As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in July 2008
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Leonardtown MD, 19 June 1986: A 13-yr-old boy was enjoying his summer vacation like many of his classmates, basking in the afterglow of his graduation from grade school and nervously anticipating the beginning of high school later that summer. There was no reason to think this day would start with anything other than a casual awakening from a long night’s sleep sometime in late morning, ideally just in time for “The Price Is Right”. But this day had other plans. Sometime shortly after the ungodly teenage hour of 9am, the boy’s little sister, knowing her brother was an endless sports fan, burst opened the bedroom door and asked flatly, “Do you know someone named Len Bias?” The boy, clearly irritated both at the ignorance and timing of such a question, snapped, “Uhhh, yeah, he’s only the greatest player in Terps basketball history!” Little sister’s innocent and unforgettable reply: “He’s dead.”
It’s hard to do Len Bias, the basketball player, justice with words. Time has faded the memories of those who saw him and the two decades since his death have given rise to generation of sports fan who only know the name and the legend. Bias was a taller, stronger and equally athletic version of Michael Jordan. I’m sure many will scoff at such a casual comparison to His Airness. So I’ll defer to legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski who, when asked to name some opposing players who stood out in his two-plus decades as head coach of Duke University named two: Michael Jordan and Len Bias. He wasn’t just the best player in Maryland basketball history; he’s on any reputable list of the greatest players in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). After four stellar years at Maryland, Bias was the 2nd overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. Two days later, with a blindingly bright future before him, he died in a Maryland dorm room of cocaine intoxication. Every year since, when the calendar flips to June and with another edition of the NBA Draft pending, Bias slips back into our consciousness, either from our own internal clock cueing his memory or from an inevitable mention during NBA Draft coverage. This year felt eerily familiar. Like 1986, Boston won the NBA championship before this year’s Draft; it’s first title since Bias’ death. It’s almost as if it took the Celtics 22 years to recover from the tragic loss of their next great player. Bias could have been the bridge from the Larry Bird era into the next great period in Celtic lure. He could have been Boston’s answer to Chicago’s Jordan. He could have been…
Bias has been dead now longer than he lived, yet this ghost of a man still compels us to ask, “What could have been?” It’s almost as if we’re expecting, at any minute now, that chiseled, 22-yr-old Lenny Bias to run out of the tunnel and appear on the parquet floor of Boston Garden to answer that question. But Len’s gone and he left far too early. Recalling the death of Len Bias means different things to different people. For the non-sports fan it was at least a terrible waste, the loss of a young life with so much promise left unrealized. For me, it was the loss of my childhood sports hero. I was that 13-year-old boy whose little sister woke him on that fateful June morning 22 years ago. Never again would I, or likely any my peers, view sports through a child’s innocent eyes again. Suddenly it was a world of big business, big money and endless temptation. In death Bias left us with a lesson that couldn’t have been taught as well in life. Believe what you will about Bias’ drug use. The naysayers will allege a young man losing control, succumbing to a temptation accompanying his sudden fortune and fame. I’ve heard enough from reliable sources to believe his cocaine use was a rare, if not an isolated incident, an example of a young man who suddenly had it all, believed himself invincible, got caught up in the moment and made a tragic mistake. The death of Len Bias taught me all I needed to know about drug use and cocaine. For the young today, for who Bias is but a myth, heed his warning. Here was a man of unrivaled strength and athleticism who performed super-human feats on the basketball court. Yet in death he proved as fragile, as human, as any of us. The same heart that carried him tirelessly through so many epic on-court battles was the same heart that gave out under the strain of excessive cocaine use. It wasn’t cumulative; there was no gradual disintegration. It took but one bad decision. One bad decision and in a blink a shooting star faded to black. That is Len Bias’ legacy, his lesson. The young are naturally carefree, even reckless at times. There are moments in a young person’s life when they are confronted with circumstances that offer very divergent paths. Perhaps it’s a high school or college party, where peers are experimenting, as young folks often do, with sex, alcohol or drugs. Maybe it’s a decision to drive or rely on a sober friend to get home after a few at the local bar. These are moments when Len Bias’ memory can speak to us. In these moments, he has never been far from my mind. Len Bias taught me it takes only one lapse in judgment and any of us, even those that seem immortal to impressionable young eyes, can leave behind loved ones pondering that same question Maryland basketball fans have been asking for 22 years: “What might have been?”
Brian Tribble placed the 911 call the morning of Bias’ death. He pleaded with the dispatcher; “This is Len Bias…you have to get him back to life…there’s no way he can die.” His pitiful, desperate voice captured the enormity of this possible tragedy. But the unthinkable happened: Bias did die. And in death he became a cautionary tale, for countless future generations, of the price of a reckless decision. Rest peacefully Len…your lesson lives on, but damn I still miss you.
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