33 years after Len Bias's death, a writer's daily reminder of what we lost and why it's still so hard to let go

33 years after Len Bias's death, a writer's daily reminder of what we lost and why it's still so hard to let go

The hat hangs in the back hall alongside a dozen others, faded but still surprisingly green. I don't wear it much anymore, but I've never considered tossing it, either. It has survived nearly 35 years of moves, from middle school to high school to college to apartments and finally a house.

I see it every day coming and going, and it invariably sparks the same visceral sadness and the same thought: don't do drugs.

That's an admittedly strange thing to think when looking at a Celtics hat, but this isn't any Celtics hat.

It is my Len Bias hat, and 33 years ago today, it transformed from a symbol of hope and possibility into a talisman of unspeakable sadness and tragedy. 

For Celtics fans of a certain age, the image is seared into our memories, because it turns out it's all we would get. In a series of stills from the 1986 NBA draft, a smiling Bias poses in a cream pinstriped suit with a marbled skinny tie and matching pocket square whimsically designed like something that might waft from a saxophone in an '80s mural. In one photo, he smiles with commissioner David Stern. In another, he gazes at a Celtics placard.

Perched atop his head is a brilliantly green hat with the words "Boston" stenciled in a thin, plain font, and "Celtics" scrawled in an ostentatious cursive resembling an autograph. With the hat perched atop his head rather than pulled low over his eyes, Bias looks unwilling quite to embrace or believe his good fortune: he had just been made the No. 2 overall pick by the defending champions, days after they had beaten the Rockets for the third championship of the Larry Bird Era.

The dynasty, it turns out, was dying, and the Celtics wouldn't win another title for more than 20 years. But for two days that June, it felt like the good times might roll forever.

Bias was that good, a wildly athletic 6-foot-9 scorer out of Maryland who had dueled Michael Jordan to a standstill in college and was probably 25 years ahead of his time. Bias would've excelled in today's positionless NBA, with a devastating mid-range game (that used to be a thing, I swear), and the explosive ability to finish over anyone. He was James Worthy in Dennis Rodman's body, and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski once told the Globe's Bob Ryan that the two best opposing players he's ever seen are Jordan and Bias.

Jordan had just exploded with a 63-point game against the Celtics, but for 48 hours that spring, Celtics fans believed they had drafted his equal. 

You needn't have been standing at the bus stop in your Len Bias hat that morning 33 years ago like me when a friend relayed the devastating news to recognize the impact of his death on the Celtics. But all these years later, what's hard to understand unless you were there is how profoundly we felt that loss, which Bird called, "the cruelest thing I've ever heard."

Each detail that emerged about Bias's final hours made us want to stop time and undo any one of about 20 bad decisions, as if reading and re-reading the details would allow us to spot the moment when he could retroactively be saved.

But in the end, the only detail that mattered was this: Len Bias used cocaine, and it stopped his heart. The first reports suggested he had smoked crack, an insidious form of the drug that was being used to demonize the inner city and would lead to harsh and nightmarish sentencing laws in the wake of Bias's death.

It turns out he had merely spent three hours snorting coke like so many Wall Street frat boys or Hollywood hedonists before and after, but the connections some of us made in our 13-year-old minds were unbreakable and permanent: cocaine will kill you.

I almost threw away my Len Bias hat the next day. The sight of it made me sick and three decades later, I still feel those pangs. The years have dulled my memory, but I believe the NBA discontinued the distinctive cursive caps almost immediately. The association with Bias was simply too strong for the NBA, which was about to transition from Bird and Magic to the iconic Jordan years. In 1988, Nike would introduce the Air Jordan logo and the league would soar.

I never did toss the hat. I wore it throughout high school and college, and I still occasionally wear it today. There are Facebook photos of me wearing it in 1988 and 1995, and I've donned it least once in every one of the last 33 years. I'm wearing it now as I type. 

As sports fans, we experience the highest of highs through the success of our teams. We feel those connections most intensely in our formative years, which is why nothing will ever top the brilliance of the 1986 Celtics for me, and this is coming from someone who was on the field moments after the Red Sox ended the Curse in 2004. 

But the losses sting just as severely and can leave an even more lasting impression. For me, that meant Magic's baby hook, Marvin Hagler losing to Sugar Ray, and of course, one strike away in 1986. Bruins fans know this feeling today.

No loss has proven more enduring, however, than Bias. I'm 46 now, and every time I look at that hat, I feel the same pangs of sorrow that wracked me at 13. What if Bias had survived? How much longer might Bird have played? Would the Celtics still have been able to land unheralded future All-Star Reggie Lewis? Would Bias's brush with death have scared Lewis straight before a similar tragedy befell him? Would Celtics-Bulls have become the most dominant rivalry in sports? How many banners might Bias have hung? What kind of life might he lived? What kind of Celtics legend might he be?

No two words haunt us more than, "What if?" and for my generation, anyway, Bias embodies the existential despair of that question like no one else.

Those thoughts and so many more flash every time I look at that hat, weathered and faded, hanging by my back door.

So why keep it?

Because some things are worth holding on to.

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Celtics vs. Wizards live stream: Watch 2020 NBA seeding game online

Celtics vs. Wizards live stream: Watch 2020 NBA seeding game online

The Boston Celtics will conclude their NBA seeding game schedule Thursday with an afternoon matchup against the Washington Wizards.

The C's have won four consecutive games and five of their second seeding contests overall, and the team's performance in these matchups has been pretty encouraging. The team's best players, including Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker all have played well. Several of the team's younger players also have shown they deserve a look come playoff time, including second-year center Robert Williams.

Williams could get extended playing time versus the Wizards. He scored 10 points in just 14 minutes during Tuesday's win over the Memphis Grizzlies, and the 2018 first-round pick is averaging 13.5 points in the four seeding games he's played in. 

There are no playoff implications in Boston's last seeding game. The C's already locked up the No. 3 seed and will play the Philadelphia 76ers in Round 1. That said, this game against the Wizards is an important one for the C's to ensure they enter the playoffs firing on all cylinders.

NBC Sports Boston has you covered with complete coverage of Celtics vs. Wizards, starting at 11 a.m. ET with "Celtics Pregame Live". Tip-off is scheduled for noon on NBC Sports Boston, with complete postgame analysis after the final buzzer on "Celtics Postgame Live."



BEFORE THE GAME: At 11 a.m., Celtics Pregame Live presented by TD Bank gets you ready for the game with reports from Kyle Draper, Brian Scalabrine, Kendrick Perkins, Abby Chin, Chris Forsberg and A. Sherrod Blakely. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the live stream.

AT HALFTIME: Tune in to watch a breakdown of the first two quarters on Celtics Halftime Live. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the live stream.

AFTER THE GAME: As soon as the game ends, tune to Celtics Postgame Live presented by New England Ford for analysis, commentary and player reaction. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the live stream

Questions on our livestream? Get all your questions answered here on our Streaming FAQ.



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2020 NBA Playoffs: Celtics will play rival 76ers in first round

2020 NBA Playoffs: Celtics will play rival 76ers in first round

A new chapter in one of basketball's best rivalries will be written in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs.

The Boston Celtics will take on the Philadelphia 76ers in Round 1. It will be the first playoff series between these teams since Boston beat Philly in a five-game Eastern Conference semifinals in 2018.

The matchup became official Wednesday night when the Indiana Pacers beat the Houston Rockets, which locked the Sixers into the No. 6 seed. The Celtics secured the No. 3 seed earlier this week. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Boston will play the Washington Wizards on Thursday afternoon in its final seeding game. Philly has two more seeding games remaining -- Wednesday night versus the Toronto Raptors and Friday night against the Rockets.

The Sixers might not be at full strength against the Celtics in Round 1. All-Star point guard Ben Simmons recently left the NBA bubble to have surgery on his knee, and he's reportedly expected to miss the rest of the season. Philadelphia's All-Star center, Joel Embiid, injured his left ankle against the Portland Trail Blazers last Sunday and didn't play Tuesday, but he reportedly will return to the lineup Wednesday night.

Celtics Talk Podcast: Banner 18 in the bubble? Celtics' title chances getting stronger as postseason nears | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Here are the updated seeds for the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Miami Heat and Pacers still haven't locked in their exact seeds, but they will be the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup in Round 1. Miami needs one win in its final two seeding games to clinch the No. 4 seed.

1. Milwaukee Bucks
2. Toronto Raptors
3. Boston Celtics
4. Miami Heat
5. Indiana Pacers
6. Philadelphia 76ers
7. Brooklyn Nets
8. Orlando Magic