In the world of basketball, the words “mystique”, “pride”, “success”, and “tradition” are all most closely associated with the Boston Celtics. 40 players enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and 17 world championships. All of that success can be traced back to one man. Red Auerbach.
A pioneer in coaching (winning 9 championships), and architect of the Celtics first 16 championships (winning 7 more in the front office), Red was the man that brought the winning tradition to Boston. And, the Celtics found themselves in familiar territory on June 8th, 1986, standing victorious after defeating the Hakeem Rockets in 6 games. The team had won their 16th NBA championship, and just nine days later they were looking to further their dynasty into the next decade.
Len Bias: The Fallen Star
In the Fall of 1984, Red made yet another brilliant move as the Celtics manager, trading Gerald Henderson to the Supersonics in exchange for their 1986 First Round pick. So on June 17th, 1986, the Celtics used the Sonics second overall pick to draft All-American Len Bias out of Maryland. Len was a highly athletic small forward who gained notoriety due to his legendary duels with North Carolina’s explosive young guard, Michael Jordan.
Like Jordan, he seemed destined for the next level. What’s even more impressive is that the Celtics had just experienced one of the greatest single-season campaigns in NBA history, winning 67 regular season games and only losing 3 in the postseason. Red had secured the Celtics future, adding a tremendously talented small forward who could learn under the Celtics fantastic front court (Bird-McHale-Parish).
However, the following day Bias was found dead after overdosing on cocaine. His death was but another casualty in a drug epidemic sweeping the nation, and a cautionary tale for all athletes. Not only was a promising basketball career lost, but a young man. Below is one of Bias’ most legendary performances in college, where Maryland battled their ACC rivals, the North Carolina Tar Heels in 1984. In a game that featured the talents of Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith, Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan, Bias was the star, scoring 24 points.
For Boston though, Bias’ death was the beginning of the end. The luck beneath the parquet floors had finally run out, and an era defined by success had ended.
Boston’s '86-sixth man of the year winner, Bill Walton, retired in the beginning of the 1987 season. Walton had helped establish the Celtics freeform style of ball movement that made them so successful in ‘86, and his veteran leadership and off-the-charts basketball IQ was greatly missed.
Meanwhile, Kevin McHale was having an explosive season, until March 27th when he broke the navicular bone in his right foot in a game against Chicago. However, McHale opted to continue playing on the broken foot into the playoffs until the team eventually lost the Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Little did Boston know, this was the last Finals appearance Bird’s Celtics would see.
Reggie Lewis: The Quiet Assassin
While the Celtics had lost the 1987 finals, the attention moved towards the NBA draft, where adding pieces to their backcourt seemed essential to beating the Lakers. And, in a draft stacked with talent across the board (Robinson, Pippen, Kevin Johnson, Horace Grant, Reggie Miller, and Mark Jackson), the Celtics found the steal of a lifetime.
At 22nd (out of 24 picks in the first round), the Celtics selected a lengthy shooting guard out of Northeastern named Reggie Lewis. Reggie’s impact wouldn’t be felt immediately, but it wouldn’t be long before he earned his keep among his legendary teammates.
McHale missed the first month the following season (1988) due to surgery on his foot. But, Larry Legend didn’t disappoint, carrying the team to 57 wins behind his greatest season yet (30 ppg, 9 reb and 6 apg). However, the team faltered against the “Bad Boy” Pistons stout (rough) defense, falling in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Another season had ended in heartbreak, and ultimately the Lakers won a second straight championship, defeating the Pistons in a heated 7 game series. Larry Bird’s performance was the main culprit, averaging only 19 points on a horrible 35% from the field. Most pointed to Detroit’s heralded defense as the reason, but Bird looked slower than usual (even for himself).
Following the loss, K.C Jones decided to retire from coaching, so the Celtics hired rookie coach Jimmy Rodgers. But, as the 1989 season began Bird still looked sluggish. Bone spurs has developed the season prior, and would require season-ending surgery to remove. So, it was up to McHale and Parish to lead the Celtics, luckily an unlikely hero stepped up. Reggie Lewis took over at Small Forward, having his breakout season (18 ppg, 5 trb, and 2 apg). The team still managed to win 42 games despite all of the mishaps, losing to the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs.
By 1990, the Eastern Conference had gone through a metamorphosis. The Detroit Pistons had become king, while Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls were slowly climbing their way to the top of the ladder.
On the other hand, the Celtics were falling. Dennis Johnson was closing in on retirement, Parish was beyond his prime, and despite Bird returning from his surgery, he was just a shell of his former self.
Bird’s infamous back injuries had settled in, and weren’t going anywhere. In 1990, the Celtics fell to the Knicks in the first round, and in 1991, it was a second round exit to the Detroit Pistons. Then, after losing in the second round of the playoffs to Cleveland in 1992, Larry called it a career. Although, Larry left the team in great hands, after Reggie’s tremendous postseason (28 ppg, 4 reb and 4 apg).
In 1993, the Celtics struggled without Bird, but still managed to make the finish in the fourth seed behind the duo of Lewis and McHale. In the first game of the playoffs, the Celtics were up against the fifth seed Charlotte Hornets.
Reggie was off to an incredible start in game one, scoring 17 points in just 13 minutes. It looked like he was going to score 50 points, then suddenly, without a moment's notice Reggie fell to his knees at half court. Reggie exited the game and didn’t return in the playoff series (the Celtics lost in 5 games). He had a damaged heart, and his basketball career would be postponed until he was medically cleared to play.
After a series of conflicting medical reports, Reggie decided he was ready to play again. Shortly before the 1994 season, Reggie went to Brandeis University to take shots with some friends. He wasn’t sweating profusely or overworking himself, but there he collapsed. Lewis was pronounced dead, and yet another young Celtic had passed away.
The city of Boston was stricken with grief, struggling with a sense of loss that had become all too familiar.
In Reggie’s six seasons in the league, he was one of six players (from 1988-1993), who tallied together at least 7,500 points, 1,500 rebounds, 1,000 assists, and 500 steals.
The other six you ask? Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler and Chris Mullins. All six of which went on to be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
That leaves not only Boston fans, but basketball fans, with the one simple question. What could have been had Len Bias and Reggie Lewis been able to play together on the Celtics? Would they have continued the Celtics dynasty into the 1990’s? Would Bias have extended Bird and McHale’s careers? Could they have beaten the mighty Chicago Bulls?
It’s impossible to know for sure. But, it leaves us all asking the question, “what if?”.