Larry Bird had Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain had Bill Russell, and Michael Jordan had Len Bias.
I know what you’re thinking. Who? To modern NBA fans, the name Len Bias probably doesn’t ring any bells. That’s because his star was put out before it ever got a chance to shine, with his untimely passing just two days after he was drafted in 1986.
If Len Bias never suffered that tragic fate before ever even stepping foot on an NBA court, the landscape of the NBA as we know it would have been entirely different.
Len Bias’ Potential
Len Bias was the 2nd overall pick in the ‘86 NBA draft. Averaging 23 points and 7 rebounds a night as a Maryland senior, he turned heads with some monster performances on the biggest stage.
He dropped 35 on North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He topped that with 41 points over Duke at Cameron. Many considered him to be the clear-cut best college player in the country at the time.
But in an era dominated by big men, Len Bias was passed over for 1st overall pick by 7’0 Brad Daugherty. Sound familiar?
Len Bias stood 6-foot-8 with a body sculpted by the Greek gods themselves and had athleticism that rivaled Shawn Kemp.
But beyond that, his ability to utilize his physical gifts was off the charts. Len Bias possessed a vertical jump and elite size only aided the fact that he also had a shooting stroke Michael Jordan “would have killed for.”
Len Bias was just as likely to posterize a 7-footer at the rim as he was to drain a silky smooth jumper from deep. The defensive potential on the other side of the floor was oozing just as much, too.
On the court, Len Bias had all the makings of a generational talent.
The Celtics’ Next Great Superstar
Now, imagine plugging in that type of prospect — with the potential to be an MVP-caliber player — onto one of the greatest teams in NBA history, the mid-1980s Boston Celtics.
Through some excellent work by then-president Red Auerbach, they were in position to select second overall in Len Bias’ draft. Just imagine giving the KD-Steph Warriors the chance to draft Jayson Tatum or Luka Doncic, as a comparison.
This wasn’t just a stroke of luck. It was a masterstroke from Red Auerbach, who had clearly been eyeing Len Bias for years.
He invited Len Bias to his basketball camps and had dinner with his family before the lead up to the draft.
Auerbach even gave Len Bias a chance to play against Larry Bird as a college sophomore in a tune-up game. To quote Bird himself, “He was incredible.”
Is it just a coincidence the trade that gave the Celtics that pick in the first place came from a deal with the Sonics a whole two years prior – around the same time as those camps and tune-up games?
All signs pointed to the Celtics drafting their next great superstar – even while their team was still at its apex.
Maybe Len Bias would’ve been enough to swing the 1987 Finals series against Magic Johnson and the Lakers that year. Who knows? Maybe they get past Isiah Thomas and the Pistons the next couple seasons in 1988 and 1989?
With Len Bias around, Larry Bird and Kevin McHale wouldn’t have had to play 40 minutes a night anymore.
His injection of youth and athleticism might have been just what they needed to extend the Celtics’ dynasty for another half decade.
With that, the stories of countless NBA legends might have been completely different… but none more so than the man Len Bias is often compared to: His Airness Michael Jordan.
MJ’s Rival That Never Was
Len Bias’s death left a specific void in NBA history. One of the few knocks on Michael Jordan’s career was that he never had a true pound-for-pound rival. Sure, he had to overcome both Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas in his younger days. He even faced Magic Johnson during his first NBA Finals.
But none of them matched up with him positionally, nor did they line up with his prime years to offer a true clash of all-time greats at the height of their powers.
Instead, he faced Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Gary Payton, and Karl Malone. They were all great players, but nobody who could really provide a worthy, hulking adversary for MJ.
By all accounts, Len Bias had the potential to be just that. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski offered his take on just how immense Bias’ talent was with the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan in 2003:
“This is my 24th year at Duke and in that time there have been two opposing players who have really stood out: Michael Jordan and Len Bias. Len was an amazing athlete with great competitiveness. My feeling is that he would have been one of the top players in the NBA. He created things.
“People associate the term ‘playmaking’ with point guards. But I consider a playmaker as someone who can do things others can’t, the way Jordan did. Bias was like that. He could invent ways to score, and there was nothing you could do about it. No matter how you defended him, he could make a play.”
If Len Bias was anything close to the player people believed him to be, he would have been Larry Bird’s heir apparent on the Celtics – the team Michael Jordan famously never overcame himself.
There’s no guarantee that Len Bias would actually follow in Michael’s footsteps to become one of the greatest ever.
But as we saw from The Last Dance, if you give Michael Jordan a rival, any reason to get up and hoop, he will bring it.
Having Len Bias emerge as a superstar to be compared to would have had Michael Jordan on a warpath every year to prove he was the better player. Maybe Jordan doesn’t get to six NBA Finals with another behemoth in the East. His entire legacy could have been altered with Bias around to steal some of his thunder.
Or maybe, Len Bias would have brought out the best in Michael Jordan that we never got a chance to see. Maybe he would have won even more rings, averaged better stats, and not retired early because he couldn’t leave his rival hanging.
Either reality would have been basketball nirvana for a generation of fans.
Instead, we have to settle for the grainy footage of the two battling it out in college.
Len Bias’ Lasting Legacy
Despite the fact that he never played a minute in the NBA, Len Bias still left a lasting legacy that changed the game for the better.
On June 19, 1986, just two days after the ‘86 NBA draft, Len Bias was found dead after overdosing on cocaine.
In an era that was plagued by rampant drug use, Bias’ death became the wake-up call that the league, and society at large, had to confront.
Len Bias had all the potential in the world and was put in every position to reach it.
The NBA has plenty of what-ifs throughout its storied history, but probably none bigger than Len Bias.