Today is the birthday of basketball player Len Bias. He’d be 50 years old today. It’s one thing for a life to be cut short early but it’s another to see how much has happened since.
Bias was born in Landover, Maryland and grew up there attending high school in Hyattsville. His nickname since childhood was ‘Frosty.’ He then attended the University of Maryland upon graduation. His freshman year didn’t start well and most coaches saw him as raw and undisciplined. The 6’8″ Bias would develop into an All-American player in the latter years. His junior year proved impressive as he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring and was named the ACC’s Player Of The Year. His senior season was highlighted by a performance against top-ranked North Carolina where he scored 35 points including 7 in the last 3 minutes of regulation and 4 in overtime. At the end of that season, Bias collected his second ACC Player Of The Year award and was named to two All America teams.
Right in his senior year, basketball fans were very impressed with Len Bias. His most impressive traits were his amazing jumping ability, his physical stature and his ability to create plays and was considered one of the most impressive players in the United States. NBA scouts in 1986 already had seen him as the most complete forward of the Class of 1986. Even Boston Celtics scout Ed Badger said of him: “He’s maybe the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in a long time. I’m not saying he’s as good as Michael Jordan, but he’s an explosive and exciting kind of player like that.”
On June 17, 1986, the 1986 NBA Draft took place at Madison Square Gardens. Bias was the second overall pick and he was picked for the Boston Celtics. He admitted that he always wanted to play for the Celtics: “and my dream’s come true.” He and his family returned back to his home in suburban Maryland later that day. The following day, Bias and his father flew to Boston for an NBA club draft acceptance and a product endorsement signing ceremony with the Celtics coaches and management. Bias was also in talks with Reebok for a five-year endorsement package worth $1.6 million. It seemed like it was all uphill from there.
After returning home to Washington, Bias retrieved his newly leased sports car and drove back to his dorm room at the University of Maryland campus. He left campus at around 2am on June 19 and drove to an off-campus gathering, which he attended briefly before returning to his dorm in Washington Hall at 3am. It was at that time Bias and his friends used cocaine. According to friends accounts, Bias felt pains in his chest, had a seizure and collapsed around 6:30am that morning while talking to teammate Terry Long. At 6:32am while friend Brian Tribble made the 911 call, Bias was unconscious and not breathing. That was echoed in Tribble’s haunting 911 message: “This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die. Seriously sir. Please come quick.” All attempts at resuscitation from paramedics in the ambulance were unsuccessful. Additional attempts to revive Bias were made upon his arrival at Leland Memorial Hospital in the Emergency Room but it was all to no avail. At 8:55 on the morning of June 19, 1986, Leonard Kevin Bias was pronounced dead. He was only 22.
Len’s death was a shocking blow to those who knew him and those who followed basketball. Four days after his death, more than 11,000 people packed the Cole Field House at the University of Maryland for a memorial service. Speaking at the service was Celtics manager Red Auerbach, who said he had planned to draft Bias with the Celtics for three years. Michael Jordan sent the Bias family their first set of flowers: peonies, Larry Bird sent the second set of flowers, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy sent sympathy cards as well as other heads of state, athletes called the Bias house. The popularity of Len Bias surprised his mother. The Celtics honored Bias with their own memorial service on June 30th that year. At that service, Len’s mother Lonise was given his never-used Boston Celtics jersey with his Celtics number 30 on it.
The reason why I’m focusing on Len’s death has a lot to do about the year he was born: 1963. 1963 was also the year a lot of legendary NBA greats were born: Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Spud Webb, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, and most notably Michael Jordan. The era in which they played in from the late-80’s to the 90’s would be an era that would change the NBA forever.
Without a doubt, Michael Jordan was king. He was not only famous for his playing style and his NBA record breaking but for his immense endorsement marketability. Everything Jordan touches, everything Jordan wore, everything Jordan ate saw sales reach impressive totals. He was Madison Avenue’s dream. Even his shoe endorsed by Nike, the Air Jordan, sold large enough to make the company the top athletic wear company. Hey, I don’t call the Air Jordan “the shoe that changed the world” for nothing. The shoe was originally meant to be an athletic shoe but Michael’s popularity eventually turned it into a staple of streetwear. I remember the popularity of Air Jordans too well. I wanted to be different and wore L.A. Gears with snazzy-colored triple laces hoping to make Air Jordans wearers envious. It didn’t work because it wasn’t how cool your shoes looked; it’s whether they were Air Jordans or not.
Michael Jordan may have been king during that time but it also worked magic for the whole NBA too. In the few years just before Jordanmania, the NBA was already doing well with the star power of Larry Bird, Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson, Julius ‘Dr. J.’ Erving and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. However it was Jordan who created the revolution with a superstardom that even surpassed the best baseball players and football players at the time. His popularity catapulted the NBA from simply being a third major sports league to even rivaling the popularity of baseball and football. Seven new NBA franchises have since started up since his popularity. Sportswear and athletic uniforms, especially basketball jerseys and anything with Chicago Bulls, were a men’s wear phenomenon. Other basketball teams also sold a lot of sportswear like the San Antonio Spurs, L.A. Lakers and the Charlotte Hornets. I remember I did the Phoenix Suns because I was tired of all this Chicago Bulls stuff and also because I liked Charles Barkley.
Also Jordan may have been the Babe Ruth of his time but his megastar status helped promote other basketball stars like David Robinson, Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Isaiah Thomas and Shaquille O’Neal to superstar status. Yeah, basketball players sure got the rock star treatment back then. We should also not forget the Dream Team. That was the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team whose twelve team members consisted of eleven NBA greats. That was when NBA professionals were allowed for the time to compete in the Olympic Games. Since Jordan’s retirement, the NBA still thrives well but still lacks the glory days of the late 80’s and 90’s. Even today’s top NBA star Lebron James isn’t able to fill Jordan’s shoes.
Okay, now that I’ve talked of all this, you may wonder what does that have to do with Len Bias? As I mentioned, Bias was born the same year as a lot of NBA greats including Jordan. Ever since I saw the 30 For 30 documentary Without Bias, directed by Kirk Fraser, it left me wondering what would have happened to Bias had he not taken that fatal dose? It’s not just how well Bias could’ve excelled in the NBA that had me thinking. Sometimes I think it could’ve been the Celtics who could have most rivaled the Lakers and the Bulls for major NBA championships during that time. The Celtics could have had the power duo of ‘Bird and Bias.’ When I think of all those sneakers that were advertised during that period of time, I wonder what type of Reebok posters Len would’ve had? Even in thinking of the Dream Team of 1992, I wonder would Len have been part of the Dream Team? Those are questions no one will ever know the answer to.
A tragedy like that is always a sad occasion leaving me and others asking ‘why’ and ‘what if?’ You wonder would any good come out of it? Good did come out of it. One thing we should remember is Bias’ overdose came while cocaine was the biggest problem in the War On Drugs at the time. The basic powdered cocaine was already an epidemic and crack was already starting to create its own problems. Tribble was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. Bias’ University of Maryland teammates Terry Long and David Gregg were charged with possession of cocaine and were dropped from the team. Tribble would later be convicted of drug dealing and be sentenced to ten years in prison. The University of Maryland came under huge fire including cover-ups in Bias’ cocaine possession to Bias’ academic status. Bias’ father called for investigation of the University of Maryland and the NCAA responded. Athletics director Dick Dull resigned soon after.
In 1988 U.S. Congress passed a stricter anti-drug law known as the ‘Len Bias law.’ Even the NBA got involved with having its stars promote anti-drug messages. In fact one person said Len Bias never tested positive for drugs but had he done so, it wouldn’t have affected his NBA recruitment back then. The NBA was that lax about it back then. Len’s death changed all that. Another thing that came to light over Bias’ death was that he was credits shy of graduating college and even failed courses in his last year knowing he was about to be signed to the NBA. Back in Bias’ day an athlete could be signed on to a sports league without graduating via a letter-of-intent. The NCAA system of athletes had to be revamped and reformed with stricter minimums for college entry and regulations for graduation.Nowadays no athlete is signed to a letter-of-intent without a review by the office of admission.
The Bias family would once again experience tragedy in December 1990 when their youngest son James Bias III was shot to death in his car in a shopping mall parking lot. The Bias parents, James and Lonise, have become involved in causes involving their sons’ deaths. Lonise became an anti-drug spokes person visiting schools, telling the story of Len and giving the message “Peer pressure destroys, peer pressure kills if you don’t know who you are.” James has lobbied for stricter handgun control. Another footnote: Seven years later the Celtics would lose one of their own, Reggie Lewis, to a heart attack caused by cocaine use.
Some of you may think that it was the 30 For 30 documentary that inspired me to write this on this day. True, just like it inspired me to write the 9.79 articles of the big run and the aftermath. It’s one thing to be reminded of a moment in sports like this while watching a 30 For 30 documentary. It’s another to hear the moment and even learn of who Len Bias was from the people that knew him best. Len Bias didn’t come across as your typical cocaine abuser. Actually in watching Without Bias, you’d think that Len was a sweet kid. He loved his parents terribly. He was close to his family. He even had a friendship with his church pastor Rev. Gregory Edmond. Even hearing of Len’s excited reaction on the day he was out promoting sneakers made me think he must have been a sweet kid. That doesn’t sound like your typical cocaine abuser. Just as shocking was how it was top-of-the-line cocaine he tried. It’s like one said, how social cocaine users could get cocaine that pure and that potent is unheard of. Normally it’s bought by people higher up the social ladder. Hearing it all just makes me want to shake my head.
27 years have passed since that tragic day. The NBA has seen its fair share of talents own the spotlight for many years. For the Bias family, they’re left with memories of a son and the heartbreak of missing him. For the University of Maryland, they’re left with regret over letting such an incident go overlooked until it was too late. For the Boston Celtics at that time and even the NBA, they’re left with the wonder of what Bias would have been like. We’ll never know. Watching Without Bias really made me think. Seeing his mother receive the Celtics jersey at the memorial service was a gripping moment. Even hearing the quotes from people who remember him really make me think: “He had the purest jump shot I’ve ever seen… and it was a work of art.” “Both Jordan and Bias played with a rage. A controlled rage.” “Len Bias as a player as I remember him was a consummate inside/outside force. A truly exciting player.” Makes you wonder.
Happy 50th Birthday, Len ‘Frosty’ Bias. You’re gone but still remembered by many. It’s unfortunate you’re best known for your untimely death but many remember you as a great player. That’s as it should be.