[h2]26 Years later, the Pain of Len Bias’ Death Still Lingers[/h2]
On Thursday evening, as I do every year, I sat and watched the NBA Draft. It’s always a night of mixed feelings for me. The draft helps ease the pain I feel at the conclusion of every Finals. Once the Larry O’Brien trophy gets hoisted and the season officially ends, I’m always slightly saddened that my dear friends and companions, college basketball and the NBA, are officially gone for a few months.
The draft signals the ushering in of new blood, new talent and the new elements that will be added to the mix next year, offering renewed visions of possible success in the seasons to come, no matter what team you root for.
I always enjoy the debates of which team did well, which franchise bombed, which players are can’t miss and which ones are duds, as we anxiously await the passage of time to found out the real answers. For example, I like what Danny Ainge did in Boston, bringing in Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo to enhance the Celtics post presence. My former prep school teammate, a Boston native who worshipped John Havlicek and Larry Bird as a kid, was less than enthralled.
“I’m not digging the Celtics draft,” he texted me. “Sullinger is really 6-foot-6, with a Volkswagon for an arse. And Fab Melo could be the next Acie frickin’ Earl! I hope I’m wrong.”
Such is one of the compelling elements of draft night that I always look forward to.
I also enjoy watching the young men reach the precipice of their lifelong dream, especially those I’ve followed, covered and written about as prep and college players over the years.
And it really helps that the most recent draft classes are styling the Brooks Brothers, investment banker look, as opposed to the sartorial disasters of years past. (Does anyone recall the monstrosities sported by Jalen Rose, Samaki Walker or Tim Thomas on draft night? We’ve come a long, long way my friends.)
The summer before last, I was in Venice Beach talking to Doc Rivers, his son Austin and a kid from St. Louis named Bradley Beal at the Elite 24 event, prior to their senior years in high school. I smiled as I watched Doc beam with the glow of a father whose son’s accomplishments fill him with pride. I clapped as Austin and Brad ambled up to the podium, dressed conservatively sharp, to shake the commissioner’s hand with eager confidence as they calmly walk into the expectations placed before them as precocious NBA lottery picks.
But the draft is also an intensely sad reminder for me of the fragile nature of life, of promise unfulfilled and somber tragedy. In the midst of the excitement and enjoyable debates, I’m always struck by the sobering recollections of 26 years ago. Because at some point, while watching every NBA draft since then, my merriment is always momentarily interrupted by my fist pounding into a sofa cushion, doing my best Florida Evans impersonation from Good Times, “Damn! Damn! Dayumn!!!”
In addition to being my favorite poem by Rudyard Kipling, it’s the most far-reaching two-letter word in the English language.
And when referring to the late, great Len Bias, we can’t help but insert the word into almost every sentence. IF he didn’t die, Michael Jordan might’ve been the second best player of his generation! IF he didn’t die, the championship legacy of the Boston Celtics might’ve hummed along uninterrupted into the 1990’s and beyond! IF he didn’t die, he might’ve taken Reebok to the same heights in the sneaker market that Nike enjoyed with MJ! IF he didn’t die, he might have been the greatest player ever! The list goes on.
One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that Leonard Kevin Bias was, unequivocally, the greatest talent I ever saw in the ACC. He might’ve been the best forward to ever grace the college game. He was easily the most dynamic college player I’d ever seen.
And like everyone else with a love and infatuation with our beautiful game, we experienced an indescribable sadness in the summer of ‘86 when he died. On that day, the sports world stood still. And cried!
Even now, all of us who lived through the Len Bias tragedy will never be the same.
His sudden death was comparable to the older generations’ feelings toward President Kennedy’s assassination in 1967. It sounds absurd to compare the tragic killing of the leader of the free world with a 22-year-old basketball player, but it’s no exaggeration. People felt those deaths with every ounce of their inner fiber. And they can tell you exactly where they were, and what they were doing, when they heard the news.
With an otherworldly flight game, immense physical stature and his ability to create beautiful symphonies with his bizarre combination of strength, size, coordination and skills, Len Bias’ game embodied the direction that the game was heading in. He was the sign on the basketball highway that said, “Exit 6 – LeBron James – 1000 miles.”
Bias was initially drawn to the gridiron where he dreamed of being a wide receiver. But as he grew into a tall, lanky pre-teen, basketball took over. He became enthralled with the game at the Columbia Park Rec Center in Landover, Maryland, where he’d moved after growing up in a Washington, D.C. housing project.
His friends and family addressed him as ‘Frosty’, his childhood nickname. He was actually cut from his junior high school team after tryouts one year. With his body’s growth outpacing his coordination, his first forays on the court were relatively awkward. But the sting of not making the team ignited his inner fire.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he once said about not making that junior high team. “Right then I was determined to show people I could play the game.”
He lived on the neighborhood playgrounds and at the recreation center, ferociously working on every aspect of his game.
“I’ve always worked harder when people said I couldn’t shoot,” he once told the Baltimore Sun. “I worked on my shot. When they said I wasn’t a ball handler, I worked on that.”
Through hard work and after growing into his body, he eventually overcame his clumsiness and butter fingers.
Lee Madkins, the Columbia Park Rec Center Director, would unlock the doors for Lenny early in the morning. When Madkins would return much later to lock up, he’d sometimes find the young man asleep on the exercise mats after his strenuous solitary practices.
By the time he was 15, Bias was jumping out of the gym. While his other skills were marinating, he’d already perfected some above the rim pyrotechnics that would make people scrunch up their faces as if they stepped into an elevator saturated with foul, lingering flatulence.
The dunk was his early signature, and he dominated with it. On his first trip away from home with an AAU team, Bias went to Philly and demoralized players three years his senior.
“You’re looking at an All-American!” he’d scream with youthful exuberance after another scintillating rim-wrecker.
When his jump shot started falling with consistency, he expanded his range, along with his understanding of the game’s rhythms. Playing within the flow of the action soon became instinctual. He began to invest hours in the weight room, and once his musculature started to blossom, it was on like hot cheddar popcorn.
By his senior year at Northwestern High School, a host of elite college coaches were locked in a fierce recruiting battle for his services. North Carolina State was a personal favorite because some older friends from the D.C. area – Derek Whittenburg, Sidney Lowe and Thurl Bailey- were already playing for the Wolfpack.
He liked the late coach Jim Valvano, but he ultimately chose The University of Maryland because his mother asked him to stay close to home. Had he decided to play at N.C. State, Bias would’ve been a freshman on their 1983 NCAA championship team.
Cole Field House was only a short ride from the Bias home. He’d sold ice cream there during Terp games to make a little extra pocket change while still in high school. During those days, Lenny would also slip into Cole Field House to play pick-up ball with the older Terps. Among them was another area player that he looked up to, Adrian Branch, who took him under his wing.
“I raised him,” Branch would smile and tell the assorted players in the gym as he watched his young protégé ripping the rims off.
After his senior year in high school, Bias earned the prestigious MVP award of the Capitol Classic all-star game. He formed a dynamic duo in that contest with another electric player and phenomenal D.C. product named Johnny Dawkins, who would go on to become the single most important Duke basketball recruit in that program’s now storied history. It was one of the few times that the local team, with players solely from the surrounding D.C. area, defeated the national team, which was comprised of the best high school players from around the country.
Bias struggled with the initial adjustment to college basketball. But in the final game of his freshman year, he held his own against Clyde Drexler and the University of Houston’s exceptional Phi Slamma Jamma team.
He went back into the gym during the off-season, executing dribbling drills while blindfolded in order to perfect his handle. He also took ballet lessons to further strengthen his footwork.
He returned for his sophomore season in 1984 as a man on a mission. He scored 26 against Duke in the ACC Championship and was named the conference tournament’s MVP. As a junior, he was recognized as ACC player of the Year. As a senior in 1986, he won the award again, in addition to making every First Team All-American squad imaginable.
His signature moment came during his senior year, at the Dean Dome against the University of North Carolina. He’d already torched Duke for a scintillating 41 points a month prior. In Maryland’s 77-72 upset of the superior Tar Heels, Bias scored 31 points. It was North Carolina’s first loss in their sparkling new basketball palace.
Near the end of that tight game, Bias splashed the nets with another smooth jumper. On the inbounds pass, he jumped Kenny Smith, seemingly from out of nowhere, stole the ball and went straight up in one fluid motion to deliver what’s been called “The Jesus Dunk.”
Rocketing off the floor, he spun, threw it down backwards with two hands and then extended his arms on the descent back to earth.
“God was with us tonight,” said one of his teammates. “And God was Lenny Bias.”
But Bias, we would soon find out, was not some superman who was immune to life’s disasters while solely soaking in its triumphs. A few short months after “The Jesus Dunk”, after being selected by the Celtics with the #2 pick in the 1986 draft, he was gone.
His death would become the most socially influential moment in the history of modern sports.
I remember that NBA draft in June of 1986 like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful Tuesday in New York City, a pretty, blue sky welcoming the start of summer vacation that was symbolic of the wide expanse of the promise that lay ahead.
I’d recently returned home for summer break after completing my sophomore year at a Massachusetts boarding school. I was excited to be home, bathing in the sweet R&B sounds of Kashif and Steve Arrington, energized by the pulsating Hip Hop rhythms and verbal gymnastics of Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick, and Eric B and Rakim, being played on the Boom Boxes that proliferated on the streets.
I’d spent the morning hours squeezing off some jump shots and playing the NYC playground game we call “Utah” (which is similar to the every-man-for-himself game of “21”, but we played up to 200, where each bucket is worth five points) at the courts behind P.S. 11 on Greene Avenue in Brooklyn.
After a quick trip to the barbershop a few blocks away on Grand Avenue, my cousin and I hopped on the A-train, which had us in front of Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum, on Eighth Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Streets in Manhattan, in less than half an hour.
The doors were closed. They weren’t letting anybody else in the Garden to watch the NBA Draft. But a set of speakers were set up outside, giving us the audio of what was going on inside. So we mingled on the sidewalk with all the other hoop fiends, talking about the players, what the various teams needed, and of course, the moves that our New York Knicks needed to make.
We were out there debating, after yet another 20-something win season, the worth of players like Rory Sparrow, Louis Orr, Darrell Walker, agreeing that Dominique Wilkins’ little brother Gerald was decent, hoping that Patrick Ewing would get some help, and screaming for guys like James Bailey, Ken Bannister, Fred Cofield, Ernie Grunfeld and Bob Thornton to go kick rocks, barefoot, in traffic.
We were also a little extra excited to see where our hometown products and neighborhood superheroes like Syracuse’s Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, St. John’s Walter “The Truth” Berry and Georgia Tech’s John “Spider” Salley would wind up.
The crowd was a mix of serious young ballers sporting their Bronx Gauchos or Riverside Church Hawks practice jerseys, suited businessmen who’d slipped out the office for an extended lunch break, and fat guys who smelled like hot dogs, knishes, mustard and relish dressed in full Knicks regalia.
In the midst of the excited sidewalk banter, amidst the sound of honking horns and the standard workday hustle and bustle of a mid-town Manhattan street, after the Cleveland Cadavaliers selected Brad Daugherty with the top overall pick, there was a noticeable hush to the conversations.
And I’m rather certain that everyone was mumbling the same thing I was under my breath. “Please don’t take him. Please don’t take him. PLEASE!”
“And with the second pick of the 1986 NBA draft,” Commissioner David Stern’s voice floated out of the speakers and over the perpetual honking of taxi cabs on Eighth Avenue, “the Boston Celtics select Len Bias from the University of Maryland.”
We all sighed.
Loving Lenny’s game, the majority of the crowd momentarily stared at the sidewalk and shook our collective heads, knowing that Boston, who’d just won the NBA championship, was now indestructible.
“I can’t believe these MF’s got Len Bias,” I said. And I knew I was in for some serious self-reflection, for there was no way, with him on their team, that I could hate the Celtics with the same vehemence ever again.
Our Knicks were now in more trouble than ever now that the hated, dreaded Celtics got their grubby hands on my favorite basketball player this side of Bernard King and Michael Jordan.
Moments later, he came out of the building. Resplendent in his shiny white suit, Len Bias looked like he was walking on sunshine. And I couldn’t help but be in awe.
I’d seen Pearl Washington around the neighborhood and Chris Mullin, Walter Berry and Mark Jackson around the city. I’d seen a lot of world class talent, up close and personal, in the city’s gyms, on the streets and in the parks. But being in Len Bias’ presence and giving him a pound was different.
We hollered at him. He smiled back and said, “What’s up!” He slapped five with some of us youngsters, and then slinked off into a waiting limo. And then, he was dead.
Cocaine? An overdose? Len Bias?
“Stop lying!” That was all I could say when I found out. “I just saw him at the NBA Draft two days ago. Naw man, stop playing, Len Bias ain’t dead. Get outta here!”
But they weren’t playing or lying. He was gone. The coke wreaked havoc on his heart’s electrical impulses. It shut him down. It shut all of us down.
And as the sordid details of his drug experimentation and last moments came to light, the mistakes of one young man took on an amazing significance. The death of Len Bias forced America to examine, not only its institutions of higher basketball and their educational deficiencies, but also the drug culture as a whole.
We learned that, of all the first round draftees, only seven had actually walked away from college with degrees.
Months prior to the draft, the blatant infractions in college sports included the Hot Rod Williams point shaving at Tulane, Chris Washburn stealing stereos at NC State, ties between the Memphis State Tigers and gamblers, cash payments to players and a bevy of other illegal activity.
Anyone familiar with the seedy underbelly of college sports knows that corruption has been rampant since the beginning of the 20th Century, that players, some of whom couldn’t pass a third grade standardized test, were pushed along the assembly line of eligibility to keep the cash registers ringing.
But the Bias tragedy opened Pandora’s Box for every major TV, newspaper and magazine outlet to report exhaustively on the modern manifestations of the long-entrenched dark side of the big-time college sports culture. The cat was out of the bag.
Drugs and a misrepresentation of the undergraduate experience were prevalent. Sports programs, coaches, university administrators and everyone else got called out.
In the aftermath, academic standards were raised and athletic departments were subject to much more control and oversight. The poor choices of one phenomenal 22-year-old player who died of a drug overdose indicted the hypocritical infrastructure of college sports. But the outcry was only momentary.
Today, the ugly side of college sports is only a tragedy away from being exposed. Modern example 1A is the Patrick Dennehy scandal at Baylor University a few years ago, where he was murdered by a teammate and the head coach Dave Bliss, subsequently instructed his coaches to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer in order to hide the fact that he was illegally covering his tuition expenses.
“If it hadn’t been Lenny, and it hadn’t been right after the draft, and it hadn’t been the Celtics, nobody would have noticed,” a longtime Maryland official told Michael Weinreb, author of the fantastic ESPN piece, The Day Innocence Died. “I guess that’s the good that came out of it.”
In the summer of 1986, Congress’ knee jerk reaction was a set of draconian drug conspiracy laws that demanded mandatory minimum sentences. In a matter of hours, America’s drug problem, viewed through the lens of the Len Bias tragedy, was THE issue in the powerful corridors of the nation’s capital.
The politicians smelled opportunity and got caught up in the semantics of the prime time drama. Then, Cleveland Browns’ safety Don Rogers died a similar death, which served to validate the brewing political storm.
When you factor in the explosive element of how Crack-Cocaine was moving onto the scene, the attendant gun violence of warring drug gangs fighting for control of the lucrative market and preposterous profit margins, the fears associated with Crack mothers and Crack babies and the entire Cracked-Out epidemic, along with the political regurgitation being thrust on the evening news, you have today’s current state of low-level drug offenders serving more prison time than convicted murderers.
The impact of Len Bias’ death is still being felt by those who have no idea who he is.
And for those of us who saw him play, who knew what he could’ve become, who understood that he was the rarest of talents, we’re still shaken back to the sadness of June in 1986 whenever we think of a young man whose poor choices cost him the gift of a charmed life.
For me, it’s undoubtedly every year in June, when I’m sitting and watching the NBA Draft.
Alejandro Danois, Bounce Magazine’s Senior Editor and a Contributing Writer with Sporting News, is also a freelance sports and entertainment writer whose work has been published by the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and Dime Magazine, among others.