Think about all that can happen in the space of twenty years. Friends come and go, and milestones are recognized and passed. Sometimes, even, lifetimes are lived, and always it seems like everything had happened in just a fleeting moment.
Time marches on. It always does.
In sports, 20 years is an Era. The number of players that every franchise in every sport has seen make through multiple decades of service can be counted on one hand.
For the Phillies, Mike Schmidt played 18 seasons. That was the most of any Philadelphia player. Think about it, in 20 years, the Phillies have made the playoffs once and the city’s major sports teams have brought home… well, there haven’t been any parades for championships. But you get the point; a lot can happen in 20 years.
Levity aside, it’s been exactly 20 years since Len Bias – the great college basketball player from the University of Maryland – died of a cocaine overdose (June 19, 1986) less than two days after he had been selected as the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft. Billed as the next great Boston Celtics All-Star, Bias had the world by the tail.
Bias’ death was, according to Celtics great Larry Bird, “The cruelest thing ever.”
It certainly seemed that way at the time. With the aid of time and distance we learned that Bias and his university had a several other significant problems and the cocaine abuse was just the tip of the iceberg. Bias had been flunking out of school and was known to keep company with a few unsavory characters, including Brian Tribble, the convicted cocaine dealer who is said to have supplied the dose that killed him.
Ultimately, Tribble was cleared of any wrongdoing in Bias’ death, but Maryland coach Lefty Driesell’s reputation remains sullied in the aftermath of his star players’ death. Actually, in 20 years there has been a lot more damage and disgrace than growth, but that’s the way it goes when a star is extinguished long before his time.
And “star” is the best way to describe Bias. He was to be the next great star of the NBA – not like Karl Malone or Charles Barkley, his contemporaries – but instead like the guys who only needed one name.
Michael, Magic, Larry.
Not in this lifetime.
For those who grew up in the ‘80s and lived for basketball the way the devout love the gospels, Len Bias was The Truth. Not privy to all of the scouting reports or the 24-hour inundation of sports and analysis, we only had one player to compare Bias to, and that was the guy from Carolina who was the ACC Player of the Year before him.
Comparisons are always odious, especially when everyone knows who Michael Jordan is and what he accomplished, and Bias, amongst today’s live-for-the-now sports mindset, is largely forgotten. Yet as collegiate players, Bias, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson remain the best I have ever seen. Like Jordan, Bias could play forward and guard, but at the same age, Lenny was a better shooter, stronger and meaner.
People always talked about Jordan and his competitiveness and how he forced his teammates to become better players. It’s all part of his legend. But Bias played with a nastiness that made Jordan seem meek. Then there was that devastating, baseline jumper that just carved an opponents’ heart out.
Sadly, no one remembers anything about the way Len Bias played. They just remember the end.
Long before Sept. 11, or the O.J. circus, and a handful of years before the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled; Len Bias’ death was people of my age’s Kennedy Assassination. I can still remember it like it was yesterday. I remember where I was standing when my mom and sister came running outside to tell me the news. I remember how the sky looked and how the sun felt. I remember the way the evergreen bush next to the driveway felt when I touched it and pulled a little red berry off of it.
I remember the local TV sportscaster delivering the news in his attempt at solemnity opposed to his typical wacky sports guy shtick. I remember mowing the grass in the backyard and wondering whether any one would ever wear No. 30 for the Celtics again.
I remember the drive home with my mom, sister and grandmother from Rehoboth Beach the day before and hearing the news in the Rehoboth Mall that he had been selected with the second pick in the NBA Draft. I remember Red Auerbach’s creepy laugh when his Celtics and the Sixers were the only two who hadn’t been called in that year’s draft lottery. Sure, the Celtics ended up with the No. 2 pick behind the Sixers, but Red knew Harold Katz would figure out a way to mess it up.
Who could have guessed that Jeff Ruland ended up more productive for the 76ers than Len Bias for the Celtics?
Twenty years later we wonder where the time went and how to make the news sting a little less. Twenty years can seem like an eternity or a blink of an eye. But make no mistake, 22 years is far too young to die.