Still one man away


I WAS struck by an interview I heard the other day in which Larry Bird, the legendary forward of the Boston Celtics, made this statement:

"Even though we're leading the division, in my opinion we're still one man away from having a championship team."

One man away. One man, picked from the college recruiting class of 1985; one man the athletic equivalent of a Michael Jordan; one man who could have provided the renewed spark for the aging genius of the Celtic front court.

What Bird didn't have to say was that for one brief, shining moment, the Celtics had their man. All the cards had fallen in the right places, all the intricate moves and counter-moves had worked themselves into the best of an infinite number of possibilities. The draft was over, and in a move destined to insure the continuation of the Boston tradition, Red Auerbach and company had secured for their team one of the premier college players of the decade.

Lenny Bias, coached by Lefty Driessel at the University of Maryland, had matured from a talented but green freshman into one of the most explosive players ever to excite the sophisticated fans of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball.

Those of us who saw him play saw a wonderful talent. We saw that quality that so many have tried to define, a quality that made Bias stand out among scores of gifted athletes. He had a drive and an intensity that wouldn't accept defeat as long as there was a second left on the clock. On occasion I saw him drag the Maryland team, almost against its collective will, to unlikely // victories, by single-handedly taking over the last minutes of a game. It was during those moments of near superhuman effort that you could see into the future, and the future was bright with the tantalizing question of just how good this man-child could become.

Those die-hard sports fans like me, who also followed the fortunes of the Boston Celtics, could only dream of seeing Len Bias come to his full potential surrounded by future Hall of Famers like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. This mix of youth and maturity eventually could have gone into the record books as one of the great teams of all time. Those of us who craved perfection couldn't wait to see Bias in Boston green.

This story ended five years ago today with a cocaine overdose in a dorm room in College Park. It's a story at once unique and all too commonplace. But the lingering feeling is one of wonder at the impact one life can make and the ripple effect every life has on those it comes in contact with. The shock waves created by Bias' death continue to radiate in all directions. The effect on his friends and teammates, his family, his coach, the whole athletic program at the university (and on the Celtics) continues to this day.

I remember clearly the picture of Bias holding up his Boston jersey the day he was selected. It was a picture full of promise and hope. When he died, the depth of our anguish at the waste of that promise left us numb. Only now are we able to begin to talk about Bias without the pain that accompanied his name for so long. Maybe, finally, we are regaining the ability to remember Bias for the wonderful memories he left us.

Last year, before the final first round playoff game between the TC Celtics and the Knicks, the fans in the Boston Garden demonstrated what the sports writers like to call "part of the Celtic mystique." With sheets over their heads, they walked the aisles of the Garden, representing "ghosts of Celtics past."

I know it was all in fun, and that they were remembering the great players who left their mark on the collective memory of Boston, but it made me grimace with unexpected pain.

We can't help but remember that once there was a young man, blessed with enough talent to have left his mark among the best who ever played. But instead of playing alongside his boyhood idols, instead of helping to hang another championship banner from the rafters of the venerable building, he slipped into the role of one of those shadowy ghosts of Celtics past. And five years later, Larry Bird says, "We're still one man away."

Bobby Rose writes from Ellicott City.

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