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The Heartbreaking Potential Of Len Bias

By J. Tinsley / 06.19.11

It remains one of the darkest stories in all of sports because it had the brightest of futures. Never having the opportunity to see Len Bias play live remains one of my personal biggest disappointments as a basketball fan. He died when I was only four months old, yet his life, talents and circumstances surrounding his death remains a paralyzing romance gone horrifically wrong.

While in grad school, a professor of mine, who worked at the University of Maryland this time 25 years ago, spent an entire class recounting the story of how the news broke, spread and gravely affected every single person on campus, better yet the entire DC-Maryland vicinity. Goosebumps formed on my arms hearing from someone who witnessed the entire situation first hand. Later that night, I would go on to watch the 30 For 30 special on him (still the most emotional installment) which only intensified the sadness triggered from her story.

Those who saw him play touted Bias as a freakishly gifted athlete who was drafted into the most angelic of circumstances. Keep in mind he was the #2 pick on a Boston Celtics team who had just beaten the Houston Rockets that very same June in the NBA Finals. Despite that knowledge, questions about a person whom I had never met have haunted me for years. How many more rings would Boston have won with him? How differently would Michael Jordan’s career have panned out had Bias never died and actually lived up to his billing?

– Think about that for a moment. The 1986-87 Celtics would have had a core of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson and Len Bias. Bird and McHale both played 40 minutes a game that season and they still made it to the finals where they would eventually lose the Lakers. Bias may or may not tip the scales and get them a ring that year, but he does provide bench support for both Larry Legend and McHale. Plus, his growing pro savvy makes them contenders for years to come. Bird, McHale and Parish were already labeled the greatest 3-4-5 combo in history, so imagine if Bias flourishes and becomes the fourth cog. It’s exciting as hell to ponder, but depressing as hell all at the same time.

– Even look at the 1991 squad who lost 4-2 to the Pistons in the Eastern semifinals. With five years under his belt, a running mate in Reggie Lewis (can this get anymore depressing?), a still ultra competitive Larry Bird, serviceable Parish and giving McHale the luxury of coming off the bench, there’s a possibility he wills them to victory over the Bad Boys. This sets up an Eastern Conference finals match up with Michael Jordan’s Bulls. Maybe Jordan never overcomes Detroit en route to his first title if Lenny and C’s do that for him. We just never know. But a Jordan vs. Bias ECF matchup would be UNC vs. Maryland on steroids.

And arguably the most disparaging inquiry of them all, was the evolution of crack/cocaine the single most important event of the ’80′s?

All debatable, yet torturing questions for a then-22-year-old forward who was expected to add years on an already dominant dynasty. Jack McCallum, of Sports Illustrated, relived the out-of-body journalistic experience for a quarter century retrospective piece. He writes, “My worst moment of the weekend occurred as I staked out the Bias home, feeling like a thief waiting to strike or a guy in a raincoat staring into a window. And that was before I spotted a National Enquirer reporter hiding in a tree with a long-lens camera.”

For as painful as Bias’ death remains to sports fans every where, many members of that 1986 Draft battled the same demons. The famed S.I. writer acknowledges Chris Washburn – the #3 pick – was no stranger to cocaine and was homeless for an extended period of time. William Beford – the sixth selection – even served prison time from his dealings with drug. And the story of Roy Tarpley and how he was eventually banned from the NBA for life continues to live in infamy. But it all circled back to Len primarily because of hindsight, his potential and what should have been for his career and the Boston Celtics reign of terror over professional basketball.

McCallum’s account does the situation far more justice seeing as how he was there for entire ride. Maybe not now, but at some point this weekend, give it a read if you’re a basketball nut and love historical expositions. Because if you really sit and think about it, that’s all the world has of Len Bias now.

Related “The Cruest Thing Ever” By Jack McCallum [Sports Illustrated, June 30, 1986]

Bonus: For those interested in reading more about the situation, be sure to check out C. Fraser Smith’s book, Lenny, Lefty, and the Chancellor.


TAGSBoston CelticsEVERYTHING ELSELen BiasSMOKE BREAKSPORTSSpotlightUniversity Of Maryland

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