Len Bias: Where Were You When You Heard?

O'Dell Isaac IICorrespondent IJune 19, 2008

Today, the Boston Celtics and their fans celebrated their 17th NBA title with a “rolling rally,” a parade to honor a team that climbed its way from the cellar of the league to its penthouse.


Twenty-two years ago today, the Celtics and their fans were dealt a death blow when their top draft pick, Len Bias, died of a cocaine overdose.


For basketball fans of a certain age, Bias’ death qualifies as a “Where were you?” moment, as in “Where were you when you heard?”


I remember where I was when I heard.


I was at my high school graduation rehearsal when a friend approached me with a newspaper in his hand and a stunned look on his face.


“Did you hear about Len Bias?” he asked.


“No,” I said. “What?”


“He’s dead,” my friend said.


“That’s not funny,” I said.


He held up the New York Daily News.


“I wasn’t joking,” he said.


Even as I read the article, I could barely believe it.


Two days before, several friends and I had skipped school to attend the NBA Draft at the Felt Forum.


We were Knicks fans, the four of us, and while we knew we had no shot at landing Bias, we were hopeful of picking up homegrown point guard Dwayne “Pearl” Washington.


Pearl, like his namesake, was a New York playground legend. Unlike his namesake, he turned out to be a colossal bust.


Twenty-two years later, there are three things I remember most clearly about that draft.


I remember the Knicks fans, incensed by the drafting of Kentucky forward Kenny Walker, chanting, “Bull-! Bull-! Bull-!” (I remember this quite clearly because I was one of those fans.)


I remember the sharkskin suit Pearl Washington wore to the Felt Forum.


And I remember seeing Len Bias.


Even from my perch in the nosebleed seats, Bias was larger than life. He was 6’8” and 220 pounds with speed, power and a dazzling array of skills.


As he strolled up to the podium, I stared at him in awe, envy and disgust. You see, as a Knick fan, I was legally required to hate the Celtics, the reigning league champion.


It was bad enough that they had just won a title; now they had just picked the stud duck of the ’86 Draft.


I, like many others, was certain this meant another two or three rings for the boys in green.


His grin was wide and his stride was confident. He was a two-time national collegiate player of the year.


He was set to make a pile of money and, unlike most top draft picks, he was headed to a championship team.


Len Bias, the Number Two pick in the NBA Draft, had two days to live.


At his University of Maryland campus, in celebration of his bright future, Bias made the biggest mistake of his young life, and thus began the Celtics’ downward spiral that finally ended this year, when Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale conspired to bring Kevin Garnett to Boston.


Ainge and McHale were teammates in 1986, still basking in the afterglow of the Celtics’ victory over the Houston Rockets.


They, like Bias, were sitting on top of the world.


I wonder where they were when they heard.