Len Bias: What Could Have Been
Maryland star Len Bias was supposed to be better than Michael Jordan. The 6’8” forward was drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft with sky-high expectations after a standout senior season. At 22, Bias died of a cocaine overdose suffered in his dorm room, just two days after the draft.
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, or Coach K as he’s commonly known, coached against both Bias and Jordan in college. He’s just one of many great basketball minds who believe that the two could have had the great NBA rivalry of the 1990s. They were a pairing to replace the iconic decade-long duel between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. If Bias hadn’t been in that dorm on June 19, 1986, that very well could have happened. Instead, we’re left wondering: what could have been?
Len Bias and Michael Jordan
The Michael Jordan comparisons were made very early in Jordan’s career — well before his first three-peat and certainly before he became known as the greatest basketball player of all time. MJ was still acknowledged as a generational talent though. He had earned All-Star nods in his first two seasons in the league (1984-85 and 1985-86), averaging 25.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game during that time.
As Jordan was making a name for himself in the NBA, Bias was dominating the college scene. He didn’t have an immediate impact on his Maryland squad as a freshman, putting up just 7.1 points in 22.0 minutes per game. Despite unimpressive numbers, Bias showed flashes that had coaches labelling him as a raw talent to watch out for.
In his sophomore year, Bias more than doubled his point totals and took a key role in Maryland’s offense.
As a junior, he really broke out. That was the year Bias became a bonafide star. 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game on 52.8 percent shooting netted Bias ACC Player of the Year honors.
After a senior campaign in which he averaged 23.2 points and 7.0 rebounds on 54.4 percent shooting, the name Len Bias became known nationwide. He was a consensus first-team All-American and won his second consecutive ACC Player of the Year Award. That season, Bias put on a display that saw scouts start comparing him to an already great Michael Jordan.
It’s hard to bet against Jordan, who we now know as the greatest basketball player ever, but if Bias had fulfilled his potential, there’s a chance that Jordan’s legacy would be entirely different. His rings, MVPs, and All-Star selections are all up in the air when you consider how great Len Bias was supposed to be.
Len Bias Was Next Up for the Celtics
Given the perspective that we have now, it seems pretty doubtful that Bias would’ve been on the same level as Jordan. If you need proof, look no further than his six NBA championships, six Finals MVPs, five MVPs, and a Defensive Player of the Year award to boot. It’s hard to argue that Jordan is the best to ever do it.
When the Celtics drafted Len Bias, Larry Bird was coming up on 30 years of age. Their best player was aging out of his prime and the historically successful franchise saw Bias as their next star. Bird himself said that he was slowing down around the time that Bias was drafted.
The Celtics had won the NBA title just weeks prior to Bias’ death. They wouldn’t win again until 2008, when “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE” was born.
That lack of success in the late 1980s and all through the 1990s begs the question — could the Celtics have built around Bias and challenged Jordan’s Chicago Bulls for the crown in the East? No team in the NBA was able to stand against Jordan and Scottie Pippen, who, coached by Phil Jackson, won six championships in eight years. But, had Len Bias been all he was cracked up to be, the entire league could have been shaped differently.
The Celtics’ reputation would likely be different as well. The same team that won 16 championships in 29 years has earned just one ring since then. But, with a franchise player like Bias to replace the aging Bird, the Celtics very well could have been known unanimously as the greatest franchise in NBA history.
The Popularity of the NBA
The NBA might be the most popular sports league in North America right now. Stats point to football and baseball being more popular, but basketball’s exciting play has attracted a lot of the continent’s young population.
That hasn’t always been the case though. Bird and Johnson took the NBA to new heights of popularity in the 1980s with their rivalry. Although Jordan’s absolute dominance over the entire league during the 1990s was fun to watch in itself, a Bias and Jordan rivalry could have taken that even further.
What Could Have Been
Len Bias was a superstar in college. He showed improvement year-after-year until he was viewed as a prospect at Michael Jordan’s level. Because of his death, people always wonder the age-old question: “what if?”
If Bias hadn’t been in that dorm room all those years ago, we could very easily have an entirely different outlook on the history of the NBA. Not only would the league have had an iconic rivalry to replace Magic and Bird, but the Celtics could be seen entirely differently in the league today.