The English language has a lot of words to describe the feeling of loss. We have words like grief, anguish, even nostalgia. Despite all of our flowery metaphors and similes, we lack a word that describes the loss of a thing you’ve never experienced. Some people experience the feeling when thinking about a deceased relative that is well remembered by the rest of their family. Others are immigrants who mourn a home country they’ve never known. The examples are there, yet there is no word to describe it.
It’s a Portuguese word that signifies a deep longing or sadness for something missing. It’s not an exact translation, but linguistic loopholes allow for the stretch. Saudade can be used in the place of missing someone or something, but it’s considered a perpetually unfulfilled longing often linked to nostalgia. To me, it sounds a lot like Len Bias.
Len Bias has always been a ghost to me. I wasn’t alive when the small forward first graced the floors of Cole Field House, adorned in Maryland red. I wasn’t alive when he transformed his game from that of an athletic—albeit undisciplined—freshman to that of a dynamic lottery pick. I wasn’t alive on June 17th, 1986, when a 22-year old Bias stepped onto a stage in Madison Square Garden and accepted a kelly green Boston Celtics hat. In accepting that hat, Len accepted his place in NBA history—a place that the world would come to know much sooner than anticipated.
Growing up, I was the only one in my family who was a Celtics fan. As a Canadian, bucking trend and choosing a team across the border was fairly off brand, but I was resolute in my decision to support the Cs. I learned about Boston through basketball biographies I borrowed from the public library. I devoured pages and pages about Bill Russell, Larry Bird, and Kevin McHale. It was in those early biographies that I first found mention of Len Bias. The brief paragraphs about him were quick and to the point, a bullet point eulogy of what could’ve been. So I read and researched, as much a ten-year-old could, until I felt like I had assembled all the puzzle pieces of Len Bias’ story. Still, there was something missing.
Every year starting in April, this weird feeling pops up. The closer I get to June—the NBA draft in particular—the stronger it gets. I know it has something to do with the invisible legacy Len left behind, but this year it’s particularly strong.
Neither Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball particularly bring Len to mind. It’s more about the circumstances that led to Boston getting a shot at the top two. The catastrophic Nets deal shares a couple eerie parallels with the way Len Bias found himself Boston bound. It’s enough to put me on edge.
It’s the fall of 1984. The Boston Celtics are fresh off of a championship win. Guard Gerald Henderson has just inked a new contract after being part of a starting backcourt. He’s 29, having just come off of a career high average of 11.6 points a game. But he’s about to get swapped out with Danny Ainge and become the first guy off of the bench.
Meanwhile, other teams noticed the backcourt shift. Boston started to get offers for Henderson, but nothing truly piqued their interest until a first round pick was put on the table. The Seattle Supersonics were willing to part with their 1987 first rounder in return for Gerald Henderson. Henderson would be the guy to lift their franchise above the mediocrity it had encountered in recent years and in return, Boston would get a first rounder. Not an awful deal. But Boston wanted an earlier pick. The SuperSonics eventually compromised, offering the 1986 first rounder. Two days later, Henderson was Seattle bound, setting the stakes for the final trade that would send Bias to Boston.
Seattle underachieved that year, winning only 31 games. Henderson was by no means the saviour he had been hailed as. All of sudden, it seemed the Celtics might get a chance at the elite core of players in the draft. All through the 1985-86 season, Boston fans watched hopefully as Seattle continued to flounder through a coaching change and yet another 31 win season. Finally, it was sealed.
Boston always wanted Bias. There was no question about it. They didn’t even invite the other top pick, Brad Daugherty, in for a workout. Len Bias had worked with Red Auerbach’s basketball camps and was very well known amongst the organization. The Celtics had brought Bias in several times for workouts, and had even drug tested him.
Two years after the Seattle trade, it all came to fruition. Len Bias was drafted second overall to the Boston Celtics.
Right about the time I hit middle school, the Celtics won the 2007-08 championship. It was the big three era, I had just started to get really into basketball, and I had a huge laminated poster of Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce hanging on my wall. Winning the championship and beating the Lakers simultaneously felt like validation of my weird fandom choice and a nod to the past.
Obviously, things didn’t quite mimic the success of the Larry Bird-led Celtics, which brought us to the 2013 Nets trade. With Ray Allen fleeing Boston for Miami, Rajon Rondo’s ACL tear, and Doc Rivers’ departure, change was afoot. It was time for a rebuild.
On July 12, 2013, the Brooklyn Nets officially announced they had acquired Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White from the Boston Celtics in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans and their unprotected first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. The Celtics also received the right to swap first-rounders with the Nets in 2017.
Now, at this point in time we all recognize that Nets deal as the dumpster fire it would eventually become, but at the time, it seemed like they were veritably buying their way into what should’ve been a deep run at a championship. They then proceeded to trade Terry and lost to the Heat in a second round sweep. Pierce left in free agency the following summer and they traded Garnett halfway through the following season.
As disastrous as the trade was for the Nets, it has been the crown jewel of the Celtics organization. It has given the Celtics guys like Jaylen Brown (third overall, 2016) and Marcus Smart (sixth overall, 2014) while still allowing them to stockpile assets and be in the conversation around any big free agents at trade deadline time. All season long, Celtics fans have kept an eye on the struggling Nets and now, it seems we will be rewarded with a top three pick.
As much as my homerism is present in regards to Smart and Brown, I can concede that neither of them are true instant impact stars. That’s what makes this 2017 pick so big—Len Bias big.
Just five months before Len Bias would cross the stage at Madison Square Garden on June 19th, 1986, Bob Sakamoto of the Chicago Tribune wrote an article titled, Cocaine–scourge of Nba. It quickly painted a connection between basketball, “the game of the playgrounds”, and drugs “the bane of the streets”.
There were a couple big names cited in Sakamoto’s article, most notably that of Larry Legend himself. Bird was an outspoken advocate for harsher penalties for drugs users and mandatory testing, as opposed to the NBA’s three strike policy. The three strike policy encouraged players to come out and admit they had a problem without fear of punishment, therefore creating a culture where athletes could be treated like humans and given time to rehabilitate.
The worry among players like Bird and several NBA owners is that this elaborate aftercare program would do little to deter first time users. Sure, the mechanisms were in place to help addicts get clean, but how efficient would that be if they couldn’t stop players from experimenting with drugs in the first place?
The Players Association bristled at the idea of mandatory testing, claiming that the that would be a massive infringement on the rights of their constituents. It was widely thought that league counsel at the time, Gary Bettman, was posturing simply to garner favour with media that was hungry for yet another drug scandal.
At the time, America was several years deep into first lady Nancy Reagan’s overly simplistic “Just Say No” campaign, aimed to educate and prevent drug use among young people. It had raised awareness among the population while quietly shaping a new nightmare in the heads of parents everywhere. All it needed was a face.
The face would be that of Len Bias. His cocaine overdose lit the fuse on the lingering fear about drugs in America. He was the ideal poster child for the campaign: A young man, with the world at his feet, whose life was cut tragically short by drugs.
Len Bias would never go on to play an NBA game. He would be memorialized as a great college basketball player, a tragedy, and the embodiment of “what if”.
But back to the present. We’re approximately two months away from an NBA draft in which the top two will almost certainly make an instant impact wherever they go. Boston, just like 31 years ago, has the chance to add a piece while still being a championship contender.
However, the catalyst for Boston being on the receiving end of this pick gives me that weird feeling. The parallels are present:
The Nets deal is viewed as some as Danny Ainge’s best work as a GM, exactly the way the Henderson deal was viewed as a coup for Red Auerbach.
Henderson might not have been a Paul Pierce or a KG, but he was a starting guard on a championship team and his loss was felt.
Seattle wasn’t supposed to tank. No one thought the Celtics were getting a top 3 pick out of the deal. No one thought the Nets would crumble as spectacularly as they did either.
The 1985-86 Celtics were more than contenders. They were coming off of winning an NBA championship. The 2016-17 Celtics are unlikely to be as successful, but are still the first seed in the East going into the first round.
Fultz and Ball are no Bias, but should Boston land the one or two spot, that will be the first top two draft pick the Celtics have received since Len Bias.
There you have it. It’s not enough to give true deja vu, but it’s enough to make that feeling I get around draft day a little bit stronger. Maybe I’m being crazy, or looking for Len in places I’ll never find him; but feeling his legacy is nice, even if it’s fleeting.