Even the best teams in sports history have moments to look back on and wonder 'what if.' For the Boston Celtics and their NBA dynasty of the 1980s, one of theirs is arguably among the most consequential examples in any sport.
Just days after winning their third championship in a span of six years, 34 years ago to the date, the Celtics drafted Maryland superstar Len Bias with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. And just days after that, he passed away tragically due to a drug overdose. It cut short what could have been a standout NBA career and, for many, it left a lifetime of wondering what could have been.
The Celtics' general manager at the time, Jan Volk, has often thought about and been asked about what Bias would have become if he realized his potential in the NBA.
"I recall at least one scouting report - and we always wanted comparisons - drew a comparison that was very interesting," Volk told NBC Sports Washington.
"We had a comparison to Michael Jordan. Three inches taller with a better outside shot. That's how he was characterized."
Bias and Jordan had some famous battles in the college ranks as star players in the ACC, Bias at Maryland and Jordan at North Carolina. Jordan left school in 1984 and by 1986 was an established young star in the league. Bias would have landed in the Eastern Conference and likely gone up against Jordan often throughout his career.
Bias would have joined what was the best team in basketball at the time. He would have counted five Hall of Famers as his teammates in Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Bill Walton and Dennis Johnson.
After that 1986 title, the Celtics slowly fell back down to earth and didn't win another ring in the Bird era. Volk, though, feels things could have gone differently if Bias had played.
"That 86-87 team we had that did get to the Finals was one player short," Volk said. "I think if [Bias] had been on our roster at that time and had gotten some time during the season, which I hoped he would have, he would have been a contributor and maybe we would have gotten another championship."
The NBA Draft is supposed to be about new beginnings. It is the start of what are sometimes 20-year NBA careers.
Volk's job as GM was to project the future and find what his team needed. And he felt Bias was in many ways the perfect missing piece.
"He had an intensity that went well with our team. I think he would have enhanced our team for years to come. Regrettably, we never got to find that out," Volk said.
"Larry Bird was very enthusiastic about his game and about melding his game with the players that we had. He really thought it was an opportunity for him personally, Larry, and the team to prolong their run, our run."
Volk can recall many memories of Bias in the relatively brief time he knew him. Their relationship dated back several years before he was drafted as Bias served as a counselor at head coach Red Auerbach's camp. Celtics brass got to see him play up close in that environment and also get a sense of his personality and drive.
By all accounts, the intangibles matched up with his prolific athleticism. Bias had the size and strength of a power forward, but with explosive leaping ability and an outside shot. He was the total package.
The Celtics wanted him and he wanted to play in Boston. Volk remembers an exchange they had at the end of his final pre-draft visit.
"I do remember a conversation we had as he was leaving to go to the airport to go home. He just looked at me and said 'please draft me, I really want to play here,'" Volk said.
Bias wore the No. 34 jersey at Maryland. He died 34 years ago this week. It was a momentous tragedy and one that still remains with Volk.
"It was a very, very difficult time for all of us. It was very sad and very tragic," he said. "We were devastated, absolutely devastated by what happened."
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Former Celtics GM on what Len Bias could have been in the NBA originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington