Len Bias: Revisiting the Tragedy

Cyrus I.Correspondent IMay 7, 2009

June 19, 1986.

Yes, Celtics/Terrapins fans, it has been almost 23 years since the death of Len Bias, former University of Maryland star power forward.

Bias' spirit was claimed by the heavens after he suffered from cardiac arrhythmia, resulting from a cocaine overdose less than 48 hours after he was selected by the Boston Celtics with the second pick in the 1986 NBA Draft.

He showed no sign of a heart ailment in yearly team physicals, including a special study to look for hidden heart disease, and no evidence of drug use in urine tests, according to the University of Maryland's medical records.

His untimely death dismissed shockwaves through the world of sports, not only providing a grief-stricken tale but also a life lesson for young athletes when they make it to the top.

The topic of overdosing off various substances in sports became more evident to the public eye. It is now a requirement for every team, in every sport, to discuss the issue at rookie camps, to go along with many other valuable nuggets of advice.  

Red Auerbach, Boston's then-President and General Manager, had kept tabs on Bias' collegiate career at Maryland for three years, planning for him to join the Celtics' frontcourt rotation which already featured the likes of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish.

But the Celtics were an aging team slowly but surely on the decline, and the local Boston media and fan base had hoped Bias' athleticism and vigor on both ends of the court would help maintain their team's status as a title contender.

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During the memorial service at Cole Field House (the home of the Maryland men's basketball team, now known as the Comcast Center), more than 11,000 were in attendance.

Auerbach, who was also present, mentioned that the city of Boston had not been so shaken since the assassination of former United States President John F. Kennedy.

Bias was considered as the most dynamic player in the college ranks of basketball, even inducing the analysts to compare his future legacy in the NBA to Michael Jordan's when it is all said and done.

In his own right, Jordan had been in the league for two years, enduring the up-and-downs at the highest level of play, but already outperforming seasoned veterans at the unripe age of 23.

What was so unique about this Bias kid to be able to be mentioned in the same breath as the Greatest of All Time, you ask?

Leading up to the draft, scouts from varying NBA teams raved about Bias' leaping ability at his position, physical stature, and tendency to remain poised during tense situations on the court.

They had never seen a physical specimen quite like him before.

Although somewhat undersized for his natural position at 6'8", Bias' lateral quickness was superior to nearly every other opposing big man he matched up against in college.

It is hard to believe that Bias was not even the first pick; he was selected after former North Carolina Tar Heel Brad Daugherty—who, to his credit, had a fairly successful career in the NBA cut short by back problems.

Daugherty was a highly-talented player and received numerous accolades for his accomplishments early on, but he stopped playing at the age of 28, which always leaves him out of the discussion of "the best big men who have ever played the game."

In the aftermath of Bias' passing, the University of Maryland entered one of the darkest periods in its history. A series of fundamental changes were made to athletic department policy—a stricter admissions process, an enrichment of its new mandatory, random drug testing program, and an expanded guidance staff.

The bottom line: The University of Maryland's athletes’ academic and social well-being were more important than winning championships.

The NCAA punished the university by placing the men's basketball program on a three-year probation, forcing athletic director Dick Dull and head coach Lefty Driesell to resign in October.

Restoring trust was another obstacle for the university as well. The football and men's basketball teams struggled to win, and attendance quickly dropped. Not to mention, the boosters lost interest and the athletic department soon fell into debt.  

Current men's basketball head coach Gary Williams returned to his alma mater to take head coaching position in 1990, and under his direction the program has not endured any major scandal or controversy.

The mourning process was interrupted for the Bias family as another son was lost four years after Bias' death. Bias' younger brother Jay was shot to death at age 20 following a dispute in the parking lot of Prince George's Plaza, a shopping mall located just miles from the University of Maryland.

Jay was an impressive hoopster himself, making a name for himself in the Washington D.C. basketball circuit.

"The deaths of my two sons were like dropping two seeds of life," said James Bias, Len and Jay's father.

The Boston Celtics seemed to be cursed after Bias' death, having to deal with another passing of another promising player in Reggie Lewis in 1993, after he collapsed during a pick-up game over the summer. The Celtics faithful had to wait 22 years before another championship banner was raised in Boston.

So what can be attained from the legacy of Len Bias? A waste of sheer talent and rare ability, whose innocence was stolen from one of the most enslaving drugs in the world.

"His death woke the nation up," said Lonise Bias, Bias' mother. "If Len would have lived, he would have entertained you. But in death, he brought life."