The Story of Bias's Death Should Always Have Life

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, June 19, 2006


They don't know the story of Len Bias anymore, basketball players 30 years old and younger. Len Bias, to them, is a video clip, maybe a throwback jersey or a locker room story from one of the old guys, maybe an assistant coach who played against Bias back in the day. He's a concept, something from the '80s, more a slogan than someone who once pursued the dream they are realizing now, here in the NBA Finals. They have an image in mind but don't know the details, the hope of draft day or the crushing tragedy of the morning after.

Marquis Daniels of the Dallas Mavericks was 5 years old when Bias died, 20 years ago, of a cocaine overdose. Daniels knows more about Bias than most people his age because Daniels plays professional basketball.

But even Daniels wondered aloud if there is a movie about Bias's life that he might be confusing with reality.

"When I hear Len Bias's name," Daniels said, "I think of a great player who didn't get a chance to live out his dream. I have one of his throwback jerseys. I've seen a couple of clips of him on ESPN Classic. Sometimes people start talking about great talents and somebody will bring up his name. The way he died, we kind of stay away from that."

Old guys such as Mavericks guard Darrell Armstrong, 38 years old this week, and Miami's 36-year-old Alonzo Mourning remember exactly what they were doing when they heard Bias had died the morning of June 19, 1986. They wince at the memory of it and wonder if his death taught us anything about drug use, about the flawed notion that youth and strength equal invincibility.

To the young guys such as Miami's James Posey, who was 9 years old, the Bias tragedy is a basketball story.

"I've heard older guys speak of him as being incredible," Posey said. "The television will be on [ESPN Classic], and they'll point to him and say, 'That guy had everything.' They compare him with [Michael] Jordan and say he could have been a dominant player. We don't roll our eyes. No. We just take their word for it. I wish I could have seen him play, or maybe see more tape of him in action and try to compare him to what we see now. We can hear the respect they had for him. Nobody talks much how he died. It's pretty much confined to what he did on the court."

Not if you're of a certain age and you lived in Washington and/or Boston 20 years ago. Not if you were old enough to receive a phone call 20 years ago today from a friend on the other end of the phone saying, "You have to sit down . . . Len Bias just died."

Nobody's death stunned me more than Bias's. My father was 60 years old and had been smoking Philip Morris cigarettes, unfiltered, for 40-some years so lung cancer seemed on some level inevitable. Bias was 22 years old, a specimen, chiseled, ideally suited for basketball. I covered Bias's first two seasons at Maryland, enjoyed watching him more than anyone locally at a time when Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Ralph Sampson and Reggie Williams were all playing college basketball in the neighborhood. And watching Bias, even though his Maryland teams didn't make much noise nationally, forced you to wonder about the possibilities of what he was going to be once he got to the NBA.

And just like that, the basketball story stopped forever. There were no lob passes from Larry Bird, no division titles, no all-star games, no duels with Jordan in Eastern Conference finals, no battles with James Worthy, Charles Barkley and Karl Malone for the NBA championship. The last 20 years it's been all anniversaries, birthdays that would have been and debates over what, if anything, we've learned over the years about drug use.

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