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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Sadly, the Celtics will never know
One night in Boston was only contribution Bias made to team.
By STEPHEN F. HOLDER
Published June 25, 2006
On a glorious night 20 years ago this month, Reebok gathered its biggest basketball shoe endorsers for a gala welcoming the newest member of the exclusive club: Len Bias.
It was another in a series of blissful moments during a whirlwind, celebratory couple of days for Bias. Inside, the 22-year-old was bubbling with excitement, and it showed in his countenance.
"He had just got his Reebok contract and he just seemed really happy," said former Celtics star Danny Ainge, a Reebok endorser who welcomed Bias at the event in Boston, a city Bias was supposed to soon call home.
Ainge remembers leaving with the impression that Bias was ready to confront the challenge of joining the NBA champion Celtics, who one night earlier, June 17, made him the second pick in the draft, adding a key piece to their formidable cast.
But hours after sitting on top of the world at a party thrown in his honor, Bias hopped a flight back to Maryland and by the next morning his promising young life was over, ended by a cocaine overdose.
The last thing Ainge could think about after hearing the incomprehensible news was its impact on the Celtics.
"I just remember how devastating it was, with just a young kid with such a bright future and what it must have been like for his family and friends," said Ainge, executive director of basketball operations for the Celtics.
"I don't really remember having remorse for our franchise at the time because that was secondary. Maybe it was because we were a good team at the time, even though we were looking forward to his future. But mostly, I just remember how devastating it was for Maryland and his family and friends."
Celtics Hall of Famer Larry Bird said that being informed was "the cruelest thing I've ever heard," not for its effect on Boston but for what it did to those closest to Bias.
Still, once the shock wore off, it became clear Bias' death significantly affected the Celtics, the NBA and the sports world at large.
We'll never know how great the Celtics might have been with Bias on board. We'll never determine how much NBA drug use was curtailed because of his death. And it is difficult to quantify how much his death did to shed light on substance abuse in sports.
But, on some level, Bias' death was a factor in each of those areas.
The Celtics, fresh off a championship season when they drafted Bias, have not hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy since. His death is not nearly the single reason, but, the Celtics could have used him during their six-game loss to the Lakers in the 1987 Finals or a year later in the Eastern Conference final against Detroit.
Who knows what else could have been? Might the Celtics have been able to muster better than 42 wins when Bird missed 76 games because of injury in 1988-89? And would their aging team have blown that 2-0 lead in a best-of-five first-round series against the Knicks in 1990?
Pacers president Donnie Walsh, then the general manager, was overseeing his first draft in Indiana in 1986 and scouted Bias extensively. Picking fourth, he had to settle for Chuck Person, but he remains convinced Bias was destined to be great.
"It didn't hurt (the Celtics) right away, but after a while, that group started to get older, and that kind of ended the Celtics," he said. "They've been trying to get back ever since."
Then-general manager Red Auerbach, now 88 and in poor health, said he was unable to handle an interview when reached at his Washington home. But others point to his belief that Bias was a player who could help the Celtics sustain their greatness even as their big three - Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish - were getting older and less productive.
"Red was very high on him and really believed in him," Bird said.
Outsiders could see why, too.
"Guys with that kind of athleticism and versatility, they usually succeed on this level," said Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, now an assistant with the Heat. "He would have been a hell of a pro. I remember seeing him at Maryland and he was a fantastic player. He definitely was going to help that franchise big time."
The NBA was a wilder place in the 1980s, with illicit drug use an ugly fact of life. That was the height of America's cocaine era, and the NBA struggled to rid itself of the poison just like the rest of society.
"I didn't hang around the people who did (drugs), so I didn't worry about it," said McAdoo, who completed his career in 1986. "But you knew it was there. It was a known thing."
What Bias' death did was force the NBA to face its issue head on. The league and players union negotiated a narcotics policy in 1983 under which violators could be slapped with suspensions or even banishment from the league. But after Bias overdosed, the league began dealing with drugs for the right reasons - not because it looked good.
Soon, treatment began to emerge as a central issue.
"It forced us to revamp the whole drug program over the years," said Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. "We've also enhanced the medical system in terms of what's available to players, drug programs, monitoring.
"I think Bias' death was an eye-opener. It required us to be a lot more tender where players are concerned in terms of looking out for the well-being of NBA players. From a union perspective, I see that as one of our principal responsibilities."
NBA executives who scouted and interviewed Bias never viewed him as likely to use drugs. Many accounts were offered, all strikingly similar. Mannerly. Good-natured. The kind of kid any parent would want a daughter to bring home. That made the reality of his situation more surreal, because no one saw it coming.
That got the attention of people in front offices across the league. No team wanted to bury its first-round pick and teams promptly began taking steps to ensure they knew prospects backward and forward.
"Now, I think you see a lot of background checks," said Bird, president of basketball operations for the Pacers. "How deep some teams go, I don't know. But you try to get all the information you possibly can. The people you go to are usually the people the closest to them, the people who have been around them. They're usually pretty free with what they have to say, so it definitely helps."
Teams quickly learned to make no assumptions.
"I thought you could almost spot the guys you had worries about," Walsh said. "(Bias) was a guy you never worried about. So that made it so sudden because you were like, "Wow, that guy was going to be good!' It opened my eyes that something like that can happen to anybody."
In the end, the most important lesson is for others to avoid putting themselves in a similarly risky position. If a strapping, vibrant young man could fall victim to cocaine, can't the same fate befall any other person?
How much Bias' death did to spread that message is hard to know. Part of the problem is that, to today's athlete, the Bias tragedy is part of history, though it remains relevant.
"Unfortunately, most players don't remember him," Hunter said. "I'd say if you interviewed 10 of them, if two of them remember who Len Bias is, that's probably doing pretty good. But it had an effect because it forced others to take steps."
Ainge refuses to believe his teammate-for-a-day died in vain.
"I'm sure it did have an impact on young people who played basketball or people around the world who followed basketball about how fast it can go and what drugs can do," he said. "Hopefully it did have a positive impact and hopefully the anniversary can be a reminder of what happened and something good can come of such a tragic loss."