The news struck like a slap to the face, without warning and without pity.
“Len Bias is dead.”
Those words came out of the mouths of local television news anchors 34 years ago today - June 19, 1986. They did not make sense then. They do not make sense now.
Just this past February, in a different time, through a different medium, the news of Kobe Bryant’s death struck like a thunderbolt for basketball fans across the country the same way. You are rendered mute.
In 1986, I was eight years old, a budding Maryland basketball fan. Len Bias was my hero. Sitting at my parents’ dining room table that late spring morning, eating breakfast with the TV on in the background, is how I learned the world has a cruel streak to it.
Len Bias was alive hours earlier, a soon-to-be member of the defending champion Boston Celtics, the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft. For whatever reason, the cocaine he ingested that morning was enough to stop his heart. A singular talent gone, a family left devastated, a community reeling from shock.
For so many years, that tragic morning defined Len Bias. He became a cautionary tale in the Just Say No era about the dangers of drugs. He neatly fit into the genre of young geniuses – and he was a basketball genius – who died too young. Artists. Musicians. Athletes. There are too many examples.
You have to delve into that part of Bias’ story. It is how his life ended. It is how he is most remembered. But he was a human, too, flawed as we all are, not just a myth. Sometimes an early death obscures a person, clouds the collective memory. They become who we remember after the shock and what came before is harder to reach.
Would Bias have continued the Celtics’ fading dynasty? Would he have matured, improved, developed and risen to the challenge of Michael Jordan? Does he become one of the league’s great stars or not quite live up to the hype? No one knows. Those questions are why we watch sports, individual career arcs playing out in front of us day after day.
It’s been 34 years since the morning Len Bias’ heart stopped. There is enough sadness there to last a lifetime. That won’t change. But if the pain remains for those who loved him, it is at least dulled some by the years and the good memories come back into sharper focus.
The battles with Jordan. The ACC Tournament title game vs. Duke. The 30-point day against eventual national champ Villanova. The iconic jumper-steal-reverse dunk at the Dean Dome.
Those moments can still make you smile all these years later. Pull them up online and try not to. The men of that generation, too, who played with and against Bias, former Maryland stars like Tony Massenburg and Walt Williams, laugh a little more now telling stories of the real Lenny they knew. The myth and the legend breaks down. Len Bias reemerges.
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