Len Bias, photographed at the 1986 NBA Draft on June 17, 1986.

Len Bias, photographed at the 1986 NBA Draft on June 17, 1986.

The happiest day of Len Bias’ life was thirty years ago today.

His broad smile and smooth face stood atop of a body that was more prototypical than ordinary. His arms were long, his waist packed together as it were chiseled. Long legs, cuts in his arms to make him look like the Greek God of Maryland. On this night, he wore a silver pinstripe suit with a modest, superbly conservative black tie that glimmered at certain angles to throw you off. A green Boston Celtics hat rested on his head like a crown. The dream was realized. Leonard K. Bias, top 5 NBA draft pick, future of the sport’s most celebrated franchise.

“A dream within a dream,” Bias told reporters on draft night. He wasn’t alone. Other members of the Class of ’86 felt like their dreams had been realized too. There was Chris Washburn, a beanpole of a man who at 6’11” and 225 pounds seemed fit to play in today’s NBA, much less the physical game of the ‘80s. William Beford & Roy Tarpley followed one another, only holding one thing in common – that they were centers known for their length (Bedford was 7’0” and never got past 225 pounds, Tarpley 6’11” and 230, nearly identical to Washburn). There was Dennis Rodman who rose from junior college stardom to be drafted. Dražen Petrović was arguably the greatest European shooter who ever lived until a certain tall German entered the league some 12 years later. The names even include a certain shooter, taken by the Utah Jazz who would then have a son that would become the greatest shooter who ever lived.

1986 was stacked for the NBA. ’86 was also America waking up to its second year caught in the spiral of the crack cocaine epidemic. Easy to sell, a high that couldn’t be matched. Both cocaine and crack were easy to purchase and just as likely to fracture communities, psyches and lives. The days of heroin in the ‘70s with soldiers who had numbed the trauma of the Vietnam War had transitioned into this, creating zombies out of men, women and in some cases, children.

In a 2007 article detailing the open world of cocaine usage, Perry N. Hatkins said, “If you’re a 19-year-old and you go out and party and you’re offered meth, you say no because you’ve heard these bad things,” he said. “But you’re offered coke, you say yes because you assume it’s safe.”

Call it tragic luck, call it cosmically put together – everything that felt happy about that Tuesday night in New Jersey would go black two days later. I asked friends if they had even heard about Len Bias. Why his Maryland throwback jersey during our high school days was so popular. Why he’s the most famous Celtic to technically never wear the No. 30. Or even knew that what happened to him caused a panic among Washington politicians to enact harsher drug penalties surrounding crack dealers, “mandatory minimums” as they’re referred to. They didn’t know. And how could they?

Sometimes the greatest tragedies occur after the initial one.

len-bias

Red Auerbach had a knack for finding the right talent.

The former head coach of the Boston Celtics had turned general manager once his time on the bench concluded. He made shrewd maneuvers that not only made the Celtics great, it made them consistently great. Pluck a kid from French Lick, Indiana and essentially stash him. Convince the Warriors to trade you their budding center for the #1 pick in the draft (and #13 just to be safe) to nab Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. In 1984, he almost became vilified for trading Gerald Henderson, the starting guard for the ’84 team that beat the Lakers in 7 for the NBA Title to the Seattle Supersonics. Seattle gave up their first-round pick in 1986. As fate would have it in ‘86, the Supersonics ended up with the No. 2 pick via the Draft Lottery.

Which in turn, belonged to the now defending NBA Champion Boston Celtics.

Auerbach probably never quoted Eric B. & Rakim’s “Eric B For President” then. He more than likely never uttered the words, “No tricks in ’86, it’s time to build” but it was applicable to his Celtics. Even with a title, their third of the decade, Auerbach wanted more. And he saw more in a 6’8” wunderkind who decided to stay at home for college.

“If Len was available, we were taking him, no question,” Auerbach said in an interview. “He was our guy. He was going to be a perennial All Star. He had it all. He could shoot it, he could run, he could rebound, he could defend. He was big. And he loved the game and played with passion. The only question was if he would play power forward or quick forward.”

It felt like Red had looked out for Len since his days as a freshman at Maryland. Lefty Driesell, in a moment of clarity felt terrible that he didn’t immediately start the 6’8” forward his freshman year. he told D.C.’s ESPN 980 in 2013. “That was bad coaching on my part,” he said. I probably should have started him earlier.”

Auerbach probably never quoted Eric B. & Rakim’s “Eric B For President” then. He more than likely never uttered the words, “No tricks in ’86, it’s time to build” but it was applicable to his Celtics. Even with a title, their third of the decade, Auerbach wanted more. And he saw more in a 6’8” wunderkind who decided to stay at home for college.

Bias’ game evolved as his legend grew in Maryland. Once his role grew within Driesell’s system, he essentially became the next big thing in the ACC. As a player, there weren’t many comparisons out there for Len Bias. A literal one of one who was improving, a four-year player who had gotten better every single year. Brad Daugherty, the man picked over him in the ’86 Draft originally held that distinction after heading to North Carolina the year after Michael Jordan won Dean Smith’s first national title. Jordan became an ACC legend while Daugherty was a sophomore. When Jordan left for the NBA in 1984, it was Daugherty’s team. When both he and Bias’ met at their peak, Bias flashed in a manner that began all of the comparisons between he & Jordan.

Ask any Maryland fan, they’ll tell you about the sequence. UNC’s the No. 1 team in the country. Maryland, a scrappy, yet underachieving team is losing 68-59 after two Daugherty free throws. Then you see a simple pass. Then you see Bias with his long legs launch himself into the air for a routine, uncontested jumper. Swish. UNC goes to inbound the ball. Like something out of a comic book, Bias leaps into the frame, nabs the ball and then reverse dunks it, all in one move. It kick started a run in which Bias scored 12 of Maryland’s final 18 points. He outscored UNC by himself 8-4 in overtime. He took it over. Remember how Larry Bird would saw two months later that the night Jordan dropped a playoff record 63 points on the Celtics that it was “God disguised as Michael Jordan?”

Terps guard Keith Gatlin and Bias’ friend sort of beat Bird to the punch. “God was with us tonight, and God was Lenny Bias,” he said following their shocking win.

That February night in Chapel Hill opened up the rest of America to Red Auerbach’s little secret. Len Bias was a star, a supernova who would go on to be ACC Player of the Year twice over.

And then the star sadly burned out almost just as quick as it rose.

Jay Bias is comforted by family and the Rev. Jesse Jackson during the funeral of his brother, Len.

Jay Bias is comforted by family and the Rev. Jesse Jackson during the funeral of his brother, Len.

The story of how Len Bias died is as tragic a tale told with Donnie Hathaway’s “A Song For You” playing in the background. One night, the No. 2 pick of the draft is in a dorm suite at the University of Maryland, drinking beers and partying with friends. No one says he’s a major partier. No one says he has issues. He came back to Maryland to gain a little comfort, a little freedom. He told his dad as much.

Still, when friends found him laying on the floor, unresponsive. They shook. They froze. 6:15 AM and Bias’ long frame laid stiff. Brian Tribble, a friend who was in Bias’ dorm room called 911. He begged, “This is Len Bias – you’ve got to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die.”

Here was a man who proclaimed himself a “horse”, a man nicknamed “Frosty” for his cool demeanor and never being one to flinch. Here he once stood, or sat rather on a bed, allowed a line of cocaine to run through his nasal cavity and eventually into his blood stream. He felt fine. He got up, went to the restroom and stumbled. He shook it off as nothing. Then his body went into convulsions and shock. Tongue had to be restrained to keep him from biting it. Friends panic. Mood changed. Frosty looked more like a ghost and less like the same man who was the catalyst for the first ever loss UNC suffered in the Dean Dome.

Two hours later, his death was called at Leland Hospital. He was only 22 years old. Bird called it “cruel”, the rest of the world asked questions. Heart attack? That’s strange considering all of his NBA physicals stated he had no ailments and was a perfectly healthy specimen.

Then the autopsy came out — and the naivety of the country in regards to drug usage changed. It’s still unclear whether or not it was for the best or the worst.

I know your image of me is what I hoped to be

The last image anyone has of Len Bias is his casket being carried at his funeral. Highlights exist on YouTube to show you how much of a prototypical forward he was. Bias, at 6’8” and 220 pounds was every bit of LeBron before LeBron even became a thing. His game was steadily improving, passes more crisp, a consistent, reliable jumper. Athleticism through the roof. All of it seemed to be mute to the rest of the country. To Nancy Reagan, Washington policy makers, Len Bias was a healthy young man who was part of the NBA and died of a cocaine overdose.

Bias’ death found itself intertwined with the rising crack epidemic that was too large to ignore. Violence and high death rates had appeared in mass pockets of the country. This wasn’t directly Len Bias’ fault but because Len Bias’ died because of cocaine and because crack had become an essential talking point in Washington, the two were wed together in political bliss. Crack transformed the conversation about drugs into a race one. If cocaine was for the affluent and the rich, crack was deemed strictly for the ghettos and poor. It’s shocking to believe that class status juxtaposed with the type of drug the media spoke about with more fervor but this was the ‘80s. Len Bias didn’t die of a crack cocaine overdose but it was more than enough to push reforms to the highest degree – the creation of mandatory minimums in regards to drugs.

“God was with us tonight, and God was Lenny Bias.” – Keith Gatlin on Bias’ leading Maryland’s upset of then No. 1 North Carolina in 1986.

Dan Baum in his book Smoke & Mirrors effectively gave the most honest statement about the War on Drugs: Len Bias essentially was Archduke Ferdinand for the entire thing. The haste of it all, the hysteria over Bias’ death and epidemic of crack led to the jailing of petty drug dealers and prison overcrowding. What was supposed to be logical and sound reasoning from Washington instead to the arbitrary number of 5 grams of crack equating to 500 grams of powder cocaine. A bipartisan Congress said the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 which was secretly described as “The Len Bias Law” under the D.A.R.E program as now law.

Thousands of men of color, black and Latino found themselves chasing the quick paydays and highs of selling crack. In today’s world, you can hear Jay Z & Pusha T rap what are now ghost stories. Back then, they weren’t stories. It was reality. Jay dodged the pen. Thousands immediately found themselves tagged out before they touched anything more than first base.

Michael Jordan guards Len Bias during a Maryland/North Carolina game in 1984.

Michael Jordan guards Len Bias during a Maryland/North Carolina game in 1984.

The death of Len Bias may have marred the 1986 NBA Draft but there were other career casualties, particularly amongst big men. Washburn & Tarpley both found themselves failing multiple drug tests before being effectively banned by the league. Bedford washed out of the NBA. Tarpley died in Arlington in 2012, never fulfilling the promise of his days at Michigan where he averaged 19 & 10. Petrović, who Michael Jordan proclaimed as the toughest matchup he ever had, rose to folk hero status in his native Croatia. He died in a car accident in 1993, just as he was coming into his own as a player. For the Celtics, it robbed them of having an athletic forward that could spell Bird & McHale and continue the Celtics dominance of the Eastern Conference in the ’80s. Though they made the NBA Finals in 1987, they fell to the hated Lakers. After Bird retired in 1992 due to chronic back issues and the loss of Reggie Lewis in 1993, the Celtics were rudderless, a proud franchise banking on a day to return to glory.

They wouldn’t make another NBA Finals for 21 years.

In a way, the cocaine epidemic swept through the NBA just as harshly as it did the ’86 draft class. It broke up a Houston Rockets team that had just faced the Celtics in the NBA Finals. There had long been rumors of the Oakland Hyatt being ground zero for players with the underworld. It also wound up jailing Bias’ friend Derrick Curry for 19 years before his sentenced was commuted by then President Bill Clinton in 2001. It tripped up Brian Tribble, who was exonerated of charges brought forth in the death of Len Bias yet convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and sentenced to a decade in jail. It swept up so many non-violent offenders because of the death of Len Bias in June 1986 and the passing of what’s known as the Len Bias Law that same summer.

Curry had been friends with the Bias family for years. He was friends with Len’s younger brother Jay, whose face became synonymous with the anguish and loss the Maryland community felt. Jay wasn’t as talented as his older brother, but he played basketball just like him and worked in a way to pull away from his brother’s hulking ghost.

On December 4, 1990, there was no more pulling.

Jay Bias had gone to a mall to purchase an engagement ring for his girlfriend. In conversation, the sales clerk felt that Bias was flirting with his wife. Jay left the situation alone and went to his car. The man then found Bias’ car, drove up behind him and shot Jay Bias in the back. Bias died at the hospital. He was only 20 years old.

In a generational sense, the 1986 Draft has impacted the league of today, the country as well. Drug usage isn’t as rampant in the league. President Obama retroactively corrected the Len Bias Law to match up with more reasonable sentencing in terms of offenders. The ’86 Draft had three Hall of Famers, Arvydas Sabonis, Dennis Rodman & Petrović. Key players such as Kenny “Sky” Walker, Chuck Pearson, Dell Curry, Ron Harper, John Salley, Syracuse legend Pearl Washington, Scott Skiles, Mark Price, Nate McMillan, Kevin Duckworth, Jeff Hornacek & Pete Myers all made waves. Harper, Salley & Rodman all won NBA titles. Hornaceck is now the head coach of the New York Knicks, Pearson was one of the great shooters for the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs. The list goes on.

Yet, that list is a bit hollow. Because it doesn’t include Len Bias.

In death, he may be remembered more for what his sudden passing triggered across the country rather than his exploits at Maryland or in high school. In life, Len Bias was everything on a basketball court, one of the largest what ifs in NBA history. The world stopped on June 19, 1986.

Two days prior, it still felt like anything was possible.

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