A hole unfilled

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The telephone message emanating these days from the offices of the Boston Celtics identifies the franchise as having won 16 NBA championships. What it doesn't mention is this: It has been 20 years since the last one.

On June 8, 1986, the Celtics closed out the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. A little more than a week later, the Celtics selected Maryland star Len Bias with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.

On the morning of June 19, less than 48 hours after he put on a Celtics cap and was introduced by NBA commissioner David Stern, Bias was dead of cocaine intoxication. He was 22 years old.

His legacy as a basketball player would be measured solely by what he had accomplished in College Park, where he transformed himself from an athletic but hardly skilled freshman who could do little more than dunk into one of the most explosive offensive machines in Atlantic Coast Conference history.

Bias had spent hours honing that picture-perfect jumper and chiseling that power-forward physique. By the time he was finished playing for Lefty Driesell, Bias had become the school's all-time leading scorer with 2,149 points, a record that remained until Juan Dixon broke it four years ago.

Though it is difficult to speculate what kind of player Bias might have been had he lived out a full career in the NBA, those who played against him in college and those who would have played a part in his life as a Celtic say he might have evolved into one of the most dynamic NBA stars of his era, maybe in league history.

Bias was expected to be the link in a nearly unbroken 30-year Celtics dynasty that began with the arrival of Bill Russell in 1956. Some even say that Bias, at 6 feet 8 and a well-cut 220 pounds, could have been the rival that Michael Jordan never really found during his legendary career with the Chicago Bulls.

"We had made those comparisons, too, to Michael Jordan," said Jan Volk, who had taken over from another Celtics legend, Red Auerbach, as the team's general manager during the 1984-85 season. "Our scouting reports said that compared to Michael, Bias was a better outside shooter, might not handle [the ball] as well, but he was bigger and tougher."

College basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who played against Bias and Jordan while at Duke, took it one step further.

"When we were in college, he was Superman," Bilas said recently of Bias. "He had everything you'd want in a player. He was a tremendous athlete. Great body. Bias could really shoot it. As good a shooter as Jordan became later in his career, he still wasn't the shooter Bias was."

As a rookie in Boston, Bias would have been well-suited to the role of the team's sixth man, much like John Havlicek was early in his career, providing fresh young legs and instant offense to a starting lineup that featured Larry Bird, two other future Hall of Famers in Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, as well as a backcourt of Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge.

Johnson, who played with the Celtics through 1989-90, said Bias might have prolonged the careers of a few players.

"They probably would have been able to phase us old guys out a little bit at a time," said Johnson, who at 31 was a little older than Bird and McHale and younger than Parish. "It would not have been as much of a strain."

There has been speculation over the years that Bias was so talented the Celtics would have been forced to eventually break up their starting lineup just to get him on the floor, helping a team that had dominated the league nearly since its inception continue to hang championship banners from the rafters at the Boston Garden and later the FleetCenter.

The championship in the spring of 1986 was the second in three seasons and third in six years for the Celtics.

"We've always agreed that Len Bias would have been the perfect bridge figure," said Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, who was the Celtics beat reporter at the time. "I saw him as a [James] Worthy level, maybe not first-team all-league, but a guy who would have been in All-Star Games and would be just outside the upper echelon, a guy who would have been a major star, maybe not an inner-sanctum star. But who knows, he might have been that great."

Adjustments needed Considering the way Jordan developed once he got to the NBA, turning himself from a player who won scoring titles and dunk contests in his early years with the Bulls into a player who led his team to six world championships and was considered by many the greatest ever to play the game, the same might have been possible with Bias.

Len Elmore, who had finished his own 10-year pro career two years before Bias was drafted and had begun working as a college basketball analyst, said Bias would have given the Celtics something else to compete with their longtime rivals, the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers led by Magic Johnson.

"He could also beat you off the bounce, which is one thing that on a consistent basis those Celtic teams didn't have," Elmore said of his fellow Terp. "He could isolate and drive to the basket and beat you with that athleticism. Larry was Larry, but he didn't have that dimension that Len had."

As Jordan had to work on his outside shot to complete his game, Bias would have had to work on his defense. Playing with defensive stars such as Johnson, McHale and Parish would have likely rubbed off on Bias.

"He would have learned the game at a higher level," said Johnson.

Johnny Dawkins, who played against Bias in high school during summer leagues in the Washington area and later at Duke, said as good a player as Bias was, the two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year still would have had to make adjustments in the pros.

"Either you sink at that level or you swim, and I think Lenny would have been swimming," said Dawkins, who was drafted 10th that year by the San Antonio Spurs but saw his own career cut short by a knee injury.

Like Worthy going to the Lakers a few years before to play with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then growing from a sixth man into a Hall of Famer, Volk said Bias would have followed a similar path. Bird, a few months shy of his 30th birthday at the time, would have only one more injury-free season before heel and back problems set in.

Volk also said Bird, who declined to comment for this article, would have been the perfect mentor.

"One of the real beauties of Larry Bird on our team was that he had such a large personality that his presence put perspective to everybody and allowed big egos to interact very effectively. That's just because of who he was and how he carried himself," Volk said.

That relationship never was forged. Bias' death was the first of a dual tragedy for the Celtics. Reggie Lewis, who was drafted the next year (with the 22nd pick overall) to fill the void left by Bias, died of a heart attack in summer 1993. It was Lewis who would succeed Bird as captain.

Dave Gavitt, who will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this year for his role as founder and first commissioner of the Big East Conference, saw the impact of Bias' death when he joined the Celtics front office in 1990. It came into focus after Lewis died.

"With the salary cap in place, it was very hard to replace that kind of a void, and the league had no arrangements to give any kind of relief in that way," Gavitt said. "The same thing occurred when I was there with Reggie Lewis, equally tragic.

"It had the same kind of ramifications to the team, and we appealed to the league for an exception, to replace a player who had died. They came out and [Phoenix Suns owner] Jerry Colangelo said, 'Don't take this personally; this is not about green, it's about Red.' ... Within a year after the Reggie Lewis tragedy, they did change the rule."

Initially, the Celtics were not allowed to sign another player to replace Lewis and remain under the league's salary cap. But the NBA eventually acquiesced.

Back to mediocrity The deaths of Bias and Lewis basically turned the NBA's most successful franchise into another mediocre team.

Since the Celtics reached the NBA Finals in 1987, when they lost to the Lakers in six games and the Eastern Conference finals in 1988, when they lost to the Detroit Pistons in six, Boston has been to the playoffs 10 times and has made it to the conference finals once more, losing to the New Jersey Nets in 2002.

"I had said at the time in the days after [Bias'] death that this was going to impact the franchise for a very long time, 10 years or longer, but that the effects of it would probably not be felt for a couple of years," said Volk, who left the team in 1994. "I think it affected us for a very long time."

To this day, perhaps.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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