Twenty-five years ago, our Boston Celtics picked local college star Reggie Lewis with the second to last pick in the 1st round of the 1987 NBA Draft. The year before, the Boston Celtics were on top of the world.
They’d just won the 16th world championship in team history (and 40% of the NBA’s total championships at the time) and they drafted Len Bias with the 2nd overall pick of the 1986 NBA Draft.
Len Bias had already signed an endorsement deal with Boston area sneaker company Reebok and Larry Bird himself was going to pick him up from Logan Airport & bring him to Hellenic College were the Celtics trained. Before any of that could even happen, Len Bias died tragically & unexpectedly. This event not only changed the future of an NBA franchise but the entire league as a whole.
“Len Bias even used to outshine a young Michael Jordan back when he played for North Carolina.”
Keep in mind that respected coaches like UNC’s Dean Smith and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski have both gone on record in recent years saying that Len Bias was widely considered the best all around player in the entire ACC during the 1980’s. If you look back at the caliber of players the ACC produced in that decade it’s akin to being called the greatest MC in New York during the first Golden Era of Hip-Hop. Len Bias even used to outshine a young Michael Jordan back when he played for North Carolina. Let that fact marinate.
Len Bias was going to a veteran team with a great coach in K.C. Jones and five future Hall Of Famers in its eight-man rotation. He would’ve played and defended multiple positions and with his work ethic, unselfishness, shooting touch, court vision, passing ability, speed and athleticism he would have brought a new dimension to the Celtics’ offensive & defensive game plans.
How would this have changed the entire NBA? First off, the 1985-86 Boston Celtics roster was the first Celtics roster of the decade that was majority White (previously Bird was the LONE White Celtics starter for years as McHale & Ainge were both reserves) and Bias would have changed the team’s perception amongst national audiences with a long postseason run and possible repeat as NBA champions. Imagine if Len Bias was on the Celtics during the 1987 NBA Finals wearing Reeboks as a key factor in another championship season in Boston as a rookie? Now let’s revisit the 1987 Draft in this scenario.
“Back in 1990, Spike Lee was the guest editor of an issue of Spin. In said issue, he put a caption reading ‘Sellout’ under the image of a Black man in a Celtics jacket.”
Since the Boston Celtics would have won the 1987 NBA title, that would give them the final pick of the first round. Regardless of if the Celtics picked 22nd or 23rd Red Auerbach and the Celtics brass were enamored with Northeastern star Reggie Lewis. Lewis and Bias had many things in common, they were both from Maryland, both were highly coachable, selfless, athletic, explosive and deft shooters that played and defended multiple positions. Bias was 6’8” and played a finesse power game. Lewis was 6’7” and played a smooth, quick finesse game. Both had deals endorsing Reebok (and would’ve become it’s first two legitimate superstar endorsers). Together under the tutelage of K.C. Jones, Red Auerbach, and the original Big Three of Bird, Parish and McHale the sky would’ve been the limit on their potential. Let’s fast forward a little bit.
Between 1987 and 1991, the class of the NBA’s Eastern Conference were the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons and later the Chicago Bulls. Had the aging Celtics possessed both Len Bias & Reggie Lewis in their rotation they could’ve had epic battles with the Bad Boys and the Bulls young core of Jordan and Pippen during this era instead of just fading away due to advanced age and fatigue caused by a thin, unreliable bench during several extended playoff runs.
Remember that Len Bias had epic clashes with Michael Jordan back in the ACC and Reggie Lewis used to give both Jordan and Pippen fits on the regular in the late 80’s and early 90’s before his untimely passing. Back in 1990, Spike Lee was the guest editor of an issue of Spin. In said issue, he put a caption reading “Sellout” under the image of a Black man in a Celtics jacket. If Bias & Lewis were the exciting young face of the franchise then would Spike still have done so? Would Chuck D have dissed the Celtics in the song “Air Hoodlum” in 1992? Doubt it.
The Los Angeles Lakers were the class of the Western Conference for close to a decade, amassing NBA rings in 1980, 1982 & 1985. Had the Boston Celtics contained the tandem of Len Bias & Reggie Lewis and they’d have to contend with both the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls regularly in that same era then between these three teams the 1987 and 1988 back to back championships probably wouldn’t have happened. Not only would the perception of the Boston Celtics franchise in the 80’s and early 90’s amongst casual fans have been different but also among the Hip-Hop generation.
They could have given Reebok an opportunity to takeover Converse’s waning fandom & challenge Nike’s momentum due to Michael Jordan’s on court dominance. Imagine if Bias vs. Jordan would’ve become the next Bird vs. Magic or if Bias and Lewis would have faced Jordan and Pippen regularly in the Eastern Conference Finals during the NBA on NBC era? The way basketball historians regard the Showtime Lakers, Bad Boy Pistons or Dynasty Bulls would have been different if the Celtics had Len Bias playing alongside Reggie Lewis at least until the ’92-’93 season when Lewis tragically died months after collapsing during the 1993 NBA Playoffs.
As we all know, the deaths of Len Bias in 1986 and Reggie Lewis in 1993 both plunged the Boston Celtics franchise into mediocrity until the 2007-08 season. What we don’t know is how much different the entire present day culture of NBA basketball could have been like had they both lived and played together. Rest in peace to both Len Bias #30 and Reggie Lewis #35.