Sometimes, it is simply impossible not to close your eyes and wonder what would have been if, 30 years ago Sunday, Len Bias had not died of a cocaine overdose two days after becoming the No. 2 player taken in the NBA draft.
Bias, who had shown so much promise at Maryland, was targeted for years by Red Auerbach as the Next Great Celtics player, the one who would take the franchise past the Larry Bird era. Instead, he was a legend interrupted in the NBA, his death described by Birdas “the cruelest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“This is my 24th year at Duke,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski told the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan in 2003, “and in that time there have been two opposing players who have really stood out: Michael Jordan and Len Bias. Len was an amazing athlete with great competitiveness. My feeling is that he would have been one of the top players in the NBA. He created things. People associate the term “playmaking” with point guards. But I consider a playmaker as someone who can do things others can’t, the way Jordan did. Bias was like that. He could invent ways to score, and there was nothing you could do about it. No matter how you defended him, he could make a play.”
Bias, who would have turned 53 in November, was 22 when he collapsed and died 30 years ago on the morning of June 19. The shocking story became a cautionary tale about the dangers of cocaine and a cornerstone of the war on drugs, but at Maryland and in Landover, Md., where he grew up, the loss was very personal. Ed Bruske and Patrice Gaines-Carter wrote in the June 20, 1986, Post:
The blow was felt all the more closely because Bias had never left the embrace of his friends and community and seemed to draw strength from them as his success and fame grew. His world could be described as a small circle on the map of metropolitan Washington, a circle only as wide as the few miles from his house to the University of Maryland, which he chose to attend so he could remain near his family.
On Columbia Avenue, a few blocks from the recreation center, Bias’ father James, an electrical repairman, and mother Lonise, a bank employee, stayed behind closed doors yesterday while young men in athletic shoes and jogging suits milled under a tree and a stream of friends delivered food and flowers.
Leaning against a fence in the front yard, one of Bias’ earliest coaches, Wharton Lee Madkins, director of the recreation center, tried to make sense of the loss, but could not.
Being picked by the Boston Celtics this week “was like a dream come true,” Madkins said. “When he was young, kids used to laugh at him when he played basketball. They never picked him on a team. Then he ended up with everyone wanting him on their team.
“I can’t see why we would lose someone like this,” Madkins said, “someone so important to us.”
Tony Kornheiser, now with ESPN but then a columnist at The Washington Post, wrote on June 20, 1986, about mourners who were drawn to Cole Field House, where so many of Bias’s great memories were made.
“He’d jump and his knees would be in my teeth, and I’m 6-2,” said Reginald Adams, a junior at Drexel University in Philadelphia who had played against Bias in high school and came here because he idolized Bias. “The way he played motivated me so. I’d look at him play and say I wish I could do that. He’d intimidate you with words, talk about your mother. But when you tried it on him, go to him on the line and say, ‘You’re gonna miss,’ he’d smile and say, ‘No. Too good.’”
They wandered through the hallways and sat in the stands. They reminisced about his great plays, like his steal of the inbounds pass and consequent jam over Warren Martin in Maryland’s win at the Dean Dome, the game Bias got 35 and became gold-plated. They stood outside [Coach Lefty] Driesell’s office, where a University of Maryland gym bag with a DCA airport tag and Bias’ name written on a strip of white tape sat unopened in a corner near a table. They walked past the glass trophy case where there were pictures of Bias—a still of him posed in a thickly braided gold chain, another of him jamming backwards—and lingered for minutes, taking a last, long look as if trying to memorize them.
Bill Simmons, the former ESPN guy who wrote “The Book of Basketball” and now works for HBO, admitted 15 years ago in an ESPN column that, as a staunch Celtics fan, he still thought about Bias.
I thought about him last February, when ESPN Classic showed that aforementioned Maryland-UNC game from ’86. You forget how good Lenny Bias was. For example, back in ’86, Mike Tyson was invincible, Eddie Murphy had his fastball, Don Johnson was the coolest man on the planet and Michael Jackson didn’t look like an alien. ‘Hoosiers’ hadn’t even been released yet. Wayne Gretzky and Bird were basically the kings of sport. Ronald Reagan controlled the button. Kids were still playing Intellivision and Atari. Fifteen years is a long time; maybe it’s easy to forget.
As for Bias, he always reminded me of a more physical James Worthy, but with Michael Jordan’s leaping ability, if that makes sense (other than MJ and Dominique Wilkins, nobody in the ’80s attacked the basket like a young Lenny Bias). But those weren’t even the qualities that separated him from his peers.
There was a brashness about him, a swagger, a playground vibe. Remember, these were still the days of tight shorts and awkward high fives; few players were cool, and the ones who were cool — David Thompson, Gus Williams, Clyde Drexler, Bernard King, Dominique, etc. — were more subtle and unassuming than anything. Jordan might have embraced that playground demeanor had he attended a school other than North Carolina, where Dean Smith frowned on anything that could be perceived as “showing up the opposition.”
When Bias’ same playground swagger became fashionable in the ’90s — thanks to the UNLV guys, the Fab Five, the post-dunk woofing, the baggy shorts, the trash-talking and so on — it seemed much more contrived, almost like the players were saying, “Hey, look at me!” Nothing about Lenny Bias was contrived. He went out of his way to dunk on people. He grabbed rebounds and spat out an occasional “Arrrrrrggggggghhhh!” for show. He barked at his teammates, he barked at referees, he barked at opponents. He exhibited a refreshingly honest amount of passion and heart.
Bias’s death hurt more than Simmons’s beloved team, though. “It hurt our sport,” Krzyzewski told Ryan in 2003. “Above and beyond the loss of life, we never got to see one of those truly great ones become great.”