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.
6 months ago