Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Day Len Bias Died

Twenty–five years ago, I was working on the sports desk of the Arkansas Gazette.

It was a morning paper so the folks who worked on the copy desks worked nights. Everyone worked weekends, but one's nights off generally were determined by seniority. As one of the most junior staff members (at that time), my days off were Mondays and Tuesdays — not exactly prime time.

That's important to note, though, because it was on Tuesday, June 17, 1986, that the annual NBA draft was held. My memory is that it was held in conjunction with the NBA Finals that year, but I could be wrong about that.

I do know that it was televised, and I remember watching it briefly with some friends — long enough, anyway, to see that Maryland's Len Bias had been selected by the Boston Celtics.

Larry Bird brought championship basketball back to Boston, but he was about to turn 30, and he had struggled with back issues. The comments I remember hearing and the articles I remember reading in mid–June 1986 suggested that Bias was going to be groomed to step in and take over the role of star player when Bird retired.

He couldn't miss, the experts said. With Len Bias, the Celtic dynasty would be in good hands.

The day after Bias was drafted, I returned to work to pull my graveyard shift on Wednesday night. I had to be back earlier the following day — I worked the sports wire on Thursdays in those days, which meant it was my job to constantly scan the wire for sports news.

I always enjoyed working the wire. When I arrived in the office to work it (a shift that typically began about two hours earlier than my usual shifts — and ended two hours earlier as well), I did a preliminary scan of the wire's contents so I could tell the editor who was in charge that evening what we could expect.

Then I would pick wire stories on sports events from all over the world and ship them over to the editor, who would decide where to put each article, assign a headline size to each and turn the stories over to the folks who were handling the copy editing that evening.

It was a procedure that had taken shape over a long period of time. The Gazette was the oldest continuously published newspaper west of the Mississippi. The system that was in place when I came on board was the product of years of evolution.

Usually, working the wire came down to the accounts of games in whichever sport happened to be in season, but there were times when unexpected stories demanded our attention. If a story was big enough, I might combine the best elements from all the wire services the Gazette received — and the Gazette subscribed to about half a dozen news services.

Nothing noteworthy happened that Wednesday night, but when I got up the next morning and switched on my TV, there was a sports story that I knew immediately would dominate my activities that night — and for many days to come.

Sometime during the night (as the wire editor that day, I learned a few hours later that it had actually been sometime around daybreak), Len Bias, the NBA's #2 draft pick less than two days earlier, had died of a cocaine overdose.

He was only 22 years old.

I can't tell you the tsunami–like ripple effect this had — not only in sports and on college campuses but throughout American society as well.

When Bias was taken in the draft by the Celtics, he was widely expected to be at least one of the greatest players ever to play the game — if not the greatest. He would rewrite the record books, some people said.

And he might have. We will never know.

It does seem likely that, if he hadn't died, Bias' career would be over by this point. We would know if he set all those records that he was expected to set and if he won all those titles he was expected to win.

We didn't know much on this day 25 years ago, but we did know that Len Bias would never accomplish all those things.

Sports fans grieved as much for the potential that would never be realized as they did for the life that was cut tragically short. The circumstances were different but the sensation was much the same a few years later when Hank Gathers collapsed and died during a Loyola Marymount game in 1990.

Len Bias was like a shooting star in June 1986. He burst onto the scene and left almost as quickly as he had come, leaving the aging Celtics in a funk they wouldn't shake off for many years.

His legacy lives on, though, says Jeff Barker in the Baltimore Sun, and his life story continues to influence the sport in ways that no one could have anticipated in 1986.

His death continues to influence people beyond the universe of basketball, writes David Steele in The Sporting News.

"His almost unfathomable death lingers as a cocaine deterrent," observes Barker. "He also maintains the power to rivet players and fans despite being from a wholly different basketball generation."

That's great, but even Barker gives in to the eternal, unanswerable question: What would Bias have accomplished?

Barker closed his piece with speculation from one of Bias' teammates — that, had Len Bias lived, people would be mentioning his name today in the same breath with his greatest contemporaries, like Michael Jordan, and the stars of today.

Sadly, no one will never know.

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