"Len Bias would become the Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs"
March 7, 2013 7:15 AM   Subscribe

Len Bias has been dead for longer than he has been alive. For ESPN Michael Weinreb examines how the tragic death due to a cocaine overdose of this young, up and coming basketball star affected both the sport and American drug policy. Meanwhile at Deadspin, Tommy Craigs explains how twentytwo years after his death Len Bias still makes everyone crazy.
posted by MartinWisse (16 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In life, Len Bias was a terrific basketball player. In death, he would become the Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs.

Worth it for that line alone.
posted by marxchivist at 7:30 AM on March 7, 2013 [11 favorites]

Nice title on your post there too!
posted by marxchivist at 7:35 AM on March 7, 2013

Her son, who had been drafted with the No. 2 pick by the NBA champion Boston Celtics on June 17, 1986. Her son, who would be described in an autopsy report two days later as a "well-developed young Black male," 6-foot-7, 221½ pounds, otherwise fit and healthy and clean, with the exception of the copious amount of cocaine in his system.

A terrible tragedy. I watched Bias play when Maryland came down the the Georgia Tech campus and he was a terrific player. In 1986 the Celtics were already the best team in the NBA and man he had his whole life ahead of him. IIRC he also had some congenital heart defect that contributed to his death, but anyway, yeah, he had probably snorted an eight-ball in the days after he was drafted.

He wasn't Franz Ferdinand though. The Just Say No war on drugs was in full swing by the time Bias' heart exploded in him, but it was so high profile and so tragic that of course politicians used it.
posted by three blind mice at 7:38 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

America is suffering from a longstanding Len bias.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:15 AM on March 7, 2013

This is the third thing this week to make me feel old, after "Daniel is now as old as Mr. Miyagi was" and "Blue Monday is 30 years old".
posted by shortfuse at 8:29 AM on March 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Without Bias from the great ESPN 30 for 30 series.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 8:43 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was too young at the time to be aware of what was going on with Bias, and I think the case for him being the Ferdinand of the War on Drugs is overstated, but at least in the sporting world, I think it is absolutely the case. Craggs (not Craigs) touches on this in his piece.

Though upon consideration of the recent bounty scandal in the NFL, maybe any controversy in professional sports that sits at the junction of "player safety" and "purity of the game" is just bound to turn into a clusterfuck, whether it has anything to do with drugs or not.
posted by SpiffyRob at 8:44 AM on March 7, 2013

I really hate it when people are glorified when they haven't done anything yet. We don't know for sure he would have been a great ballplayer, he could have blown out his knees the first year and been a mediocre player for his entire career. So let's stop obsessing about what never actually happened.
posted by Melismata at 8:45 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

He, dit is niet over Nederland.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:50 AM on March 7, 2013

We don't know for sure he would have been a great ballplayer

He was already a great ballplayer. ACC player of the year in 85 and 86, ACC Athlete of the Year in 86, an All-American, and #2 overall draft pick.
posted by CheeseLouise at 9:01 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is the third thing this week to make me feel old

Shall I make it worse? That Deadspin article talks about his death 22 years ago which, considering he died in 1986 would've been 2008...
posted by MartinWisse at 9:16 AM on March 7, 2013

He, dit is niet over Nederland.

Nee, dan zou het over korfbal zijn gegaan en er is nog nooit een korfballer geweest die ooit iets sterkers dan een lauw colatje heeft genuttigd...
posted by MartinWisse at 9:18 AM on March 7, 2013

I've been at the University of Maryland for a while, and Bias is still a specter in the culture and history of the school.

A common narrative that I've heard is that Bias' death was a huge turning point for the trajectory of the college from party state university to a major research institution. You constantly hear about what Maryland's basketball program might have been if Bias hadn't died, and how his death affected later recruiting efforts, and how we might've been what Duke is today instead of a constant also-ran in the ACC (soon to be Big Ten!). His death is a point that's commonly referred to in any discussion of the history of the school, and is certainly something that's not going away any time soon.

A large part of that narrative is that, of course, it was Bias' first time doing coke. As if it was one chance encounter that changed things instead of a systemic problem that treats athletes like minor gods. It's a good point that the article makes.
posted by codacorolla at 9:34 AM on March 7, 2013

I really hate it when people are glorified when they haven't done anything yet. We don't know for sure he would have been a great ballplayer, he could have blown out his knees the first year and been a mediocre player for his entire career.

It's possible that Lebron James will blow out his knees tomorrow and end his career with one championship. Doesn't mean he wasn't great when he was playing.

As noted by CheeseLouise, Bias had already proven he was a great ballplayer. Sure, there's a chance he wouldn't have become a Hall of Fame player in the NBA. But he certainly had the potential to -- more so than (probably) anyone you or I have ever personally known. Yeah, sometimes our society gets hung up on "potential" (viz. any time anyone under 10 dies), but if anyone ever had it, Bias did.

So let's stop obsessing about what never actually happened.

I don't think it's "obsessing" to point out, "Hey, that was a long time ago, and look what's happened since." Try the BACK button on your browser if this topic offends you so.
posted by Etrigan at 9:36 AM on March 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

There were tests we had to take before high school, math and reading assessments of some sort, maybe algebra and French. I assume most Maryland middle school graduates had them, but maybe it was just a Howard County thing. At any rate, school was out, but us Wilde Lake kids had to go to Centennial High School on a summer Thursday for testing. There weren't buses -- I don't remember who picked us up in the morning -- but my mom was the one driving us home.

As usual the tests ended a bit early, around noon, so we were horsing around in the parking lot waiting to be picked up when some kid announced that Len Bias had died. I think radio reports were just breaking and someone's older brother spread the news when they picked him up. Pretty quick scuttlebutt for pre-internet middle schoolers.

And of course being 14-year old kids we couldn't shut up about it. So when my mom arrived and five excited boys piled into the car, jabbering about Bias' death, my mom was shocked and not a little bit upset. She said "That's not funny. I don't believe it." Of course, that just redoubled our noise and speculation. No murder of crows could outdo our cacophony that day.

Just after the interchange from 108 to 29 my mom shouted an extremely un-mom-like "SHUT UP!" and reached her arm back and swatted whoever she could reach in the back seat. "Just. Shut. Up." And we all took a shocked moment, a breath, and it sunk in.

Len Bias was dead.

My dad had a coworker who had three Terps season tickets. Joe was a booster so they were prime seats, ten rows up, right at center court. He retired to Florida to care for his ailing wife, but he kept his season tickets, renewing them every year along with his donation check, but sold them for face value to split between my dad and his work buddy, Charly. So we went to a lot of games at Cole Field House, usually my brother, dad and me, but sometimes if my brother couldn't go, my mom went or I invited a friend.

So I think everyone in the car had been to a game to see Len Bias play. And what a treat it was. Of course for kids you have no idea that you're living through a time to be savored. No matter how many times some adult tells you these moments are precious, we won't see a guy playing basketball like this for a long time, when you're a kid, you just assume you will.

We saw Jordan, we saw Bias, we saw some legendary basketball games in those days. We would occasionally go to Cap Centre to see Georgetown play, and once Pat Ewing jammed in the scariest fast break allioupe behind-the-back no-look dunk I've ever seen. John Thompson benched him and started yelling at him for his wanton daredeviltry, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Suffice to say, those were pretty cool times for a kid to be a college basketball fan.

The basketball was so good it got my mom into it. She was never interested in attending O's games with us, or to see the Dips play at RFK, but she went nuts over Terps basketball. She had the biggest chip on her shoulder over the tyranny of Tobacco Road. Even I was shocked by how resentful she'd get over our relegation to second-class citizenship in the ACC.

You know how people go see horror shows and hide their eyes behind their hands when something scary's on the prowl? That was my mom when the Terps were playing. Always getting up for a glass of water when the score was tied, never able to watch the end of a close game. She'd call in from the kitchen, "How's the game going?"

"Why don't you come in here and see?"

"Is Len Bias on the court?"

If he was, she'd tiptoe back in and stand by the bookcase with a towel in her hand, as if there were something that would require her imminent attention and she was just there for a peek. "What's the score? Oh, I can't watch this."

And then Bias would do something amazing and she'd sit down next to me and grip my hand and I'd pat her knee and we'd watch the Terps win or lose, and she'd laugh at Lefty Dreisell's incomprehensibly down-home post-game interview, and I could feel her gradually getting her breath back. There was nothing quite like it.

So when she yelled at us in the car on the way back from that test, I knew where it was coming from. I felt it, too, though not as keenly yet. It took many seasons to understand what we'd lost. Sure, Bias died after his Maryland playing years were done, but his death left a shameful wreck that took decades to right. Lefty's ouster felt unjust but understandable. The rudderless athletic department stupidly hiring Bob Wade fresh out of Dunbar, sidestepping standard operating procedure, and the NCAA's vengefully severe sanctions for flouting their ritual, were salt in a festering wound.

Then came Gary Williams and a long process of rebuilding that brought us an actual national championship, which suddenly gave me license to inexplicably not care so much about whether the Terps win or lose. It's not as if Len Bias was a ghost to be exorcised, but his death made every step tentative, reminded me as a fan that every stair climbed deepens the eventual fall. That championship, however, put us above the clouds.

My mom was alive when we won the championship, for which I'm grateful, but even after we won she could still hardly stand to be in the room when the Terps were on. I sometimes think, if there's an afterlife, my mom walks in and out of some heavenly arena, ethereal towel at the ready. She sits and takes a vise grip on some poor soul's hand as they watch Len Bias lead a team of saints to an eternity of close victories.

I'm glad I was a kid then. Some people get angry over the idea of other people throwing away their lives; I don't. I think we have heroes who rise and fall, soar and die, we can love their talents and their flaws, and in that pause, when we scream at the crows to shut up already, when we swat the backseat for just a moment of silence, we all think the same thing at the same time:

We were lucky to have been there to share his gift.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 10:04 AM on March 7, 2013 [35 favorites]

There's a bit at the end of Sweet Forever by George Pelecanos that shows up the bleak and brutal effect Bias' death has on the two main characters, Dimitri Karras and Nick Stefanos, both of whom have had more than their share of powder throughout the novel:

"Karras crossed the avenue, approaching Stefanos and the kid from behind. As he neared them, Karras saw the televisions in the window were all tuned to the same image: Len Bias, wearing that jazzy ice green suit of his, standing out of his chair at the calling of his name.

All right, it was news. But why were they running the draft highlights again, two days after the fact?

"Nick?" said Karras.

Stefanos and the boy turned their heads. The black kid was crying freely, tears running down his cheeks.

"Dimitri," said Stefanos, his eyes hollow and red.

Karas felt hot and suddenly nauseous in the sun. He backed away to a government oak, leafy and full, planted by the curb. Karras stepped into its cool shade.

He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. It was better there, standing in the darkness pooled beneath the tree.

posted by erskelyne at 2:01 PM on March 7, 2013

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