The Len Bias Story—A Cautionary Tale
Growing up in a generation removed from the John F. Kennedy assassination, I have had only a few," I will always remember where I was" moments in my life. I vaguely remembered John Lennon's murder in 1980. I was way too young to understand his impact on the world, both musically and culturally, but I remember seeing my father cry, which I never saw happen before or after. I remember sitting in section 79, row E, seat 12 of Camden Yards, holding my three-year-old daughter in my arms, watching Cal Ripken Jr. take his victory lap around the stadium after he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive game record. Ironically, that was the only time my daughter ever saw me cry. Of course, any American who is reading this will never forget where they were when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center on that awful September morning.
However, every year around this time with the NBA draft right around the corner, my mind wanders back to June 19, 1986. My mother had sent me on an errand to the corner store in my neighborhood to get some bread and Coke. As I jumped on my skateboard and headed down Westchester Avenue, I was stopped by a girl in my 15-year-old, named Sheila. I will never forget the ashen look of pain and shock that was written on her face.
As I approached her and asked what was wrong, she said something to me that was so shocking, so unbelievable, that I thought for sure she was pulling my leg with a tasteless joke. I had to ask her again to make sure I had heard her correctly. There was no denying my hearing abilities. Through her quivering lips, I can still see and hear her say," Len Bias died this morning, from a cocaine overdose." We both just stood there, and for what seemed like an hour, I was waiting for the punch line to this cruel prank. Unfortunately, the punch line never came, and I aimlessly continued skating my way to the store.
I can never explain the thoughts going through my mind. "What the hell is she talking about. Stupid girl, doesn't know anything about sports. My friends and I just saw him with his boyish grin, wearing that ugly Celtics hat, two nights ago when he was drafted second overall by the dynastic Boston team. I don't know what she is trying to accomplish by saying this to me, but I am not amused at all." ( I'm paraphrasing here, my language was much saltier as a teenage boy) As I walked into the store, I asked the owner if any of this was true, and he proceeded to confirm my fears. I grabbed the coke and bread, and headed home to watch the news because I was still feeling like someone was taking advantage of my gullibility.
It was only after I got home and saw the look on my mom's face, that I really believed what was being reported. After all, in the mind of this 15-year-old, my mom was another stupid girl who didn't know a basketball from a football, but she never ever lied to me. It was then, that I knew the horrible truth.
Leonard Kevin Bias was born on November 17, 1963, in Landover, Md. He was a tall, unassuming boy who was given the nickname Frosty by a pastor at his church, because of his cool laid back demeanor. While attending Northwestern High School, It became obvious that his skill sets were progressing rapidly.
Colleges such as Syracuse, Georgetown, and Indiana were recruiting him, but Bias chose to remain in his comfort zone of Prince Georges County and play for the University Of Maryland. From the very beginning, legendary Terps coach Lefty Driesell saw the boy's potential and made him the centerpiece of his strong basketball program. He was strong as a bull, fast as a cheetah, and could leap out of the gym. He had a playground swagger about him that Lefty loved, and he made his teammates better with just his mere presence on the court. There really wasn't anything that he couldn't do on the hardwood. The silky-smooth forward with mad hops could rebound, shoot, play defense and he loved dunking on his opponents.
As I write this, while periodically closing my eyes, I can still see him terrorizing my beloved North Carolina Tar Heels, with a steal of an inbound pass, and a two-handed reverse dunk on everyone wearing blue, while letting out a boisterous yell, just to let everyone know in attendance that he was an unstoppable force.
The All-American Terrapin would go on to win back to back Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year honors in 1985 and 1986, and his 2,149 points was a Maryland record at the time.
That June in Boston, the Celtics were putting the finishing touches on their third NBA championship in five years. Former coaching great, now General Manager Red Auerbach had his eye on Bias and the future of the Celtics. Red always had a keen eye for talent, and he knew that Len was a player that his aging team could use. In one fell swoop, he traded Gerald Henderson to the Seattle Supersonics for the rights to the second pick in the 1986 NBA draft.
The Cleveland Cavaliers had the first pick and made no secret about the fact that they would be selecting Brad Dougherty, the center out of North Carolina. Without hesitation, Red Auerbach drafted Bias, lit his customary victory cigar, and watched with the rest of the basketball world as a jubilant Len Bias, walked across the stage and shook Commissioner David Stern's hand. After weeks of interviewing the Terp forward and submitting him to physical evaluations and drug tests, Auerbach knew he had his man.
Celtics fans and Maryland fans alike were salivating at the mouth in anticipation of Bias joining the team of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish. All of Bias' hard work and dedication to his craft had brought the young man to this point in his life. Here he stood on the precipice of greatness, and no one could have imagined or predicted the sequence of events that would soon follow.
The next day, Len's father James, who had accompanied his son to New York for the draft, returned home during the afternoon. A contingency of reporters had gathered and were disappointed that Len wasn't in attendance for a little Q and A session. James assured the D.C and Baltimore sportswriters that his son would be available the next day to answer all their questions. Meanwhile, Len was in New York, signing a three million dollar endorsement deal with Reebok, the tennis shoe company. Reebok had watched Michael Jordan sign a shoe deal with Nike two years before, and had visions of Bias transforming their company the way Michael was doing for Nike. Upon signing the deal, and tying up some loose ends with the Celtics front office, Len hopped in his brand new cobalt blue 300 ZX, and drove back to College Park.
Len arrived at the campus around 11:00 PM. Many of his teammates, friends, and players of the school's football team were at the dorm called Washington Hall awaiting his arrival. While eating steamed crabs, the future NBA star patiently answered all their questions. At around 1:30 AM, Len left the hall to go to a party, and returned shortly after 3:00 AM. Lines of cocaine were being distributed, and Bias made his fateful error in judgment, by joining in on the festivities. At 6:32 in the morning, a 911 call was made by his childhood friend Brian Tribble. A frightened and high Tribble was pleading for medical assistance. During the call, a confused Tribble begged for help immediately and kept saying Len's name over and over. At first, the operator who took the call wasn't sure if this was a college prank and even reprimanded Tribble for saying his name continuously. The PG County emergency unit was sent to the dorm.
The ambulance arrived on the scene at 6:40 and the technicians found Len Bias unconscious and not breathing. While the medics were feverishly working on Bias, the facts were being sorted out. After doing a massive line of cocaine, Bias began talking to his teammate Terry Long. He then leaned back on his couch and started going into seizures. After having no success in reviving Bias, the paramedics put his body in the ambulance and sped off to Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale, MD. The physicians tried everything. They gave him Epinephrine, Sodium Bicarbonate, Lidocaine, Calcium and Bretylium. In one last hopeful effort, they placed a pacemaker on his chest, but it was too late. At 8:55 AM Len Bias was pronounced dead.
In the days and weeks that followed Bias' death, the University of Maryland felt the weight of a media whirlwind. After further investigations by the police, several grams of cocaine was found under the driver's seat of Bias' car. The NCAA was under pressure to find out what happened. The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun both wrote scathing pieces on the educational practices of the university.
It was discovered that Bias was twenty-one credits short of his requirements, despite using all of his athletic eligibility. Coach Driesell came under fire when it was learned that upon getting a phone call and learning of the incident at Washington Hall he told Bias' teammates to remove all the drugs from Len's room. Len's parents, James and Lonise accused the University of Maryland of neglecting the academic statuses of their athletes.
Everyone, from the UMD athletic department, to the admissions office to the campus police, to Brian Tribble was being held accountable for the tragedy. On October 17th Athletic Director Dick Dull resigned, and after 17 years of service to Maryland basketball, Lefty Driesell was fired. The more people went digging; the more dirt came to the surface. The NCAA banned Maryland from appearing on TV for a year and took scholarships from the school. To this day Maryland has strict admission requirements and expanded academic support.
As I recount all these punishments that were delivered without mercy, I can't help but think about the situation with the Ohio State football team. What started out as an investigation into quarterback Terrelle Pryor trading memorabilia for tattoos, blew up into so much more and eventually cost coach Jim Tressel his job. I remember when I first heard of the whole tattoo for memorabilia affair, I immediately thought of Len Bias and Maryland. I knew from the moment the scandal first broke that Pryor would never play for the Buckeyes again and Tressell would lose his job. There are some skeletons that can never be buried, if you look hard enough, especially in the slimy world of NCAA sports.
On July 25, 1986, Brian Tribble was indicted for possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute. Teammates Terry Long and David Gregg were charged with possession and obstruction of justice. The charges against Long and Gregg would be dropped in exchange for testimony against Tribble. Tribble would eventually plead guilty to being a major drug dealer, and on October 15, 1990, he was sentenced to ten years of prison.
Bud Marshall was the District Attorney up for re-election and in my opinion, used this tragedy to further his aspirations. To this day there are heated debates as to whether Brian Tribble was the murderer, that Marshall painted him out to be, or a scapegoat for a flawed university and two grief-stricken parents. There is no question that Tribble and Maryland Athletics took the blame for Len's bad decision and the university's infrastructure. In 1988, Congress passed an anti-drug act that is called the "Len Bias Law." It called for stiffer penalties and expanded the DARE program.
The death of Bias had a ripple effect that not only affected the history of Maryland basketball, but also the Boston Celtics. After hearing the news, Larry Bird quipped, "That is the cruelest thing I ever heard." Boston would again reach the finals in 1987, but would fall to Magic Johnson and the Los Angelas Lakers.
The Celtics were obviously a player short and one can only wonder what would have happened if Bias was on that team. In 1993 they would lose another rising star, when Baltimore native Reggie Lewis would die in the middle of a pickup game due to a heart attack. The Celtics would not reach the finals again until 2008. If Len had lived, would he have presented a true rival to Michael Jordan and the Bulls of the nineties? Would Reebok have grown into the conglomerate that Nike has become? How could a world-class athlete, with the body of Greek god fall prey to such a drug? This wasn't John Belushi or Elvis we are talking about here. Would he have become the player everyone thought he would? The speed of James Worthy, the power of Dominique Wilkens and the grace of Jordan. These are all questions that will never be answered. One thing is for sure, Len Bias is the greatest basketball player to never play in the NBA
This year will mark the 34th anniversary of Bias' death. Sometimes I can't believe that it has really been that long. Every year I watch the NBA draft, and I think of Len. Although I have never been a UMD fan, I always admired and feared Len Bias. Whenever I think of him, it takes me back to my childhood, when me, David Mowbray, Albert Kappes, and the boys would spend our days on the court. Each of us had our guy. We would make cat calls as we took our shots. For instance, when I drove the lane, I would stick out my tongue and yell "Jordan." My man Dave would shoot one of his jumpers and say "Bird for three." Craig Gamble would take it to the hole, dunk on the adjustable rim, and mock us by exclaiming "Julius Erving." But the best was when, Albert would rip down a board, put it back up and shout "Bias!!!" Whenever I think of those days, it makes me smile. When Len died, a piece of my childhood evaporated, as did the Celtics mystique. Albert's guy was gone, and so was our innocence.
© 2011 Jake Robinson