wall Street Journal reported that drug use "may" have contributed to Lewis's death and the Celtics "may" have covered it up for financial reasons. The local dailies jumped on the story, unearthing a host of unsubstantiated rumors and "exclusives" from unnamed sources. One chilling story came from a Northeastern player who claimed to have snorted cocaine with Lewis and Bias in 1985. None of the stories was ever verified , although most people around the team believe Lewis did use drugs at some point. ("I think the Journal was 100 percent on," Ryan says, "and most people do.")

Did it really matter if drugs caused Lewis's death? Maybe only if the Celtics had known he had a history in college and had gambled anyway, or if they knew he was using during the 1992-'93 season and never interfered.

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