Len Bias: The Possibilities, The Potential, The Death

Friday, September 25, 2009

June 18, 1986 The Washington Post-

"The world turned green for Len Bias today.
Every time he turned around, somebody seemed to be shoving something leaf-green or forest-green or money-green at him, whether it was a green felt cap or a green silky jacket or a green nylon bag.
Make that Boston Celtic green."

The night those words were printed, Len Bias returned to his dormitory to celebrate his draft choice with his friends. They hung out into the wee hours of the morning, rejoicing because Bias had finally made it to the greatest basketball league in the world. They celebrated as much for the draft choice as for what was to come; Bias was destined to be an NBA superstar, destined to take the torch from Larry Bird as the preeminent NBA organization’s leading man, destined to win NBA MVP’s and NBA championships.

And then, without warning, he was dead.

While all the other Celtics legends are considered legends for what they did, Len Bias is a legend for what his cocaine overdose never allowed him the chance to do.

The second pick in the 1986 draft, Bias was poised to help the rich get richer; the 1985-1986 C’s had just stormed through the NBA, easily taking the organization’s 16th championship. Still, they had the second pick in the draft because of their 1984 trade sending Gerald Henderson to the Seattle Supersonics.

With a frontcourt that already held Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton, the Celtics added Bias and were instantly the deepest, most talented frontcourt of all-time. They had length, height, rebounding, passing, athleticism and shooting – and that was just in the frontcourt.

Bias was set to bring a blast of youth into an aging but incredibly skilled and talented ballclub. According to Celtics’ scout Ed Badger (via the Washington Post), Bias was “maybe the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in a long time.”

In fact, he had physical talent not even Jordan possessed. 6’8” with the long reach of an octopus and the sculpted, lean build of a heavyweight champion, Bias was seemingly born to play basketball.

And he could jump. Boy, could he jump. The rumors about Bias were that he could soar into the air and take quarters off the top of the backboard.

But Bias wasn’t just an athlete – he knew how to play basketball, too. Len was great at utilizing the bounty of athletic tools at his hands and was able to breathtakingly combine the speed to get by his man, the strength to finish at the rim and the finesse to escape would-be defenders.

With all those tools, playing for the NBA’s top team and lucky enough to have Larry Bird as a mentor, what could possibly stop Len Bias from reaching the NBA’s pinnacle?

It sure wasn’t his attitude. Bias had the heart of a champion, playing every play with the ferociousness of a caged pit bull. He had the swagger limited mostly to the all-time greats, that unwavering confidence in his abilities and the knowledge that his opponent could not and would not stop him.

Len Bias had it all; talent, charisma, and an incredible work ethic raved about by none other than the great Red Auerbach. There was no doubt he was going to be one of the NBA’s all-time greats.

But it wasn’t to be. Call it fate, call it destiny, call it God or just call it death. Whatever it was, Len Bias would never capitalize on his newfound fame. He would never walk onto the Boston Garden’s parquet floor to 15,000 fans chanting “Lenny, Lenny, Lenny!” He would never sit on a float in a parade as one million Bostonians came to cheer their newly crowned champions.

On June 19, 1986 Len Bias passed away and, with his death, the Celtics seemed to die, too. They valiantly struggled through the 1987 season, watching as injuries and old age derailed their championship defense. For 21 long years after 1987, the Celtics failed to make the finals, a shocking lull for a team that had won 16 titles in the 30 seasons prior to 1987.

Nobody knows how a healthy Bias would have changed the Celtics. Would his presence have added years onto Larry Bird and Kevin McHale’s careers? Would he have been the star he was supposed to be? Would he have been able to lead the Celtics to championships even as Bird, McHale and Parish faded into the twilights of their careers?

Instead of a lasting image of Len Bias lifting a championship trophy, or lifting an MVP trophy, we are stuck with the picture of Bias at the NBA draft, wearing his cockeyed cap halfway off his head, smiling and proud to be a Boston Celtic.

Bias spent only two days as a Celtic but in those two days he invigorated the Boston fan base and inspired the Celtics’ community. He was going to be our next savior, our next champion, our next leader.

Bias never became any of those things, but he will always be a Celtics legend.

It's weird. The 22-year championship drought from 1986 to 2008 seemed like such a long time.

But for Lenny Bias, 22 years was far too short.

"I just want to play my heart out": The Chronicles of Lester Hudson

The Chronicles of Lester Hudson are a series of interviews with the Celtics' only draft pick, in which we will delve into his past, explore his current situation with Boston, and do a little speculation into his future. Today, we catch up with Lester as he prepares for his first ever NBA training camp.

A little over a week ago, we had our first interview with Lester Hudson. In it, Lester talked about his past and how he felt to be drafted into the Celtics' organization, and gave us a breakdown of his game. Now, as training camp draws nearer, we take a look at how Lester is preparing himself for the upcoming challenges and his mindset as he heads to training camp.

Jay King: What's a typical day for you since you've moved to Waltham [where the Celtics' training facilities are located]?
Lester Hudson: I wake up around 8:30, grab a quick bite to eat and I'm at the training facilities by 8:50 or so. I'm on the court by 9:30, doing drills. First, I'll work on my ballhandling for about 15-20 minutes, getting the feel back in my finger and getting ready to handle NBA pressure.

After that, I do some work spot-shooting, shooting off the dribble (mostly one-dribble pullup jumpers and up-fake one-dribble pullups), coming off the pick-and-roll, some fast break drills, working on my NBA three-point range, just a lot of different drills every day. Those will last until about 10:30, when I go to do some defensive drills with the other young guys on the team.

When we're done with those, at around 11:00, we go play about 4 or 5 games of pickup with all the guys on the team. Most days we run 5-on-5, but sometimes we go 4-on-4. After the pickup games are done, I go to lift weights and then I'll go back and take a shower, maybe take a nap. Three to four times a week I'll then come back later to get some extra shots up, just working on extending my range, getting better consistency on my shot, and shooting off the dribble. The NBA three-point arc is a long way away, but I feel I've gotten it down and I'm starting to shoot the ball really well.

How do you feel about the way you've been playing so far?
Really good. I know I can play at this level, and I'm confident I can produce. I'm a new guy so I know I am going to make mistakes, but that's okay. What I have to do is just keep learning from those mistakes, keep getting better every day. I'm just trying to take in everything I can from everybody I can. From last year's rookies to KG, they've all played more in the NBA than I have, they all know more than I do, so I'm just trying to soak it all in.

I'm full of confidence, but sometimes I've been too passive. Playing with the Big Three and all these other guys, you know you can just give them the ball and get out of the way, and something good will probably happen. But you have to stay aggressive, you have to make sure the defense plays you to make it easier for everybody else. And the guys all tell me when I'm too passive, when I should take a shot or make a play rather than just swing the ball.

As a rookie, you can't come in and just shoot, shoot, shoot. I'm going to take open shots, make plays when the defense is a bit off-balance, and just do whatever I can to help this team.

What has impressed you most about the other players?
Just the way they're looking to help you out, and how much they compete. Everybody's trying to help you out, nobody's trying to push you in the wrong direction, both on and off the floor. Everybody's been giving me advice on the court, helping me with reading plays and stuff, and they tell me to keep playing hard, stay humble, make shots and make plays every day. They tell me that as long as I do that, everything will work out for me.

It's hard to choose what player impresses me the most, because there are so many good players on a championship team like ours. But everybody has impressed me with how hard they compete. Everybody is out there competing, trying to work hard, fighting for everything. When we play pickup, we sometimes have one of our managers play because we don't have enough. Even then, guys are going after the manager like he's Paul or Ray or KG. It doesn't matter who any of these guys play against, they're going to be out on that court battling to win. There's no such thing as lackadaisical with these guys.

Training camp is less than a week away. What's your mindset going into the camp?
I'm very excited. I'm ready to show everybody that I can play, run a team, and learn the offense. My biggest task is going to be learning the plays, watching Rajon Rondo and learning everything he does. I need to learn how to execute the best way I can, so I'm just going to watch Rajon a lot and listen to everything the coaching staff has to say.

I just want to play my heart out. Everybody's excited, we all just want to compete against each other; everybody loves to compete. We want to go to war with each other, and you gain the trust in each other to compete against other team's while you're competing against yourselves. We all just want a ring, and I'm trying to come in, play hard and try to learn something. As you know, it's my first training camp, so I'm really excited to see what it's going to be like.

I know you played a lot of shooting guard in college. Do you feel you'll be used mostly as a point guard with the Celtics, and how do you feel about that?
Yeah, I think I'll be used mostly as a PG. I think if I did play the two, it'd be if I really had it going and they wanted to keep me in with Rondo on the floor.

I'm starting to feel really comfortable playing point guard and setting up other people to score rather than doing all the scoring myself. I know people are going to sag off me and dare me to make plays because I'm a rookie, so I just have to stay ready to knock down shots and make plays. Another thing about me as a point guard is I think a lot of people saw my scoring numbers last year and didn't realize how good a passer I am. I think everybody will learn I'm a much better passer than a lot of people expected.

Any update on the contract talks?
Not recently. We should be talking soon, and hopefully it will be positive. I think I've got a really good chance. The Celtics have told me they might bring in another point guard or two – probably a veteran – so I just have to go out there and prove myself to be the best option the Celtics have. I have a whole lot of confidence in my game that I'll be able to outplay any veteran they might bring in.

Could Kendrick Perkins become an All-Star center?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Nobody can deny Kendrick Perkins' improvement; he's come a mighty long way from the big, bumbling center the Boston Celtics acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies in a draft-day trade in 2003.

Once upon a time, Perkins was best-known for being the second-year player taken off the bench in a 2005 playoff game to shoot Paul Pierce's free throws. For those who forget, Pierce was too shaken up by a hard foul to remain in the game. Perk, who had yet to be inserted into the game prior to that point, was summonsed by Pacers' head coach Rick Carlisle to shoot the free throws (by NBA rules the opposing coach is allowed to choose the free throw shooter if the player who is fouled is unable to shoot the shots). Cold and not a very good shooter to begin with, Perk bricked the two free throws, though the Celtics would still go on to win the game. At that point, Perkins was a goat, a liability.

Now, Perkins is admired and respected by Celtics fans. No longer the scapegoat, no longer the young player struggling to adapt to the drastic change from high school to the NBA, Perk has earned his respect. He's spent a long time with assistant coach Clifford Ray, honing his post game to the point that he is no longer an offensive liability. He's become a defensive stopper, capable of shutting down big men down low or moving his feet to hedge out on the pick-and-roll.

Perkins has improved every year, in leaps and bounds. He's gone from a rookie in 2003, averaging 2.2 points and 1.4 rebounds per game, to an integral piece of a championship contender, a true workhorse able to contend with the likes of Dwight Howard. Rajon Rondo played out of his mind in last year's playoffs, and Ray Allen and Paul Pierce both had their moments, but I would argue it was Perkins who was their most valuable player; it was Perk who held the fort down inside against Superman, who was the Celtics' only reliable low-post stopper and a suddenly reliable scorer on the blocks. Perkins, pretty much on his own, kept Chicago and Orlando from scoring at will in the paint.

But will Perkins ever be an All-Star center?

Before you call me crazy for even suggesting that he might one day make an All-Star team (after all, his career highs are 8.5 points and 8.1 rebounds), hear me out...

Perkins has improved every year. He plays for a championship-caliber team that will likely contend for at least the next two years. His position, center, has traditionally been the easiest at which to make an All-Star team (see: Jamaal Magloire). He's still only 24 years old, and has demonstrated a great work ethic and a willingness to refine new parts of his game each year. Last season, for the first time, he showed the ability to stay out of foul trouble and play more minutes.

More minutes means better stats, and if Perkins can accumulate a double-double average with two blocks per game, and the Celtics can run up the best record in the East, it might be tough to keep the big fella out of the All-Star lineup. And if not this year or next year, what about when Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace no longer play in Boston, and Perkins is the only one left to roam the lane? That will mean more touches and even more minutes and, with his work ethic, he'll presumably be better by then, so...

I know, there's a lot of if's associated with Kendrick becoming an All-Star center, but isn't there a chance? Isn't there?

In the end, it doesn't matter to the Celtics if Perkins makes the All-Star team. They know they can rely on him to be a dependable defender and an opportunistic scorer. They know he'll bang down low and rebound the basketball. It's a testament to how much Perk has improved that everyone assumes Rasheed Wallace will come off the bench rather than supplant Perkins in the starting five.

And that's exactly where the Celtics need him. All-Star or not, Kendrick Perkins has become a key player for the C's now, and a cornerstone for the future.

There's more to life than Kevin Garnett buzzer-beaters against the Knicks

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Up and down, up and down, up and down. I could be talking about the Celtics' play this season -- and I wish I were -- but I'm not. Life's ups and downs put everything into perspective for me today; One second, I was sitting, watching a basketball game that my team won, and I was at once upset because of how they played and elated with how they won. The next, I heard crashing, then tears, and finally I started to cry a little myself.

I don't want to share any more details about what happened; It's tough for me to write about my personal life. I can write about myself all day long, and I can write about the Celtics for even longer than that, but when I need to talk about the people, the things, that matter most to me, it's hard. How do you write about a personal subject, about people who truly matter to you, and then publish it on the internet for everyone in the world to read?

Maybe other people can do that, but I guess I'm just not other people. I am not going to use this forum to talk about something that happened to somebody close to me, not ever. I might bring up something serious when it happens, but I will never completely share anything that affects someone close to me.

Instead of sharing my secrets with you, instead of sharing with you everything that goes on in my life, I'm just going to relate my secrets to you when they change the way I feel about the Celtics, or when they in some way influence the way I look at the game.

Before life happened, I was upset about the Celtics' effort, but happy about the way they'd won. I was worried by the continuous lack of heart and execution (David Lee with a wide open open dunk to tie the game in overtime?), but ecstatic by KG's jumper.

Then there was crashing, and there were tears, and I realized that, in the grand scheme of things, a regular season game against the Knicks just doesn't matter. Not one bit.

Anyways, I did watch the game, and I did have opinions about it, and I even wrote some of them down before life interfered with my thoughts. So here they are for you, my unimpeded thoughts.

How do I write about a game when I'm so elated with the way the Celtics won it, yet disgusted by how they played throughout the game? How do I write about a game when the hero, the man who made the final shot that made my heart jump, was the same player whose neck I wanted to ring throughout most of the afternoon? How do I write about such an exciting win, when it shouldn't have been so goddamn exciting?

I'm not so sure how to describe my feelings after this one. Kevin Garnett was terrible. He looked slow, he looked pained, he was hobbling around, and he looked like a brick-layer, but there Garnett was at the end to knock down three huge jumpers, including the game-winner with no time left on the clock. How do I write about it, when KG spent most of crunch-time getting acquainted with the back of Al Harrington's jersey, but then had me jumping around in joy (and relief) at the end?

How do I write about the Celtics when all I asked for this morning in my preview was a good first quarter, and then they played a good first quarter... but proceeded to play miserably the rest of the game? Do I write about how they responded to my wishes, or do I write about how they reverted right back to the lazy team they've mostly reserved for first quarters?

I just don't know where to start, where to finish, or where to end. Paul Pierce was great. He not only carried the Celtics offensively, but he made an enormous block on Wilson Chandler down the stretch. Don't ask any questions about why Chandler was shooting a stepback jumper in crunch time, just realize that it was Pierce who sent it right back off him and out of bounds.

Rondo is another player who confused me tonight. He did it all -- rebounds, points, assists -- and made it look easy. But it makes things so much more difficult for his teammates when Rondo's defender doesn't have to be anywhere in his vicinity when Rondo has the ball in his hands. Whoever was guarding Rondo spent his night five feet away from Rondo, and while Rondo had a very good game, it clogged the paint for everyone else. On the plus side, he shot 4-8 from the free throw line. Why is that a plus? Because it's double his free throw percentage to this point.

Kendrick Perkins was again solid. 16 points, 13 rebounds, and four blocks for Perk. The man is turning into a defensive monster, and is now serviceable with the ball in his hands, too.

Rasheed Wallace's slump, if it could, got worse. You can't possibly shoot as poorly as Wallace has over the last handful of games, even if you had Hellen Keller's vision and the soft touch of sandpaper. I'm not too worried; Wallace has spent his career proving himself as a good shooter. That shouldn't stop now, even as he nears the twilight of his career. At some point, Wallace should snap out of his slump... right?

The bench was awful, the starters were okay, and the Celtics have yet to put a good team effort together over the last couple weeks.

But in the end, it doesn't really matter. Over a season, the Celtics will have their ups, and they will have their downs, but hopefully they'll peak at the right time. Whether they play great now, or look like the New Jersey Nets, the only thing that matters for the Celtics is being ready to win come playoff time. The way the execute now means nothing; the Celtics will end up with a good record, and they should have a good seed in the playoffs. A meaningless game with the Knicks is just that -- meaningless. The Celtics came away with the win, and that's all they needed.

After all, there are a lot of things more important than a regular season game against the New York Knicks.