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 February 15, 2009 The NBA holds its 58th annual All-Star game in Phoenix, Arizona. The Western Conference defeats the East 149-119 with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal sharing the MVP Award. The former received his 15th and final All-Star selection, the second highest in NBA history behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 19.
FOOTBALL February 16, 1999 O.J. Simpson’s Heisman Trophy is sold for $230,000 to help settle a civil judgement against him for the deaths of his ex-wife and friend. O.J. won the Trophy in 1968 as a running back for USC; he later played for the Buffalo Bills and SF 49ers. His life began to spiral downward in 1994 following murder charges against him.
BASEBALL February 16, 1989 Pitcher Roger Clemens signs a record $7.5 Million, 3-year contract to extend his tenure with the Boston Red Sox. The 11x career All-Star would win the Cy Young Award 7 times, more than any other pitcher, and the World Series twice, in 1999 and 2000 with the NY Yankees. He retired in 2007 with a W/L record of 354/184.
AUTO RACING February 18, 1979 In a race for the ages, Rich Petty wins the Daytona 500 at the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Trailing in 3rd place towards the end of the chase, the North Carolina native cleared the finish line after Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison, driving 1st and 2nd place cars, collided in the final lap and opened up the win for Petty.