Celtics’ General Manager Danny Ainge’s criticism of how the Celtics’ dynasty of the 1980’s came crashing down in the early 90’s does not tell the whole story. In fact, it leaves out entire chapters. An All-Star lineup with 3 NBA titles—the unstoppable Larry Bird, the tall and talented Kevin McHale, and reliable rebounder Robert Parish—barely missed adding a couple more rings to their collection. Imagine if they could have added the next Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to that already amazing Celtics’ lineup?
The Celtics almost did. They had the draft picks, the talent, but not everything works out like it should.
Winning their 3rd NBA title, these Boston Celtics were a model of teamwork. Bird’s brilliant passing vision and unselfish play filtered down throughout the team. They were a juggernaut on defense and a well-oiled machine on offense. Bird wanted to win so badly and his incomparable game was still on display in the ’86 Finals, posting a triple-double, 29 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists.
Before drafting Bias, the Celtics had won the NBA championship 3 out of the last 6 years. Championship champagne had barely dried off the backs of Bird, McHale, and Parish when the Celtics drafted whom some thought could be the next Jordan.
At 210 lbs. and 6’8, Bias was blessed with great athleticism, hops, creativity, and power. Some NBA scouts touted him as the next Michael Jordan. He was drafted #2 overall by the defending NBA champions, the Boston Celtics.
Coming out of college only two years after Jordan, University of Maryland All-American Bias was called “the closest thing to Michael Jordan…an explosive and exciting kind of player,” by Celtics scout Ed Badger.
Now, I don’t like comparing anyone to the legendary Michael Jordan and neither did Badger, but Bias became almost Jordan’s equal in college. In their final years in college, Bias outscored and out-rebounded Jordan, even though Jordan was a better defender.
Last Year in College
Jordan 19.6 ppg 5.3 rpg
Bias 23.2 ppg 7.0 rpg
Michael Jordan Championship Game:
Bias College Highlights:
The next season (1986-1987), which would have been Bias’ rookie campaign, the Celtics won 59 games and made it back to the NBA Finals only to lose 4-2 to the Los Angeles Lakers, who were led by Earvin “Magic” Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Still, this Celtics team was one of the greatest teams of all-time, and they shot the lights out. McHale shot over 60% from the field that year, Parish 55.6%. Bird still had the range, shooting at 40.3% from beyond the arc. Ainge shot 44.3% from the outside.
The Celtics already boasted a talent-heavy lineup that was in their prime, including a 30-year old Bird, 29-year old McHale, and 27-year old Danny Ainge. Dennis Johnson was 32 and Parish was 33. Would a rookie Bias have been able to make the series closer?
Player PPG RPG APG SPG/BPG
Bird 28.1 9.2 7.6 1.8 spg
McHale 26.1 9.9 2.6 2.2 bpg
Parish 17.5 10.6 2.2 1.8 bpg
Ainge 14.8 3.4 5.6 1.4 spg
DJ 13.4 3.3 7.5 1.1 spg
Next season (1987-1988), the Celtics drafted rising star Reggie Lewis, whose NBA scoring numbers are eerily similar to Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen. That season the Celtics led the Atlantic division with a 57-25 record and Bird put on an even more amazing performance that season, scoring 29.9 points per game and raising his free-throw percentage to 91.6%.
Although neither Bias nor Lewis defended like Jordan or Pippen, the Celtics already had what some call the greatest defensive frontcourt ever assembled in Bird, McHale, Parish, and former MVP Bill Walton off the bench.
1988-1989 was a wash for the Celtics, as an injured “Larry Legend” would only play 6 games.
Then in the 1989-1990 season, the Celtics had one more shot. If Bias had been part of that team, he would have been going into his fourth season, maturing, and coming into his own as a professional. Bird, McHale, Lewis, and Parish were playing at All-Star levels. While Bird was not at his physical peak, he still paced the Celts with 24.3 ppg, 9.5 rpg, and 7.6 apg.
1989-1990 PPG RPG APG SPG AGE
Scottie Pippen 16.5 6.7 5.4 2.6 24
Reggie Lewis 17.0 4.4 2.8 1.1 24
Reggie Lewis Highlights:
Larry Bird would continue to play with back injuries that would cause him to retire two years later in 1992. So, that would probably have been the end of the line for this Celtics dynasty. Who’s to say exactly how good this team would have been, but on paper they might have been the best team in the league—Bird, McHale, Parish, Ainge, Walton, Bias, Lewis, and Johnson.
Each of those seasons the Celtics would have had to contend with the ’89-’90 NBA champion Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, and the ’87-’88 champion Lakers. Nonetheless, the Celtics would have had a couple legit shots at the crown.
Alas, the links between the Celtics’ dynasty from the 1980’s and 1990’s ended abruptly, as Len Bias died from a cardiac arrhythmia, resulting from a cocaine overdose, just two days after being drafted in 1986. He was only 22 years old.
Four years later, basketball prodigy James Bias, 20, was shot and, later, died in the same hospital as his brother Len Bias.
Reggie Lewis, who collapsed during an off-season practice in 1993, died from sudden cardiac death at the age of 27.
Clearly touched by the passing of Bias, the NBA put out anti-drug public service announcements called “Don’t Foul Out” on October 1st, 1986.
Rob S. De France is a College and University Instructor of English Composition living in Los Angeles. He has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Rhetoric and Composition. De France has played, coached, and officiated competitive high school basketball in California for many years. Recently, De France, his wife, and another colleague started an internationally read magazine at Shwibly.com.