Len Bias: A Legend That Might Have Been
32 years ago this week, Len Bias became the 2nd overall pick at the 1986 NBA draft. Two days later, the talented 22-year old from the University of Maryland died of a cocaine overdose.
It was a “dream inside a dream”. Bias was heading to Boston to join the Celtics, the storied team of Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Bob Cousy. His forward-line teammates would be Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, kings of the 1986 NBA Championship and future Hall of Famers.
When news of his death broke, it sent shock waves across college athletics and professional sports. Following a night of partying with friends, Bias was pronounced lifeless the morning of June 19th as a result of a cocaine-induced cardiac arrhythmia.
On its June cover issue, ‘Sports Illustrated’ featured a large photo of Bias with the heading “Death Of A Dream”. The young superstar with an infectious, winning smile had his promising future with the NBA cruelly ended before it even began.
At his funeral which was attended by more than 11,000 people, Red Auerbach, Celtics President at the time, remarked that the city of Boston had not been so shaken since the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Bias was the player selected to add fresh fuel to the Celtics’ continued dominance of the league. Boston had clinched 3 NBA titles in the 1980’s- ’81, ’84, ’86- and the forward who burned the court for the Maryland Terrapins was slated to help carry the dynasty into the 1990’s.
A veteran of 16 NBA championships, 9 as head coach and 7 as front office executive, Auerbach saw Bias as a future perennial All-Star who had it all. “He could shoot, he could run, he could rebound, and he could defend…and he loved the game and played with passion”.
Growing up in Landover, Maryland, Len opted to play at nearby University of Maryland to stay close to home. One of 4 children raised by a church-going, close- knit family, his death from drugs was made that much more incredulous.
Bias stepped on the Terrapins’ court “raw and undisciplined” but ultimately developed into an All-American player. Athletic, skilled and multifaceted in the game, he built up his edge constructing plays and creating points, not just scoring them.
The dynamic duo had faced off in 1984 when Jordan’s Tar Heels took on the Terrapins in one of the most exciting college hoops matches ever. At Maryland’s own Cole Fieldhouse, Bias turned in 24 points against Jordan’s 21 but in a flurry of late scores, North Carolina topped Maryland 74-62.
Jordan won the ACC Player Of The Year award that year, but it was Bias who earned an MVP and a title after leading the Terrapins to their first ACC championship since 1958.
The 6’8”, 210 lb. sensation improved his stats with each successive season and wrapped up college averaging 16.4 points per game (23.2 his senior year). He also claimed the ACC Player Of The Year award twice in a row.
It’s not difficult to envision how big a star Len Bias could have been in a professional life. He might have provided the “yin” that was missing for Jordan’s “yang” during the 1990’s and kept the Celtics going with more national titles.
Instead, Boston settled into a 22-year winning-less slump and Bias became a tragic memory of what might have been.
BASKETBALL November 28, 2009 The Los Angeles Lakers defeat the Golden State Warriors 130-97 at Golden State. The Lakers would wrap up the season with a 57-25 record and go on to defend their title at the NBA Championship by overtaking the Boston Celtics 4-3. Kobe Bryant, star player on the Lakers roster, played all 7 games, averaging 28.6 ppg and taking home the MVP award.
BOXING November 20, 1999 Junior middleweight fighter Stephan Johnson fights Paul Vaden in Atlantic City for a $10,000 purse. Johnson is knocked out with two punches in the 10th round and falls immediately into a coma. Despite hospital efforts, he never recovers and dies less than three weeks later on December 7th. The 154-pounder who lived and trained in New York City turned pro in 1987.
FOOTBALL November 26, 1989 The Saskatchewan Roughriders defeat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 43-40 to win the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup. Finishing only 9-9 for the season, the Roughriders were underdogs going into the 77th annual Grey Cup championship. With the game tied at 40-40 and only 9 seconds left in the 4th quarter, they clinched the title with a 26-yard field goal.
BASEBALL November 19, 1979 Nolan Ryan signs a record 4-year, $4.5 Million contract with the Houston Astros. The gifted pitcher who hurled consistent throws at 100 mph and above remained a force on the mound into his 40’s. Ryan started off with the NY Mets where he won the World Series in 1969 before moving on to the Angels, Astros and Rangers. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.