Tip-Off Timer: '86, the Most Bizarre Draft in NBA History
Tip-Off Timer counts down the days until the first game of the 2009-10 NBA season. On Sunday, there are exactly 86 days left.
When you talk about the NBA in 1986, it's not the Boston Celtics winning their third and final championship in the Larry Bird era that history will remember most.
It's that '86 NBA Draft class, the most flawed, notorious, bizarre class in league history, that will be remembered -- for all the wrong reasons.
It's just so tough to forget. It wasn't a draft. It was a disaster, ranging from tragic to terribly unfortunate, turning sour so quickly that it was stunning.
"It's a draft that you hope could never happen again,'' said longtime NBA executive Pat Williams, who traded away the top pick that year as the GM of the Philadelphia 76ers. "It will go down in history as the most scarred draft we've ever had. It was haunted.''
It started with Len Bias of Maryland, who died of a cocaine overdose two days after being chosen with the No. 2 pick by the world champion Celtics.
It continued with Chris Washburn of North Carolina State, William Bedford of Memphis State and Roy Tarpley of Michigan, all big and strong, taken third, sixth and seventh respectively, who washed out of the league quickly because of drug and alcohol problems. Seven of the top 14 picks in '86 eventually were linked to drug use that scarred their careers.
It was 23 years ago that the NBA received a wake-up call like never before, changing the way it does business, a horrible reminder of everything that can go wrong in the annual race to uncover the most athletic basketball players in the world. We learned in '86 that it's not always the biggest and strongest athletes who succeed.
"It was the drug draft,'' Williams said. "Going in, there were some things that made us uncomfortable with it, so we just got out.''
Of the top nine picks that year, only two (Chuck Person at No. 4 and Ron Harper at No. 8) lasted 10 years in the league. No. 1 pick Brad Daugherty became the only All-Star from the first round of that class, but his career was shortened significantly by injuries.
"Some of the stories that came out of that draft were scary,'' Daugherty said eight years ago. "So many different people had so many different bad things happen to them. It was almost like a curse. I feel fortunate that nothing bad happened to me.''
There were some wonderful success stories in that upside-down draft, but they were unexpected. Mark Price, Dennis Rodman, Nate McMillan, Jeff Hornacek, Johnny Newman -- all second-round picks -- carved out great careers.
"There wasn't much hoopla for the guys in the second round, but I've always thought that drafting is not a science,'' said Magic general manager Otis Smith, a second-round pick in '86 whose career was cut short by knee problems. "It still is kind of amazing how that draft fell out.''
It wasn't just drugs that cursed that '86 draft. Many others picked high in that first round just failed to live up to expectations, either from a lack of talent, desire or good judgment.
Kenny Walker of Kentucky went fifth to New York, but he averaged only seven points and four rebound in his seven seasons. John Williams of LSU went No. 12 to Washington, but he ate his way out of the league. Dwayne Washington (No. 13 to New Jersey) and Walter Berry (No. 14 to Portland) were great college players who just couldn't survive in the NBA.
Washburn (Golden State), Bedford (Phoenix) and Tarpley (Dallas) combined to start just 89 NBA games, fewer than Anthony Bowie, a journeyman who wasn't picked until the third round.
Dell Curry, whose son Stephen Curry was drafted No. 7 last month by Golden State, was one of the lucky first-round picks. He was taken 15th by Utah in '86, and he played 16 years in the NBA, earning a reputation as one of the greatest 3-point shooters in history.
Williams had the rights to the No. 1 pick in '86, but he thought Daugherty was too soft to play in the NBA, and he didn't like the whispers he was hearing about so many of other top talents. He traded the pick to Cleveland for proven veteran Roy Hinson, whose career then nosedived.
"It was a different world then,'' Williams said. "You didn't know everything about players like they do now. Mistakes were made. And once you did, you didn't get a second chance.''