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Side Story: Len Bias – Death of a Dream

Synopsis: While most memories tend to be vague and fade over time, certain moments become cemented in our minds forever. Most of us can vividly recount our first kiss, our 21st birthday, and the birth of a child. Unlike those personal memories, others have a broader reach. In particular, we each can say, “I remember exactly where I was when I heard about ______.” Depending on your age, you can fill in the blank with President Kennedy’s assassination, the Challenger explosion, or the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With respect to the world of sports, the sentiment applies to the USA Hockey Team’s victory over the USSR in the 1980 Olympics. This post explores why the death of Len Bias also seems to be one of those unforgettable moments. 


LEN BIAS: DEATH OF A DREAM

Like many of you, I enjoy sports because they provide a never-ending source of unscripted entertainment. On a weekly basis, a sporting event offers a compelling story worthy of a Hollywood movie. Unfortunately, my memory of it seems to fade as the next event arrives.

2015 US OPEN – SPIETH GRAND SLAM? 

While writing this post, I watched the conclusion of the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay with Jordan Spieth winning his second major of the year. Of note, golf’s latest wunderkind won after Dustin Johnson 3-putted from 12 feet away on the 72nd hole. If Spieth goes on to complete the actual Grand Slam, the event will gain historical importance. Realistically, we’ll simply be reminded of it every June during Fox’s hopefully improved coverage of the U.S. Open.

Joe Buck will remark that Spieth persevered by recovering from his own 3-putt on the 71st hole. Paul Azinger will recount how Johnson blew it by not getting into a playoff. Holly Sonders will remind us how ridiculous the course looked and played while wearing a ridiculously tight-fitting outfit. Still, it’s hard to imagine the tournament offering a lifelong memory like Jack Nicklaus’ victory at the 1986 Masters or Jean van de Elder’se collapse at the 1999 British Open.

SEMINAL SPORTS MOMENTS

Sometimes, certain sports stories carry over to mainstream media due to the general public’s insatiable desire for controversy. Recently, Deflategate and Ray Rice’s domestic violence video have dominated the airwaves. This desire drives the interest in respectable programs like 60 Minutes or the more comical Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Unfortunately, it also drives train-wreck television like any show involving the Kardashians. On rare occasions, stories emerge which have a lasting impact because they change the social consciousness. In my lifetime, the two most memorable examples include:

  • Magic Johnson’s HIV-positive announcement.
  • Len Bias’ death from a drug overdose.
MAGIC – HIV POSITIVE

At the exact moment that Magic let the world know about his HIV diagnosis in the fall of 1991, I arrived at a college intramural football game. Ironically, I pulled into the parking lot while listening to (OK, blasting) REM’s Shinny Happy People, Despite being in my own world, I sensed a problem as students huddled around their cars instead of practicing on the fields. As I approached my teammates, I quickly realized the significance of the announcement. Back then, we thought that HIV could be used interchangeably with AIDS. In turn, AIDS could be used interchangeably with a death sentence.

Immediately, we learned that HIV/AIDS did not discriminate and could be contracted by anyone having unprotected sex. In the long-term we learned that someone with HIV could live a normal life. By winning the 1992 NBA All-Star Game MVP, Magic showed he could play professional basketball at a high level. At the same time, he become an ambassador for his sport by serving as a key member of the 1992 Dream Team.

Furthermore, Magic went on to become a successful entrepreneur and entertainer. Well . . . 

THE MAGIC HOUR – IRONIC?
Len Bias : Magic Hour
OK, I exaggerated by calling him a successful entertainer.
LEN BIAS – DRUG OVERDOSE

Two days after being selected with the 2nd pick in the 1986 Draft, Len Bias died from cocaine intoxication. While initial reports stated that Bias had never used cocaine before that fateful night, we later learned that wasn’t the case. He didn’t OD due to being a notice, but rather because of the purity of the cocaine. Regardless, his accidental death should never have happened.

As a high school sophomore at the time, I sympathized with someone who couldn’t realize his dream. I originally heard the news from my best friend (and big Celtics’ fan). Still, I didn’t appreciate it until seeing it in print. Specifically, I remember the Sports Illustrated cover with the words, “DEATH OF A DREAM.”

Growing up in the Northeast, I didn’t follow players or teams outside of the Big East unless they progressed far into the NCAA Tournament. Given Maryland’s exit in the 2nd round of the 1986 Tournament, I didn’t know much about Bias before that year’s draft. After recently reviewing his college stats, I realized he fully deserved being a 2nd Team All-American in 1984-85 and 1st Team All-American in 1985-86.

LEN BIAS – COLLEGE STATS (MARYLAND)
Season G FG% FT% Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks
1982-83 30 47.8% 63.6% 7.2 4.2 0.7 0.3 0.5
1983-84 32 56.7% 76.7% 15.3 4.5 1.5 0.4 0.8
1984-85 37 52.8% 77.7% 18.9 6.8 1.8 0.9 0.9
1985-86 32 54.4% 86.4% 23.2 7.0 1.0 0.4 0.4
Career 131 53.6% 79.5% 16.4 5.7 1.3 0.7 0.7

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewksi once commented that Michael Jordan and Len Bias were the two most unstoppable players he ever coached against in college. Given that sort of praise, it should have been no surprise the Boston Celtics took Bias with the 2nd overall pick in the 1986 Draft. Unlike most lottery picks forced to carry the burden of turning around a bad team, Bias went to a team that had just won the NBA Championship. In addition, he would have joined a front court that included Hall-of-Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish.

Bias had to be as excited as the Boston faithful to join the Celtics. Most importantly, he would have been able to watch and learn from the greatest small forward in NBA history. Larry Bird undeniably had that title at the time. As an side, LeBron James has or soon will take the reins. 

CELTICS HIGH DRAFT PICK

Before continuing, I should discuss how Boston secured such a high pick in the that year’s draft. Specifically, Celtics President Red Auberbach traded Gerald Henderson prior to the 1984-85 season for the Supersonics’ 1986 first round pick. Henderson had just averaged 12 points and four assists as the starting point guard for the 1984 Champion Celtics. However, the former Hall-of-Fame Coach turned executive wanted Danny Ainge to start alongside Dennis Johnson. As such, Henderson became dispensable.

Given the Sonics’ 1985 playoff appearance, Auberbach couldn’t have expected getting more than a mid-1st round pick. However, due to Seattle’s deterioration and the implementation of the draft lottery, Auerbach’s decision paid off. Specifically, Boston inherited the second overall pick in the 1986 Draft because of the trade.

1986 NBA LOTTERY DRAFT ORDER
Draft Order Team Record Improved  Lottery Position Ultimate Beneficiary Player Selected
#1 LA Clippers* 32-50 +6 Cleveland Brad Daugherty
#2 Seattle 31-51 +3 Boston Len Bias
#3 Golden State 30-52 +1   Chris Washburn
#4 New York 23-59 -3   Kenny Walker
#5 Indiana 26-56 -3   Chuck Person
#6 Phoenix 32-50 -1   William Bedford
#7 Cleveland 29-53 -4 Dallas Roy Tarpley

* In 1979, the San Diego Clippers traded their 1986 first round pick to the 76ers for Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant (yeah, Kobe’s dad). Still holding the pick six years later, Philadelphia won the 1986 lottery. However, Philly traded the pick to Cleveland for Roy Hinson, who had just averaged 20 ppg and 8 rpg. Unlike other moves made by the Cavs at the time, the exchange of Hinson for the first overall pick (used to draft Brad Daugherty) proved to be productive.

NBA DRAFT LOTTERY

Implemented for the first time in 1985, the NBA Draft lottery still needed work in 1986. In particular, the league weighted odds equally for all non-playoff teams. In particular, the first team out of the playoffs had the same chance of winning the #1 overall pick as the worst team in the league.

With only 1:7 odds of getting the #1 overall pick in 1985, the Knicks somehow beat the odds and won the Patrick Ewing Sweepstakes. Oh yeah, now I remember how it happened.

NBA FIXED?
stern 1985-nba-draft-lottery-1
David Stern picking the Knicks’ envelope in the 1985 lottery

A lot has been written about the death of Bias and how it contributed to the Celtics’ 20-year title drought. Specifically, some argue that the team lost out on having a potentially transcendent player to continue the legacy of Bird, McHale and Parish. Ultimately, it took two decades before the Celtics won another ring after Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen agreed to join Paul Pierce. There’s no guarantee that Bias would have developed into a great player who could have carried the legendary franchise. Still, it’s a tragedy that he never got a chance.

LEN BIAS: DEATH OF A DREAM
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