I know that you’re all aware that on occasion I’ve berated the cable sports broadcast outlet ESPN numerous times. Essentially, because of the pomposity of their analysts and seemingly idiotic and sometimes condescending attitudes. I’d grown tired of the drivel derived of the likes Lou Holtz” , Mark Schlereth, Chris Mortensen , Kirk Herbstreit , Lee Corso , Stuart Scott , Ron Jaworski , and Chris Berman. They introduce themselves as supposed reporters ,pundits or journalists, as the case maybe. But they just come across a posse of bumbling buffoons performing for a mediocre circus act.
Maryland Terrapins’ basketball star , Len Bias
In light of the above , last night whilst the Citi BCS national championship game between Alabama and Texas, was on. I decided to stream the ESPN program ’30 For 30′ series of documentary stories. These essentially have been a commissioned set of films or documentaries to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the cable outlet. Thirty years and they still haven’t got the programming down pat. But that’s what ESPN now does. They’ll find the product , package it and try and gift wrap it to you as an essential piece of viewing. As to whether or not, you as the patron enjoys the content , I seriously doubt that they care ! Either way they’re going to get paid , as they’re now in the homes of some ’77 million’ cable subscribers. Do you think they’re intent on ‘ world domination’ ?
Bias’ college dorm-mate and workout partner, Brian Tribble.
Now as I alluded to earlier , my sole reason for the streaming ESPN’s ’30 For 30′ series of documentaries. But one lone episode of the series for me , has stood out. Granted , there have been other great episodes in this evolving series of film documentaries and commentaries. But last night’s episode was a re-showing on the life of former Maryland Terrapins’ standout college basketball player, Len Bias. The episode was entitled ‘Without Bias’ . This beautifully filmed documentary told the story of rise and tragic death of college basketball star, Len Bias. And for those of you who don’t know about the player , I assure you that seeing him play at the height of his collegiate career was in essence ‘watching of a future superstar in the making’ . He was that damn good and then some ! At the time the luminescent light was shining on another phenom of that era, who would go on to become ‘the face’ of the NBA. That person was none other than Michael Jordan , who at the time was a member of the University of North Carolina ‘Tar Heels’. The Tar Heels were coached by the legendary Dean Smith and the Maryland Terrapins were coached by Charles ‘Lefty’ Driesell .
Bias was a young and prodigiously talented high school basketball player who’d caught the eye of numerous college programs up and down the country during the eighties. Coming from a well rounded familial environment , of which he was one four children born to James and Dr. Lonise Bias. Brought up to have respect for his elders and peers, Bias was a well rounded individual at home and a thoughtful if not overly impressive academic student in school. Either way , his high school years at Northwestern High School in Hyattesville, Maryland, were ones filled with great memories. And his basketball coach was visibly impressed with Len’s talent as a young player. Rough around the edges but nothing that couldn’t be taught through the discipline of a well meaning coach willing to tutor a player who eagerly willing to learn the nuances of the game.
Having graduated from high school at Northwestern , Len Bias would accept a scholarship to the University of Maryland ( Terrapins) to play for coach, Lefty Driesell. There, Bias would blossom into an All American and enrich the Terrapins’ program with his play. So much so, that his star was on the rise not just within the collegiate arena but he was also catching the eye of the NBA world and in particular that of Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics. Bias’ play and perceptiveness on the court and around the basket made him a unique talent. And if anything he’d be viewed as a top five pick in the NBA Draft at anytime that he’d chosen to forgo a year. Michael Jordan may well have been the pre-eminent college player at the time but Bias wasn’t that far behind in standings. If anything there was little to choose between these two uniquely gifted players.
Courtesy of Washington Post
By Amy Goldstein and Susan Kinzie
Monday 19th June, 2006
The frantic 911 call from a University of Maryland dormitory came in at 6:32 a.m. June 19, 1986. A 22-year-old campus hero — the finest basketball player in the Terrapins’ history, just two days earlier the second player chosen in the NBA draft — was sprawled on the floor between two narrow beds, unconscious, without a pulse.
“It’s Len Bias. . . . He’s not breathing right,” one of his closest friends, a Maryland dropout named Brian Tribble, told the dispatcher in a shaky voice. “You’ve got to bring him back to life.”
Bias was rushed to a hospital less than two miles away in Riverdale. Inside, doctors used five medicines and a pacemaker to try to restart his heart. Outside, his teammates, coach and mother gathered, stunned and praying. Across town, his agent phoned a senator’s office, searching for a military helicopter that could deliver a world-class cardiologist to save him.
At 8:50 that Thursday morning, Len Bias was pronounced dead.
He had been killed, it would turn out, by an overdose of cocaine, a nearly pure form he and friends had been snorting from a pile on the living room table. It turned out, too, that he had gotten F’s in three classes and dropped two others in his last semester, leaving him — like most of his teammates — unable to graduate.
At the University of Maryland at College Park and across the country, the scandal exposed the twin corruptions of drugs and academic failure in high-pressure, big-money college sports.
In a nation that had not yet lived through the excesses of the O.J. Simpson trial, had not yet experienced the killings at Columbine High School, his death riveted public attention.
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But behind every story that has some semblance of joy or rationale to it , more often than not there lies a ‘ deep dark secret’ . And in the case of Len Bias , it was the fact that he was a cocaine addict. Unbeknown to some of his teammates, coaches but most of all unknown to his immediate family. Only but a few people knew of Bias’ habit as a ‘coke fiend’. During the eighties, besides marijuana, cocaine ‘was the drug of choice’ . And it was prevalent on college campuses up down the country. But some would have you believe otherwise. If it was there then it could found , you only had to know where to look and the actual suppliers were. It was just as easy as that ! Bias had his close circle of friends and it was with them he’d participate in his new found passtime. Whether , or not his use of the substance affected his game, no one really had a way of knowing. But this much we know when he was on a basketball court that was he was his most comfortable. And it showed in his game and the way that he carried himself on the court as a player and also as a teammate. He had the respect of his coach , Lefty Driesell and that of his teammates. And when that type of adulation tends to happen , you then believe that you’re invincible. And that may well have led to untimely and shocking demise of Len Bias. There are secrets that one can keep and then there are the secrets that in the end have a way of catching up to you. And for Len Bias this would all come crashing down around him in such a way that it would lead to far reaching repercussions on a national level that are still felt to this very day.
The reverence to which Bias is held can be easily comprehended in this Michael Wilbon article for the Washington Post of June 19th 2006 , the twentieth anniversary of Len Bias’ death.
They don’t know the story of Len Bias anymore, basketball players 30 years old and younger. Len Bias, to them, is a video clip, maybe a throwback jersey or a locker room story from one of the old guys, maybe an assistant coach who played against Bias back in the day. He’s a concept, something from the ’80s, more a slogan than someone who once pursued the dream they are realizing now, here in the NBA Finals. They have an image in mind but don’t know the details, the hope of draft day or the crushing tragedy of the morning after.
Marquis Daniels of the Dallas Mavericks was 5 years old when Bias died, 20 years ago, of a cocaine overdose. Daniels knows more about Bias than most people his age because Daniels plays professional basketball.
But even Daniels wondered aloud if there is a movie about Bias’s life that he might be confusing with reality.
“When I hear Len Bias’s name,” Daniels said, “I think of a great player who didn’t get a chance to live out his dream. I have one of his throwback jerseys. I’ve seen a couple of clips of him on ESPN Classic. Sometimes people start talking about great talents and somebody will bring up his name. The way he died, we kind of stay away from that.”
Old guys such as Mavericks guard Darrell Armstrong, 38 years old this week, and Miami’s 36-year-old Alonzo Mourning remember exactly what they were doing when they heard Bias had died the morning of June 19, 1986. They wince at the memory of it and wonder if his death taught us anything about drug use, about the flawed notion that youth and strength equal invincibility.
To the young guys such as Miami’s James Posey, who was 9 years old, the Bias tragedy is a basketball story.
“I’ve heard older guys speak of him as being incredible,” Posey said. “The television will be on [ESPN Classic], and they’ll point to him and say, ‘That guy had everything.’ They compare him with [Michael] Jordan and say he could have been a dominant player. We don’t roll our eyes. No. We just take their word for it. I wish I could have seen him play, or maybe see more tape of him in action and try to compare him to what we see now. We can hear the respect they had for him. Nobody talks much how he died. It’s pretty much confined to what he did on the court.”
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Byas having evolved into an All American and with the undoubted success of the Terrapins program had within the ACC with it being raised to national prominence. The next stage was for Bias to take his game unto the NBA. He was being openly courted by the Boston Celtics and not only was Auerbach impressed with the player but so too was the Celtics’ Larry Bird. The two had met several times prior to the NBA Draft of the 1986. And Bird had publicly stated that he’d be in camp the moment that Byas stepped unto the Celtics’ practice facility. As Auerbach was heard to say at the time ……’Larry are you OK’ ?
Fate would set about an unfortunate chain of events not only for Bias but also for the world of collegiate basketball and upon the national stage. The mindset would be changed as to the use of illegal substances and a change in legislation concerning mandatory sentencing for having in your possession substances such as heroin and crack-cocaine. At the time, both substances were primarily being used by predominantly African Americans, in particular young males. Never mind the fact that use of the substances was also on the rise within the ‘White community ‘ at large. But yet many felt that with the nation being in the midst of this rampant epidemic , young black males were being unfairly targeted and incarcerated while others most notably Caucasian defendants were essentially being let off with nothing more than a menial slap on the wrist.
The events leading up to the NBA Draft of 1986 was a momentous and joyous one for the entire Bias family. James and Jolene’s son was about to fulfill his wish of entering and playing in the NBA. And the NBA Commissioner , David Stern was more than happy to welcome a fresh of crop of new faces to the league. Amongst them would be Len Bias , John Salley , Brad Daugherty, Roy Tarpley, Ron Harper , Johnny Dawkins and Chuck Person to name but a few. Brad Daugerty was taken by the Cleveland Cavaliers , number one overall in the draft , with Bias being taken at number two by the Boston Celtics in the first round. The celebrations from thereon in were essentially thereafter, just one big party after another , for the player , family and friends.
Having done the perfunctory interviews for the print and tv media alike , Bias would return home to Landover , Maryland , to be with family and friends to celebrate a new chapter in his life. Having visited with family , he would then meet up with several of his acquaintances and one or two of his teammates on the campus of the university. In the dorm room of Brian Tribble where they and others in their company would share and part-take of a great deal of alcohol and cocaine. Tribble known drug user at the time , stated that they would regularly take cocaine for recreational purposes. What he failed to indicate, was that Bias often abused the substance. Exactly 48 hours after his named had been called as the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft , Len Bias was dead from a lethal cocaine overdose . He would die in the midst of doctors trying to save his life at Leland Memorial Hospital , Riverdale , Maryland. The cause of death was cardiac arrythmia due to the lethal overdose of cocaine. Bias was just twenty two years old at the time of his tragic and untimely death. The reverberation felt through collegiate sports and in NBA would be long lasting. And it became a wake up call for Members of Congress to take a hard and fast stance against proliferate hard drug use.
As the news spread of Bias’ death , the question everyone was simply asking …..’how could this all have happened ? And how is that so many people were unaware of Bias’ fascination with the use of drugs and in particular and the lethal mix of cocaine and alcohol ‘ ? Answers have yet to be found for the questions raised but at the same time the trend of drug use amongst not just the college athlete but also the professional athletes, still persists to this day. We may not here about it but we do know it’s there and it is still happening. Drug tests and not just education is a key but overall it comes down to the ‘will ‘ of the person who entertains the idea , who thinks that the use of drugs be it for recreational purposes or as a quick form of rehabilitating from an injury is ‘cool’. One way or another it has its dangers and none more so than with the evidence of Len Bias’ death. A life taken from the world , all too soon but still not enough to deter the epidemic that continues to this day. But if you’d have thought that this was the end of the story,well it’s not. Len Bias’ younger brother, Jay Bias was shot to death in a Maryland shopping mall in a needless act of gun violence five years later. Jay, like his brother Len, was a rising star in the world of basketball. Make of this what you will but there’s a lesson to be learned here but it’s not being heeded.
After having read this piece by all means leave a comment as to your thoughts on Len Bias. I look forward to reading them all and responding to them in kind.
Alan Parkins aka tophatal – 🙂
NB: For a biography of Len Bias’ life click here.