25 years ago, the Boston Celtics picked local college star Reggie Lewis with the second to last pick in the 1st round of the 1987 NBA Draft. Reggie Lewis was a Baltimore product that was the 6th man on what was considered the greatest high school squad of the 80’s. He played 4 seasons under future coach of UConn Jim Calhoun @ Northeastern University (1983-87) and led them to 4 consecutive NCAA tournament berths. No one else has achieved that feat since.
The year before, the Boston Celtics were on top of the world. They’d just won the 16th world championship in team history (40% of the NBA’s total championships at the time) and they drafted Len Bias with the 2nd pick of the 1986 NBA Draft. With a once a generation talent like Len Bias entering the Celtics fold and landing in a once in a lifetime situation in Boston, the Celtics had ensured they’d be championship contenders for at least the next five seasons. Or so we all thought at the time…
Len Bias had already signed a lucrative endorsement deal with up and coming Boston area sneaker company Reebok and Larry Bird himself was going to pick him up from Logan Airport & bring him to Hellenic College where the Celtics trained. Before any of that could even happen, Len Bias died tragically & unexpectedly in his dorm room at the University Of Maryland. This event not only changed the future of Boston’s NBA franchise but the entire league as a whole.
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 emcee in New York during the first Golden Era of Hip Hop. Len Bias even used to regular outshine a young Michael Jordan back when he played for North Carolina. Let that fact marinate and realize that Jordan entered the NBA early as well…
Len Bias was going to a veteran team with a Hall Of Fame caliber coach who was once a Hall Of Fame player in K.C. Jones and 5 future Hall Of Famers alone in it’s 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. Can you imagine Larry Bird running a fast break with Len Bias on one of the wings?
How would Len Bias living alone 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 Kevin McHale & Danny Ainge were both reserves) roster and Len Bias would’ve easily 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 Boston Celtics roster during the 1987 NBA Finals wearing Reeboks as a key factor in another championship season in Boston as a rookie during the NBA On CBS Era? Now let’s revisit the 1987 NBA Draft in this same continuing scenario…
Since the Boston Celtics would’ve won the 1987 NBA title that would give them the final pick of the 1st round. Regardless of if the Celtics picked 22nd or 23rd, Red Auerbach and the Celtics brass were enamored with Northeastern star Reggie Lewis from seeing him play at Matthews Arena for years and at basketball clinics in the Boston area. Between his talent and his character the Celtics couldn’t pass him up. Lewis and Len 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. They both exemplified everything it meant to be a Celtic.
Len Bias was 6’8” and built like a power forward but played a finesse power game. Reggie Lewis was 6’7” and possessed the frame of a tweener guard/forward and played a smooth, quick finesse/slashing game. Both had sneaker deals endorsing Reebok (and would’ve become it’s first two legitimate superstar endorsers in history). 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 8 man rotation they could’ve had epic battles with the Detroit Bad Boys and the Bulls young core of Jordan, Pippen and Horace Grant 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. Reggie Lewis is the only player to ever block Jordan four times in the same game and when Jordan passed his assignment to Scottie Pippen even he had trouble guarding him. Imagine if Jordan and Pippen (or Horace Grant) drew the assignment of having to guard both Bias and Lewis?
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 Len Bias & Reggie Lewis were the exciting young face of the Boston Celtics franchise then would Spike still have done so? Would Chuck D have dissed the Boston Celtics in the song “Air Hoodlum” in 1992 if both Len Bias and Reggie Lewis rocked kelly green? I highly doubt it. Shit, I even bet the Celtics would’ve been popular outside of Boston just like they’ve been the past 5 years in the 90’s!
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 in addition to the original Big Three and they’d have to contend with both the powerhouse Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls regularly in that same era between these three teams the 1987 and 1988 back to back Laker 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 both casual and diehard NBA fans have been different but also among the Hip Hop generation. Imagine playing “NBA Jam” both in the arcade and at home on Super Nintendo or Genesis using the Celtics featuring Len Bias and Reggie Lewis? Those two could’ve potentially changed the way the franchise was viewed 20 years sooner.
Together Bias and Lewis could’ve potentially given Reebok an opportunity to takeover Converse’s waning fandom & stop 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? They could’ve been as popular in the hood as the Pistons, Lakers, Bulls, UNLV, Kentucky, UNC or Michigan Fab Five were at the same time.
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 in Game 1 against the upstart Charlotte Hornets (whom Reggie tore apart singlehandedly).
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’ve been like had they both lived and played together. Rest in peace to both Len Bias #30 and Reggie Lewis #35.
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