Alternate history articles are tricky. All of it is built off assumptions from the bias standpoint of whomever is writing them. I am no different. My perspective comes directly from being a Celtics fan. While extremely jaded the team still has a soft spot in my cold, black heart.
While Len Bias’ tragic demise was eleven years before my birth, like the Red Sox selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees you didn’t have to be there to understand the gravity of the event and how it sent a premier franchise into the dark ages.
In June of 1986 the Celtics were the masterclass of The Association. Sixteen titles since 1957, countless Hall of Famers and showing no signs of slowing down. Much like the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982, coming off a world title and thanks to shortsighted general managing captured the second pick in the draft. The Lakers picked forward James Worthy. An overqualified third guy who could have been a glorified second banana anywhere else.
Four years later Red Auerbach selected the Maryland forward second overall. Rarely does a rookie generate such excitement among his established teammates. Larry Bird was a three-time MVP and champion and when he learned the Celtics were picking Bias he made his intention known to attend rookie camp.
1986-87: Len Bias finds himself beginning his pro career on the bench behind Fred Roberts and Darren Daye. While showing more potential than either, K.C Jones favored his veterans and would be hard pressed to trust a rookie especially when he didn’t have to. On March 11th that all changes when Kevin McHale breaks his foot against the Phoenix Suns. Roberts proves to be a insufficient replacement and Jones is forced to give the rookie a run.
Under the tutelage of Bird, Bias soars and the Celtics win one more game than they did in our timeline giving them a total of sixty. The fourth straight year the Celtics won sixty or more in a season. The Celtics are able to despatch of the Milwaukee Bucks and the Detroit Pistons in one less game than it took them in OTL.
Because he was well rested, McHale was able to block Magic Johnson’s baby skyhook attempt and seal a game 4 victory over the Lakers to tie the series. In game 7, the forgotten Celtic Bill Walton plays ten-minutes and his spark plug inspires the beaten down C’s to win another championship. It is Boston’s second straight. They are the first team to repeat since the 1968 and 1969 Celtics of the Bill Russell era. Bird wins his third Finals MVP and fourth overall title. And it won’t be his last.
1987-88: Looking to three-peat, Red finds a diamond in the rough picking last in the first round he selects Northeastern guard/forward hybrid Reggie Lewis. But unlike with Bias, the Celtics core remains healthy and block the rookie Lewis from playing more than just garbage time.
Bias wins Sixth Man of the Year and help the Celtics become the first team to win sixty-games for five consecutive seasons. The Pistons are once again held down and for the fourth time since 1984 the Celtics and Lakers clash in the Summer Classic. This time it is the Lakers taking the Celtics down in seven games.
1987-88 is dominated by the emergence of Bias writers are drawing similarities to the 1983 team. An embarrassment of riches on a roster that is too talented for its own good. McHale is slowing down, as is Dennis Johnson. Bias is causing a bit of a stir quietly intimating he should be he starting forward next to Bird. Having enough of the backstage politics, Jones vacates his role as head coach.
1988-89: During a meeting during the 1988-89 season guard Danny Ainge said to Auerbach point blank, with Bird, McHale and Parish in the same room, that if he were the general manager of the team he’d trade “us.”
The Celtics do defeat the Pistons despite their injuries, but fall to Jordan and the Bulls in the second round.
Later Red looks at his projected roster for the upcoming season. D.J is dependable, but old. Ainge can take over for Johnson at the point guard spot. Lewis is emerging as a starter. Bird has suffered a bone spur injury that’ll sideline him for the entire ‘88-89 campaign. The Celtics need bodies to contend with the Patrick Ewing, Bill Laimbeer, and Charles Barkley’s of the world. Five years ago, McHale could eat their lunches and not break a sweat. But five straight 100-game seasons has quicken his physical decline.
The Dallas Mavericks offer stretch big forward Sam Perkins, and sixth man Detlef Schrempf. Red accepts and break the news to McHale. Heartbroken, McHale lambastes Celtics ownership for having no loyalty especially for someone who gave up so much for them.
1989-90: Bird is back. Although you can tell he isn’t the same. But Lewis and Bias are ready to pick up the slack. Perkins fits right in next to Parish, and Schrempf wins Sixth Man of the Year. The Celtics do not blow a two games to none lead against the Knicks, they defeat the Pistons and beat down Jordan and the Bulls en route to the finals where they embarrass the Trailblazers in a sweep.
1990-91: Boston and Los Angeles meet one more time and the Celtics usher an end to the Magic era to capture their nineteenth overall title. Bird wins his sixth championship. We are no longer talking about LeBron vs Michael. We are comparing James to the Hick from French Lick.
1991-92: While Boston is picked to three-peat before the season Bird’s back simply gives out and while they are able to repeat as Eastern conference champs the Trailblazers overcome the final hurdle and win the title. Bird retires shortly after.
1992-93: Nothing is different besides Schrempf contract is nearly up and the Celtics will flip him to Seattle after the season for Derrick McKey like the Indiana Pacers did in OTL. Perhaps the Celtics could have won the title if Lewis didn’t tragically pass. Despite his heroic efforts, Bias is unable to get Boston to the third round. Bias did upset Jordan in the first round and the Knicks make it to the finals versus Phoenix. Of which the Suns win t all.
Epilogue: Four extra finals appearances. Three extra titles for Larry Bird. The lynchpin to the Celtics entering the dark ages is Lewis’ passing, not Bias.
But the biggest loser in all of this is Jordan. Three championships wiped from his plate he isn’t considered the greatest since he kept running into the brick wall known as Larry Bird. We never stop to consider how unfair it is Bird was given a blue chip like Bias to bolster his last five seasons. Maybe David Stern suspends him for the season when he is busted for gambling. The correlation can be drawn between M.J and Shoeless Joe Jackson as they’re both Chicago legends whose stars fallen.
Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley (or Patrick Ewing), Orlando Shaq & Penny, Karl Malone and John Stockton are the biggest benefactors. Without the loom specter of Jordan they are able to achieve success.
The Bad Boys Pistons are considered the bizzaro version of Run TMC. A fun team that ultimately couldn’t win the big one because of an inherit flaw in their philosophy.
So to recap:
1987 Finals: Celtics def. Lakers in seven games; MVP: Larry Bird
1988 Finals: Lakers def. Celtics in seven games; MVP: James Worthy
1989 Finals: Bulls def. Lakers in four games; MVP: Michael Jordan
1990 Finals: Celtics def. Trailblazers in six games; MVP: Len Bias (Also the season MVP)
1991 Finals: Celtics def. Lakers in six games; MVP: Larry Bird. Season MVP: Len Bias
1992 Finals: Trailblazers def. Celtics in six games; MVP: Clyde Drexler
1993 Finals: Suns def. Knicks in seven games; MVP: Charles Barkley
(No Changes in 1994 or 1995)
1996: Orlando Magic def. Seattle SuperSonics in six; MVP: Shaquille O’Neal
1997: Utah Jazz def. Miami Heat in five games; MVP: Karl Malone
1998: Utah Jazz def. Indiana Pacers in seven games; MVP: Karl Malone