Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Len Bias -- 25 years later

It was 25 years ago this week that Len Bias died. (If you don't know who that was, watch this fairly incredible selection of YouTube highlights first.)

It happened only days after the former Maryland star had been drafted No.2 overall by the Boston Celtics. Bias's death was one of the seminal "Where were you when you heard it?" moments of the 1980s sports generation, back when the Internet wasn't omnipotent and it was still possible to go hours without hearing such awful news.

I lived in Washington that summer -- it was the summer before my senior year in college. I was on the sixth day of a summer internship in the Washington Post sports department. I heard the news on the radio in the house near the Georgetown campus where I lived in with four other roommates.

It was ultimately discovered that Bias had a seizure after snorting cocaine in a campus dorm room. That seizure led to cardiac arrest, which caused Bias to die at age 22. "Cocaine intoxication" -- a term I had never previously heard -- was later cited in the Maryland medical examiner's report as the cause of death.

Bias's death rippled in many directions. If he had lived he would be 47 now, which means he has now been dead three years longer than he has been alive. His cocaine overdose has served as a cautionary tale to many. His mother, Lonise Bias, changed careers after her son's death and became a motivational speaker with an anti-drug program who influenced many others.

I remember watching Bias in person as he almost single-handedly beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill four months before he died. It was amazing -- still one of the Top 10 individual sports performances I've ever seen in person. Once during the game, Bias nailed a 20-footer, stole the inbounds pass and then dunked the ball backwards.

"If Lenny Bias ain't the player of the world after tonight," said Maryland coach Lefty Driesell then, "somebody don't know something about basketball."

Driesell would be forced out at Maryland later that same year. His coaching career went on for two more mostly successful decades, but he will forever be linked to Bias's incredible rise and stunning fall.

Bias at his best was similar to Michael Jordan, and it's haunting to wonder how good he could have been in the NBA.

Instead, he died 25 years ago, turning a lot of people's lives upside down, including (in a very small way) mine.

I saw firsthand for the rest of that summer of 1986 how a major newspaper with great talent reacts to such a mysterious death, as Washington Post writers and editors like Michael Wilbon, Sally Jenkins, Tony Kornheiser, Christine Brennan, Bill Gildea, Dave Sell, Lenny Shapiro and George Solomon worked the story hard and mentored me honestly and kindly whenever I asked.

My job for the first few days after Bias's death was pretty awful. Along with another part-time reporter for the Post, I had to sit outside where most of the Maryland players lived. Our job was to ask them about Bias and the investigation into his death whenever they went in or out the door.

Most of the players were about my age, totally devastated and understandably did not want to talk to the media.

Still, Bias's death and all its repercussions had quite an effect on me, ultimately solidifying my resolve to go into sports journalism. To watch the Post attack the story, not buying into the early "official" explanations that proved so wrong, was to watch professionals in action. They were hurting, too -- they had all liked Bias, who was really impossible not to like -- but they were also after the truth and doing their jobs.

Bias was an otherworldly talent, done in by a worldly temptation. Like so many others, I miss him.

17 comments:

Cliff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cliff said...

Scott, I was at the game in Chapel Hill that you refer to. What Bias did that was absolutely amazing: Bias was throwing the in bounds pass at the end line under his own basket. Warren Martin had his back to the basket, arms up. Bias bounced the ball off of Warren's back and then picked it up and rammed it home in a reverse slam. Even as a Carolina fan, I had to give him an ovation on that one. Shame that he died when he did. Helped to dull the cocaine craze of the time a bit though the scourge continues even today. And, in retrospect, it is a shame that they sent Lefty packing because of this.

Anonymous said...

I still have the Sports Illustrated magazine about his death. I thought that much of him then and still think he would have been one of the greatest of all time.....

Kay Jay said...

I am so gald SOMEONE remembers Len Bias. I was a twelve years old, growing up in Detroit and in the 6th grade. My family and I recall Len Bias and his great talent, I also recall like it was yesterday when he died. I was shocked and confused. The Local radio station WJLB talked extensively about Mr. Bias and his untimely death and drug use. There was a song released a short time later on this local Detroit radio station called: "Crack (Cocaine) Killed Applejack" The lyrics are:
" Crack killed Applejack

he jumped in and he couldn't jump back
he was just to blind to see that

death lives in the Rock House"

That has stayed with me all these years. I have NEVER and NEVER will do Cocaine just because of Len Bias death. SO if his Mom is reading this please know I made a vow the day Len Bias died NEVER to touch Cocaine! I have taught may kids about the dangers of drugs and told them The Len Bias story.

Thank you for posting this very important story of sports history

Anonymous said...

Just another sad stat.

Anonymous said...

His greatest legacy off the court was the imprisonment of a generation of black males.
Since the mandatory minimums were passed shortly after his death, we have seen the prison population boom. 5-10 years min. for crack possession, when the powder users have to be caught with a huge amount to get the same sentence.
It's easy to follow the dots from there to our current situation with all the fatherless criminals on the street today.

J said...

The Len Bias story also serves as a prime example of our society's relentless obsession with assigning blame. It was not enough to simply conclude that an athlete chose to do a few lines of coke and ended up dying. No, there has to be something dreadfully wrong at the school. A basketball player died of a coke overdose? That has to mean that his coach, athletic director, and university president actively encourage illegal activity and they must go. The university, and Lefty in particular, were assigned WAY too much blame for this.

And like anon 3:47 said, the minimum sentencing laws that were passed that year have only made the drug problem worse.

Anonymous said...

Len Bias had the potential from his size and athletic ability to have been greater in the NBA than Jordan. The Celtics would have surrounded him with awesome talent as well. Basketball fans and generations afterwards missed the opportunity to see him control a game single-handed, if not for COCAINE.

Anonymous said...

He would have played alongside Larry Bird and Kevin Mchale if my memory is correct. I'm getting old, so I'm not sure if they would have been on the same court. Imagine those guys against today's Miami Heat! Imagine how Jordan and Pippen would have had their work cut out!

Anonymous said...

ESPNs series did a great job on the Bias story as well. It was sad what happened, but also a wake up call to everyone caught up in the 80s cocaine craze.

Good call Scott.

Anonymous said...

Len Bias was THE best college basketball player I ever saw...and I saw him play many, many times. I was at his final game in the NCAA tournament, and said, at the time, he will be one of the all-time NBA greats. What a shame!

Anonymous said...

Len Bias was overated but the legend of how great he would have been only grows with time.

Anonymous said...

Poor, stupid, dumb ass kid. What a shame. I feel for his parents.

Anonymous said...

Hey Cliff, I was also at the game and you are correct that Bias' performance was one of the most impressive the Deandome has seen. But you are incorrect about the inbounds play you described.... it was actually Keith Gatlin that bounced the ball off of the Tar Heel's (not sure if it was Warren) back and layed it in. He then taunted the Heels by making an obnoxious "devil horns" gesture that was caught by SI in a photo. Not a big deal, I only correct you because that was one of the most blood-pressure raising moment I have experienced in the SAC (along with Sheehy-sp? bouncing the ball off the back of Joe Wolf's head and the pathetic karate chop delivered by Gerald "the ultimate clown" Henderson). Scott's version of the 3-pointer followed by the steal and reverse was spot on, unbelievable. Bias was amazing,he single handedly won that game against a vastly superior Carolina team. I was at Carawinds when I heard the news about his death, never forget a very sad day.

Anonymous said...

I remember Larry Bird's reaction to Bias' death: "That's the cruelest thing I've ever heard."

D said...

Agreed that ESPNs series did a great job on the Bias story as well. It was sad what happened, but also a wake up call to generic xenicaleveryone caught up in the 80s cocaine craze that was the fundemental sport time. thanks for conversation

4rx said...

I also had the sports illustrated issue of his dead, it was a tragedy.