Friday, June 24, 2011

The drafting of Len Bias: An oral history

By Kirk Minihane

Twenty-five years later, the drafting of Len Bias remains a hot topic among Celtics fans. (AP)

Twenty-five years later, the drafting of Len Bias remains a hot topic among Celtics fans. (AP)

We all know what happened after the Celtics drafted Len Bias.

The death of Bias has virtually turned into an industry. Documentaries, magazine articles, Internet sites and even books have covered the subject to the point where it seems that there is nothing left to say or write. Everybody knows what happened and what it meant to the Celtics and the NBA.

But in this oral history, we instead decided to focus on how the Celtics -- just a couple of days removed from winning an NBA title -- were able to draft Len Bias on June 17, 1986.

It all started in October of 1984. The Celtics were four months removed from their 15th NBA title, and were -- at the very worst -- co-favorites win again in 1984-85.


Jan Volk, Celtics general manager (1984-97)

We had won a championship. Gerald Henderson had started with us -- he and Dennis [Johnson] were our starting backcourt. Danny was our third guard. And now Gerald's contract was up. He wasn't holding out in the sense that he had a contract, he didn't have a contract, we just couldn't agree on a contract. About halfway through training camp, we did in fact reach agreement on a contact which was in large part close to what we had been offering. We had our best offer out there and weren't going to be able to do much with it.

Gerald Henderson, Celtics guard (1979-84)

It was pretty much the same stuff everyone goes through with contracts. We wanted more money, they didn't want to pay. We came to agreement, and Jan Volk decided that he wanted to move in another direction after we signed that contract.

Jan Volk

Gerald came in during the course of training camp and one of the things that we saw in that context was that Danny [Ainge] played better as a starter, both better than he had as a third guard and better than Gerald. We envisioned that they would probably switch spots, with Gerald coming in as a backup, though to say just a backup role minimizes it.

Gerald Henderson had just finished his fifth season in the NBA -- all with the Celtics -- and 1983-84 was his most productive year, as he set career highs in points per game (11.6) and assists per game (3.8). A very nice role player on a championship team? Sure. But at age 29, it was clear that he wasn't going to be more than that and the Celtics knew it. But they weren't looking to trade him until the phone rang a couple of days after inking Henderson to a three-year, $900,000 deal.

Jan Volk

We signed Gerald on a Thursday, very late in the day on Thursday [Oct. 11, 1984]. The team was in Texas playing two games on the road. Gerald met the team in one of those cities, played the weekend games, I don't know. On Monday, during the day, I got a call from an Eastern Conference general manager, someone I knew quite well.

He asked, 'So what did you finally sign Henderson for?' And that is information that he could get, and I told him. He said, 'That's a very fair contract.' I told him I thought it was right. He said he saw how well Ainge was playing and if we were willing to move Henderson they'd give us a first-round pick for him. I said, well, OK, thanks.

I'm thinking, wow, a first-round pick, that's pretty good. If we decide that's what we want to do, in terms of moving him to a third guard, that might be a pretty good thing to consider. I immediately got Red, K.C. Jones and Jimmy Rodgers on the phone on a conference call and we all agreed that this was something that we should pursue. But not with them, we didn't want him in our conference.

Pat Williams, 76ers general manager (1974-86)

Gerald Henderson was a nice player and very nice young man. But I'm not sure -- at that point in his career -- he was worth a first-round pick, at least not where the pick turned out to be.

Jan Volk

The question was: Where could he could go that he could be out of conference and with a team where the draft pick is going to be meaningful in the next year or two?

We were now in the fall of 1984, I went to two clubs -- Seattle was one, I'm not going to tell you the other, that were also in the Western Conference and we felt had a good chance of being in the lottery and being a quality pick.

We got offers from both of them -- I got offers from Seattle and the other team -- and they both offered a first-round pick. One offered it in 1986 and Seattle initially offered it in 1987. I would have taken the 1987 pick with Seattle because they looked like they were going to be less successful in the next two years, but they were more likely to be good in two years than in one year, we could predict one year with better certainty. So I really wanted the 1986 pick, so if we had the 1986 picks of both teams I was going to take Seattle. So if Seattle offered us the 1987 I was probably going to go with the other team. I told them that, gave them a chance to think about it.

Five minutes later they came back and said they would give us the '86 pick.

That conversation [with the Eastern Conference GM] came in on a Monday. I think the trade was done on Tuesday.

Gerald Henderson

I was very disappointed to be traded. I felt a bit betrayed. I signed a contract and thought I was going to have a nice, long relationship. I thought I was going to be part of the organization. I guess Volk thought he was going to be a hero.

So it was the SuperSonics, a team that was five years removed from an NBA title and at the time of the Henderson deal were coming off of a 42-win season and first-round playoff loss to the Mavericks.

Glenn Walker, SuperSonics beat writer, Seattle Times (1982-99)

This was a team in a complete state of flux. They had an NBA title in 1979, and had stayed with that group way too long.

The Sonics won 31 games in 1984-85, Henderson's first season with the club, and suddenly the first-round pick a year away looked to have a real shot of being a lottery selection.

Jan Volk

We started looking at a more elite group of players with the expectation that we might act upon them.

Gerald Henderson

The culture in a winning organization is so different from one in a losing organization. Just the way people are, they way they think about things. It was just different in Seattle. It wasn't the same. Even the referees treat you differently. It was night and day.

Jan Volk

We looked at the SuperSonics every day [during the 1985-86 season]. Every day. We tracked them, I was very interested in them. Ownership would also do the same.

Glenn Walker

I do remember it being tumultuous. Lenny Wilkens had lost control of the team the year before [1984-85 was the last year for Wilkens as head coach of the SuperSonics. He moved to the GM position in 1985-86 and Bernie Bickerstaff took over as coach].

In 1986 it just all went in the shi--er. They were really unathletic, slow, unentertaining.

When you look back on the trade, I think they were looking for a fix, which Henderson obviously wasn't.

Jan Volk

He was a starting guard on a championship team and there's a lot of cache that goes with that.

Glenn Walker

Franchises can spin things any way they want, you know? I think they were trying to bring him in as incoming hero, he just won a championship. Gerald Henderson just wasn't that player.

Jan Volk

Maybe we win the 1985 championship if he plays, I don't know. Who knows? Quinn [Buckner] didn't play well, we brought in Ray [Williams] and we was very good at times and not so good at times. Kind of what the knock on him was everywhere else. Inconsistent.

Gerald Henderson

I can't say if I was missed or not, but I do know that they didn't repeat as champions the next year.

The SuperSonics finished the 1985-86 season with a 31-51 record, second-worst in the Western Conference. That meant the lottery for the Celtics and the chance to land one of the elite college prospects, a group that most felt included Brad Daugherty of North Carolina, Chris Washburn of North Carolina State, William Bedford of Memphis State and Len Bias, a forward from Maryland and former counselor at Red Auerbach's basketball camp.

If the Lakers were now the main rival of the Celtics, the Sixers still weren't far behind. And thanks to a 1979 trade with the Clippers that sent Joe Bryant (yup, Kobe's dad) to San Diego for a 1986 first-round pick, the Sixers were another playoff team with a spot in the lottery.

Pat Williams

There we sat. They kept pulling those cards and it came to Boston and Philly, the two rivals. And they pulled the Boston card and I prevailed. I remember my greatest joy was finally over and I could get away from under the cloud of Red's cigar smoke. I was about to choke, so I took a deep breath and chipped a tooth.

Jan Volk

We were very happy, we knew that we were going to get an impact player. There were two impact players, and we knew that we were going to get one.

Pat Williams

It was a funny draft. Brad Daugherty was the big guy, but there were questions about him. Was he tough enough?

Jan Volk

The word was that he was soft. And that was only because of the way he looked and it turned out to be wrong.

Rick Weitzman, Celtics scout (1982-97)

I have to admit that I did [think Daugherty was soft] to a degree. North Carolina's system was a lot different than anybody else. It was tough to tell how good a North Carolina player would be at next level, the system hid a lot of things.

The Celtics liked Daugherty, thought he would be a solid NBA center, and would have been content if he was the best player available at the No. 2 spot. But it was Bias who was the player the Celtics -- a franchise still run by Red Auerbach -- coveted.

Jan Volk

We knew Bias, he was very well known. It gives way too much credit to our strategic planning to suggest that when we made the trade in October of '84 we knew that Bias would our guy in June of '86. We couldn't have known that.

Rick Weitzman

Bias was a counselor at Red's camp. We had seen him often. Red had a relationship with [Maryland basketball coach] Lefty Driesell. Now, it's a lot different than today. Fewer scouts, the technical resources were not there, It was just a different process back then.

Jan Volk

Bias liked to play, he played really hard, and he was downright mean. Just a mean player. If you looked at Daugherty being soft -- which he wasn't -- this guy was the antithesis. He was hard as a rock, tough. If you go back and look at our scouting reports you will see a number of characterizations comparing him to Michael Jordan. Now Michael Jordan had not reached the iconic stature that we know now, this was after two years. The characterization was: Michael Jordan, only bigger, with a better outside shot and doesn't go to the hoop quite as well.

Rick Weitzman

He was a unique as a player. Bias was so gifted athletically, 6'8 with that body, athletic, could jump, could play inside and top it off with that he had a very, very good perimeter game. He was the whole package physically, an incredible skill level. He just did all the things on the court that you wanted a player to do.

Paul Williams

We knew how talented Bias was, there was a lot of potential with him.

But the Sixers never brought in Bias for a pre-draft workout, a scenario that would seem impossible today. In fact, Daugherty -- a player they were admittedly cool on -- was the only player who worked out for the Sixers.


Pat Williams

Jack McMahon was our longtime scout. I said to him, 'What about Bias? Should we bring him in?' He said no. He said he wouldn't draft him. I said, 'Really, we won't consider him?' He said no. I said, 'Jack, tell me why.' He said, 'There's something about him that bothers me.' That was all he would say.

Jan Volk

That surprises me. I'm surprised that they didn't look further. If they were not interested in Bias, it's kind of an interesting position given that Bias was a very intriguing player. I wonder if they knew more than they were saying.

Pat Williams

For us, it was the wrong year to win the lottery. It was just a different field and we could not get comfortable. And we leaned so heavily on Jack, he was our eyes and ears. He just didn't like Bias and none of us were enamored with Daugherty.

Jan Volk

Now, when we got the No. 2 pick, we immediately concluded Bias was our guy. If we had the first pick we would have taken Bias. Red at the forefront had decided that we were going to take Bias regardless of we had the first or second pick.

Rick Weitzman

Red would have said Bias and that was all that mattered. None of us had any objections to taking Bias, and none of us spoke negatively about Bias at all. And Red wanted to hear what you had to say, whether it was positive or negative about any player.

Jan Volk

Larry [Bird] was thrilled with the idea of playing with Bias. He thought that would extend his career. And it probably would have. Bird saw him at camp, he knew what he was. Larry was very astute. I know Larry thought that was a really good short and long-term opportunity for the Celtics and that the short term was going to benefit him as a player.

Larry Bird, Celtics forward (1979-92)

The two college players that I can remember Red talking about were [Ralph] Sampson and Bias. He really thought Bias was going to be great. Maybe he would have been.

Jan Volk

We didn't bring Daugherty in [for a pre-draft workout]. We did not bring Daugherty in because Dean Smith did not want him in Boston. We did not have -- this was the era of salary cap, there was no rookie scale, a rookie could only get a minimum unless you were under the cap, and Dean Smith wanted Daugherty to go to a team that was under the cap so he could get money immediately. And we were not in a position to do that. We would have still drafted him if Bias had been picked, it would have changed the dynamic.

There was a hard white snow falling on the NBA by the late 1970's. And as much as Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and the "NBA: It's Fantastic" ads changed the public image of the league, cocaine was still very much a factor in the NBA. And the cocaine era was about to be defined by the Class of 1986.

Gerald Henderson

In the 1980's, drugs were everywhere. And not just in the NBA or with the Bias stuff, it was all over the country. The Bias incident wasn't something that just appeared out of nowhere.

Pat Williams

Now we are deep in the drug draft. Here comes Chris Washburn, here comes William Bedford, here comes Roy Tarpley. And as it turns out, Bias. It was a very scary group. In those days we weren't up to date on the drug thing, it was still very early. As NBA people we didn't understand it at all. If we did, none of those people would have been drafted.

We sat at meetings and discussed all the players. Washburn, Bedford, there were so many rumors all around those guys. There was just a haze around them. And we were naive, we didn't know what it all meant. But we knew that there was something going on with those guys that wasn't good. So we just passed.

Jan Volk

We brought Bias in, worked him out, we gave him a physical, we gave him a drug test. We were at that point where we were doing that. It was the first year we did it, as I recall. As it turns out, we violated the CBA in doing so. Unintentionally.

Yes, he passed. I'm not going to get into that. But Bias passed the drug test. I don't think you'll find anybody who said they knew there were drugs.

Wayne Embry, Pacers consultant

We saw Bias play, he was a terrific player. Some of his character issues were a concern. We had heard about character issues, so Indiana had no interest in him.

Pat Williams

Chuck Person was out. We had Barkley there, he had been at Auburn with Person and we had heard the two didn't get along all that well. We passed on Person.

Jan Volk

We weren't interested in Kenny Walker. He went fifth, which was really high.

Rick Weitzman

Again, things were not the same back then as they are today in terms of the [drug] situation, but we were well aware of the stuff surrounding Washburn.

The Celtics elected not to bring in Roy Tarpley or Chris Washburn for pre-draft workouts, but did bring in center William Bedford, who had led Memphis State to a Final Four in 1985 and averaged 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and three blocked shots a game in 1986.

Jan Volk

We did bring Bedford in, and reached the same conclusion with him (as with Washburn). I'm not going to get into the details. One, I don't remember them well enough to do justice, and two I'm not going to disparage them.

So the Celtics were done. It wasn't going to be Kenny Walker, or William Bedford, or Chris Washburn or Roy Tarpley. They wanted Bias. The Sixers, though, were about to throw a massive curveball. This was a team, remember, that won 54 games in 1985-86, with Charles Barkley as an emerging superstar and Moses Malone -- a season removed from First-Team All-NBA and still only 30 years old -- coming off a 23-10 season. They seemed to be in a similar situation to the Celtics, a chance to use a lottery pick to add a nice price for the future while staying relevant in the title picture.

But the Sixers instead elected to completely change the look of the team, making two trades the night before the draft that ultimately served as the domino that sent the franchise on a decade and a half path of mediocrity.

After turing down an offer from the Pistons of Bill Laimbeer, Vinnie Johnson and Kelly Tripucka for Moses Malone and the No. 1 pick, the Sixers traded Malone -- who had finished 10th in the MVP voting in 1986 -- 1985 first rounder Terry Catledge and a pair of future first rounders to Washington for Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson.

And just a few minutes later the Sixers made the Moses Malone deal, they traded away the pick they were could never get comfortable with.

Pat Williams

No one was sold on Daugherty. Turned out we were wrong on that. But we had a chance to get Roy Hinson, who looked like a very, very solid NBA player So we pulled the trigger, sending the pick to Cleveland for Roy Hinson.

Mike Bruton, 76ers beat writer, Philadelphia Inquirer (1982-2001)

As a reporter, I'm sitting there trying to evaluate why Pat Williams and Jack McMahon -- who was a very good personnel guy -- would they go with this gut feeling type thing. That Daugherty was soft. That was the off the record thing they kept saying. That he was soft. It's too vague.

Pat Williams

Don't forget that Cleveland kicked in $800,000, which appealed very much to our ownership group.

Mike Bruton

I think the financial part was almost a fig leaf, almost a 'look at what we did' because of the displeasure of not keeping Brad Daugherty. The fans were really unhappy about that. I don't the team was in any financial distress, and they knew that the trade was a controversial move.

Pat Williams

At least Hinson -- this was our thought -- had played a couple of years, was a proven NBA player, he was 24 years old. So we went that way. Turns out he was injury prone and never did much for the 76ers.

Jan Volk

Very surprised, I was very surprised, I think Red was very surprised. I remember that morning being quite concerned that it was done specifically to jump over us and get Bias.

Rick Weitzman

We were pretty certain that if Philly had gone first pick they would have gone with Daugherty. I remember the morning of the draft, I talked to Red, asked him what happens if the Cleveland takes Bias. He told me that we would take Daugherty and that solves that.

Wayne Embry

I had already agreed to take over [as Cavaliers GM] job after the draft. There wasn't going to be a conflict [with the Pacers] because we had the fourth pick and Cleveland had the eighth pick. So I called Cleveland and told them I wouldn't participate in the draft. But later that evening, [Cavaliers owner] Gordon Gund called and said that they were in the process of possibly obtaining the first pick in the draft with a trade with Roy Hinson. Later that night or the next morning, I was asked who we should take. I told them it had to be Brad Daugherty. There were questions in the room, maybe it should be Len Bias. I said 'draft Brad Daugherty, he's the best player in the draft.'

Jan Volk

Red picked the phone up that morning and called [Cavs GM] Harry Weltman in Cleveland to find out what he was planning to do. Weltman said, 'We're picking Daugherty.' I can't say this with complete certainty but I think Red said -- with a little smile -- 'That's exactly what I would do too. I understand.'

Madison Square Garden hosted the 1986 NBA Draft on June 17. TBS covered the event, and both Marty Blake -- the Director of Scouting Services for the NBA -- and Georgetown coach John Thompson (a close friend and former player of Red Auerbach's) both predicted on air that the Celtics would draft William Bedford, not Bias.

After the the Cavaliers picked Daugherty, Red Auerbach called the Celtics representative at Madison Square Garden. And just a minute later, David Stern made the announcement.

The Boston Celtics select Len Bias, from the University of Maryland.

Jan Volk

What better situation for someone to come in as the second pick in the draft? To come in and play with a team that just won the championship and looking to him to come in and be a transition to the future. It was the perfect situation.

He wanted to be here, he really wanted to be here.

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