Will we ever learn the lessons of Len Bias’ death?
Even 33 years later, in speeches, books and basketball tales, his tragic story lives on
It doesn’t have to be a milestone anniversary to stir up all the familiar melancholy recollections. The date, June 19, is good enough, and no matter how far the date is removed from the morning that Len Bias died, the wound seems to never close and the pain never seems to ease.
It stands to reason that the moment would pack less of a punch the more time passes, but for both those old enough to remember it and those who weren’t born yet, it has not. Wednesday was the 33rd anniversary of a moment many people have termed its generation’s ultimate “Where were you when you heard?” moment. And Thursday will be the 33rd NBA draft since Bias was picked second overall out of the University of Maryland by the just-crowned NBA champion Boston Celtics.
Len Bias died on this day 33 years ago. As odd as this may sound, June 19, 1986 might as well be Sept. 11, 2001 in terms of remembering where I was when I heard the news. https://t.co/zDDkLLgnbm
— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonAspen) June 19, 2019
So that’s also 33 NBA Finals, and 33 Celtics seasons, and 33 Maryland seasons, all with little if any loosening of the grip that Bias, his life and his death have had on the cultures involved.
He remains immortal, even while he’s an object lesson about mortality. His legacy has stretched in so many directions, including in ways no one could have anticipated then. The ongoing consequences of the federal drug laws passed in the wake of his death have been well-documented. So has the number of athletes born after his death who have admired him, or tried to grasp the meaning of his death, such as the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns.
As his mother, Lonise Bias, said last month at a panel discussion on Maryland’s campus, “We are just so honored and flabbergasted about how, 33 years later, people are still talking about Len Bias.’’
She was speaking of herself and her immediate family. “Flabbergasted,” though, applies far beyond them. After all, she was still finding rapt audiences for her words, still speaking as urgently in 2019 as she did in 1986, at her son’s memorial service at Cole Field House.
On this night, she was speaking at a panel discussion to promote the latest recount of her son’s life and its aftermath: Lessons From Lenny: The Journey Beyond a Shooting Star, by former Maryland players Tony Massenburg and Walt Williams, published last fall. The title reflects the contradictions of the legacy Bias left: learning from his life as a basketball player and a person, and as the obvious cautionary tale of what must be avoided.
The ballroom was packed with invited alumni, men and women ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s. One wore a replica Len Bias jersey, still popular gear in the crowds at Maryland games, around campus and on sale online.
Just as ubiquitous as the gear are his highlights. Whenever the greatest players in ACC history are discussed, Bias, the two-time conference player of the year, is part of the conversation. Whenever classic ACC tournament performances come up, Bias’ MVP performance in 1984 is mentioned.
The history of the Dean Dome at North Carolina cannot be told without the first loss the Tar Heels suffered there — to Maryland, in March 1986, including Bias’ iconic jumper-inbounds steal-reverse dunk sequence.
All of that raises the “What if …” question. That has not cooled with the passage of time either.
Would Bias have been better than Michael Jordan, whom he crossed paths with for two years in the ACC? What might the Celtics dynasty have become with him there, instead of what happened without him? That topic was renewed in 2008, when Boston ended its championship drought that had begun in 1986. Fragments of it will surely bubble up again this offseason as the Celtics’ current threat to return to true prominence continues to disintegrate.
How much, in fact, was the very history of the NBA altered by the void Bias left?
Trying to know the unknowable is only exacerbated as the players of his generation continue into middle age. They’re coaching teams, broadcasting games and owning franchises. Yet, there are examples from that 1986 draft class of those who have died from drugs or had their careers and lives derailed by them.
The milestones, meanwhile, that marked Bias’ world still seem recent, even though they really are not. The redemption tale that was Maryland’s 2002 NCAA championship happened 17 years ago. Soon, there will be students on campus, including basketball players, who were not born when the Terrapins cut down the nets in Atlanta and completed the journey from the depths of Bias’ death. (The Georgia Dome itself, where Maryland won the title, no longer exists.)
The definitive tale of what preceded and followed the tragedy, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary Without Bias, aired 10 years ago. An important threshold in Maryland’s reconciliation with his legacy, his selection to the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame, was crossed five years ago, in 2014.
Lefty Driesell, the Maryland basketball coach forced out in the contentious months after Bias’ death, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September. Their stories were inextricably tied: There was no shortage of opinions in the years leading up to Driesell’s selection that Bias was being held against him. Driesell, 86 years old and a natural raconteur, never pointed that finger but also never stopped talking about him (always calling him “Leonard,’’ as he did in the lobby of Cole Field House the day he spoke to reporters while wiping away tears).
After his selection last year, Driesell told a Baltimore radio host how he wished he could be joining his former player in Springfield, Massachusetts:
“Leonard Bias would have definitely been in there, in my opinion. … He was a great, great player. I don’t know if he would have been as good as LeBron James, but he’d be right up there in that same category. It’s just so sad. I think about him all the time.”
That is yet another generational talent compared to the one who was lost.
Finally, as if to prove that some stories might not ever be destined to fade away, Maryland and the sports world are back to grappling with another needless, avoidable death of a young athlete on campus. This month marks one year since the heat- and neglect-related death of football player Jordan McNair. The circumstances and scrutiny of his death brought reminders of Bias’ death as vivid as if it had happened much more recently than three-plus decades earlier.
One of the target audiences for their book, Massenburg and Williams have said, are the Maryland football players.
“Len Bias’ name is written in the history books,’’ his mother said, echoing a crucial point in her years of speeches.
Len Bias is also living history, for 33 years and counting.