Think about all that can happen in the space of 25 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. Blink and it’s gone.
Time marches on. It always does.
In sports, 25 years is more than a lifetime and longer than an era. It’s forever and the number of players that every franchise in every sport has seen make through multiple decades of service can be counted on one hand.
It’s been exactly 25 years since Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose (June 19, 1986) less than two days after he had been selected by the Boston Celtics as the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Bias was the great college basketball player from the University of Maryland, but more than that he was billed as the next great Boston Celtics All-Star. He had once-in-a-lifetime talent and was headed for a team that had Hall of Famers like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson as well as Robert Parish and Danny Ainge, so clearly Bias had the world by the tail.
Only he didn’t.
Bias’ death was at the time, 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. Meanwhile, we’ve learned that Bias wasn’t exactly a novice cocaine user either. It as Bias’ leased sports car undercover cops saw cruising a notorious drug neighborhood on Montana Avenue in Washington, D.C. Later, Tribble admitted that he and Bias were recreational cocaine users, but no one knew.
How could we? Bias was in that rarefied air of the greatest players to come through a new era of basketball. His contemporary, Michael Jordan, had just won the rookie of the year award and seemed poised to renew a rivalry with Bias for years to come.
It was perfect. The story was already written.
Actually, in 25 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 only way to describe Bias. He was to be the next great star of the NBA – not like Karl Malone or Charles Barkley, who were also on the way up at the time – 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. Sure, us newly-minted old-timers mark time by Bias’ death and can recall in great detail the way the air smelled or how the sun shined the moment when we heard the news, but there are kids who love the game just as much as we did who never knew what Bias did or who we was.
Of course there is a legacy. 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 far better shooter. He also was stronger and meaner and a more explosive leaper.
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. All Bias highlights include the game at Carolina where he scored a basket then swiped the inbounds pass and in one motion dunked it while ducking his head beneath the rim. His other move was a devastating baseline jumper that not only was impossible to block like Kareem’s skyhook, but it also was like money in the bank. That baseline shot just carved out opponents’ hearts.
Sadly, though, no one remembers anything about the way Len Bias played. They just remember the end and the aftermath. It’s one thing to be the most infamous cautionary tale in sports, but to also be the impetus for sometimes draconian and knee-jerk drug laws just might be the hardest truth of all of it.
But not the hardest tragedy because four years later Jay Bias, Len’s younger brother, was shot and killed at a shopping mall when a jealous man thought he was flirting with his girlfriend. Could you believe two tragedies for one family—one more absurd than the other?
Still, 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 beneath those oversized glasses 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-five years later we wonder where the time went and how to make the news sting a little less. Twenty-five years can seem like an eternity or a blink of an eye. But make no mistake, 22 years is far too young to die.
And 25 years is too long to wonder, what if…