On this day 25 years ago, Len Bias died. A whole generation of basket ball fans has come into the world since then, and really have no idea just how good Bias was and just how big of a deal this was at the time. I’m not one of those fans; I’m old enough that I can tell you I actually saw him play, and can remember just how awful an event his passing was. It wasn’t just the premature end of a life and the abortion of a promising pro basketball career; it was also the downfall of a legendary college basketball coach and the beginning of the end for the Larry Bird-era Boston Celtics. And finally, it was a local tragedy the likes of which had not been experienced before, or since.
Bias played high school ball at Northwestern High School in PG County, where I grew u, and then stayed local by going to College Park to play for the Maryland Terrapins under Lefty Driesell. Driesell was the most successful coach in the school’s history, and Bias was the latest in a lineage at the school which included such college ball luminaries as John Lucas, Albert King, Tom McMillen, and Len Elmore. Bias had been crowned ACC Player of the year in 1986, and was a first team All American, averaging 23 points and seven reunds per game. To watch him play as a senior was to see the definition of oncourt greatness. He was compared by some to a man who’d just finished playing in the same conference two years prior, one Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Big tings were predicted from him in the pros,
The Celtics, coming off of an NBA championship in 1986, managed to end up with the second overall pick in the draft that year. It was pretty much a wrap that whoever wasn’t picked first between Bias and North Carolina center Brad Daugherty would be suiting up in green and white the following season. Daugherty, a seven footer who make a few All Star teams before injuries derailed his career, went first because (just like now) talented centers always get picked before talented forwards. So Bias was next up. Locally, it was a major cause for celebration. Imagine a local high school star going on to become a big college ball star and then getting drafted by the same team that employed Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, etc. While PG County wasn’t exactly a haven for Celtics fans there were a lot of people who were ready to convert once our boy got picked by them. Sadly, the celebration would be extremely short lived.
By the next morning, the newscasts were all about Bias being in the hospital due to the apparent effects of cocaine use in the early morning hours of June 19th. At 8:55 a.m. on June 19th he was pronounced dead. In 24 hours the celebration turned to a massive outpouring of grief. It really hit home because 1986 was the height of the crack epidemic in the D.C. area; people were losing loved ones left and right to jail and/or death as a result of crack cocaine. There were seemingly a million stories of promising lives permanently altered or ended in the blink of an eye; people going from middle class life to poverty or the cemetery in less than a year. And by all accounts Bias was a clean living type, not an addict; if he could be struck down so quickly and suddenly then no one, or their family, was safe.
Bias was not alone; his 1986 draft class had several others whose careers were ruined by drugs like Roy Tarpley, Chris Washburn, William Bedford, and Pearl Washington. The aftermath of his sad passing was a bloody one; Driesell would be forced out as basketball coach. The conventional wisdom at the time was that Lefty was to bear some of the blame for not keeping up with his players away from the court. The Celtics lost the player who would have possibly prolonged Bird and McHale’s careers by a few seasons and kept them in the hunt for another championship or two. And the area I grew up lost its Lebron James; Bias was as close as one could have to gotten to that level at age 23 back in 1986. Imagine how Cleveland would have felt had James died in 2007 the same night he led the Cavaliers to victory in the Eastern Conference Finals. That’s how we felt.
To a lot of you reading this. Len Bias is just a name from history, a cautionary tale of a man you never saw and only heard of. He probably sounds like more of a hype job than a reality. But I’m here to tell you that he was real, and the words you hear from the 30-and-over crowd aren’t a bunch of hyperbole. They’re for real, and so was he. Bias would be 48 this year. his career would have ended at least ten years ago along with the Patrick Ewings and Charles Barkleys of the world. We don’t know if he would have been as good as them; he may have been no more than just a good pro player. He may be working in the studio now, or maybe even taking over for Gary Williams as the head coach of his alma mater. So many possibilities, and so much sorrow. We remember you Len, and we still miss you.