Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Len Bias' Legacy

I've been reading an interesting — and troubling — article by Tommy Craggs at Deadspin.com.

It's about Len Bias, a truly gifted basketball player who was picked second overall in the 1986 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics.

If the name doesn't sound familiar to readers who have not reached their 30th birthday, there is a good reason for that. Bias never played in the NBA. He died of a cocaine overdose two days after being drafted.

He'd been celebrating his good fortune, as just about any athlete in almost any collegiate sport would. When one is a top pick in the professional draft, it is generally taken for granted that he has it made.

It doesn't always work out that way. There have been many examples of top draft picks who — for whatever reason — simply couldn't make the transition from college to pro.

Bias might not have panned out. But I had several friends at the time who were diehard basketball fans, and they all believed he would be a huge star in the NBA. I have never really been an NBA fan, but, at that time, I was more of a college basketball fan than I am now. I had seen Bias play on TV, and I, too, believed he would be a big success at the professional level.

Bias was a contemporary of Michael Jordan — a couple of years younger, I guess, and probably not quite as good, but that wasn't really clear in 1986. Jordan hadn't yet established himself as perhaps the greatest NBA player ever, and he was never the most valuable player in the Atlantic Coast Conference's postseason tournament.

Bias was the MVP of the 1984 ACC Tournament, leading Maryland to a 12–point victory over Duke in the tournament final and a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Both men were ACC Player of the Year — Bias twice and Jordan once.

In 1986, I think it is safe to say that Bias' credentials were more solid than Jordan's. Before he died, he probably was more highly regarded than Jordan, who had been playing in the NBA for a couple of years but had not won his first NBA title.

One can only imagine what the NBA would have been like in the late '80s and early '90s if Bias had not died. At the time of the '86 draft, Boston's undisputed star was Larry Bird, who was named MVP of the NBA finals less than two weeks earlier. But he was about to enter the downside of his career, and he retired half a dozen years later.

At that time, Bias would have been in his prime, ready to take the leadership mantel from Bird. He might even have taken it a year or two earlier, allowing Bird to ease into retirement.

Perhaps he would have led the Celtics to even greater heights. Perhaps the Jordan–led Chicago Bulls would have had a rivalry with Bias and the Celtics that would have exceeded the intensity of the rivalry between the Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers in the '80s.

Perhaps he would have had the can't–miss Hall of Fame career everyone said he would have.

If so, people would remember him for that — and not for the way he died.

But, apparently, that is what many people do remember about Len Bias.

That may be an even greater tragedy.

Recently, a request for state money to be used to erect a statue of Bias in his hometown of Hyattsville, Md., was withdrawn because of concerns that it would send the wrong message to young people.

Rather than honor the memory of Bias and his many achievements — and encourage young people to hone their skills and follow their own dreams — Maryland will do as so many have done before — focus on a fatal flaw.

I know that Bias showed extremely poor judgment the night he died. But he was 22 years old. When I was 22, I didn't always show good judgment, either. And I frequently paid a price for my mistakes. But I never paid with my life.

Maybe it was a matter of luck that I outlived those reckless years and he did not. Maybe it always is a matter of luck. The luck of the draw.

That's an ironic thought. On the night that Boston drafted Bias, most people probably would have said that he was the one who had lived a charmed life. I certainly would have said that his life was charmed compared to mine.

And yet I have lived nearly 27 years longer than he did.

Maybe I was lucky that my mistakes weren't final. Maybe Bias was unlucky that one of his mistakes was.

But the fact that he forfeited his life does not mean he should forfeit his legacy.

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