Len Bias: A Legend That Might Have Been
32 years ago this week, Len Bias became the 2nd overall pick at the 1986 NBA draft. Two days later, the talented 22-year old from the University of Maryland died of a cocaine overdose.
It was a “dream inside a dream”. Bias was heading to Boston to join the Celtics, the storied team of Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Bob Cousy. His forward-line teammates would be Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, kings of the 1986 NBA Championship and future Hall of Famers.
When news of his death broke, it sent shock waves across college athletics and professional sports. Following a night of partying with friends, Bias was pronounced lifeless the morning of June 19th as a result of a cocaine-induced cardiac arrhythmia.
On its June cover issue, ‘Sports Illustrated’ featured a large photo of Bias with the heading “Death Of A Dream”. The young superstar with an infectious, winning smile had his promising future with the NBA cruelly ended before it even began.
At his funeral which was attended by more than 11,000 people, Red Auerbach, Celtics President at the time, remarked that the city of Boston had not been so shaken since the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Bias was the player selected to add fresh fuel to the Celtics’ continued dominance of the league. Boston had clinched 3 NBA titles in the 1980’s- ’81, ’84, ’86- and the forward who burned the court for the Maryland Terrapins was slated to help carry the dynasty into the 1990’s.
A veteran of 16 NBA championships, 9 as head coach and 7 as front office executive, Auerbach saw Bias as a future perennial All-Star who had it all. “He could shoot, he could run, he could rebound, and he could defend…and he loved the game and played with passion”.
Growing up in Landover, Maryland, Len opted to play at nearby University of Maryland to stay close to home. One of 4 children raised by a church-going, close- knit family, his death from drugs was made that much more incredulous.
Bias stepped on the Terrapins’ court “raw and undisciplined” but ultimately developed into an All-American player. Athletic, skilled and multifaceted in the game, he built up his edge constructing plays and creating points, not just scoring them.
The dynamic duo had faced off in 1984 when Jordan’s Tar Heels took on the Terrapins in one of the most exciting college hoops matches ever. At Maryland’s own Cole Fieldhouse, Bias turned in 24 points against Jordan’s 21 but in a flurry of late scores, North Carolina topped Maryland 74-62.
Jordan won the ACC Player Of The Year award that year, but it was Bias who earned an MVP and a title after leading the Terrapins to their first ACC championship since 1958.
The 6’8”, 210 lb. sensation improved his stats with each successive season and wrapped up college averaging 16.4 points per game (23.2 his senior year). He also claimed the ACC Player Of The Year award twice in a row.
It’s not difficult to envision how big a star Len Bias could have been in a professional life. He might have provided the “yin” that was missing for Jordan’s “yang” during the 1990’s and kept the Celtics going with more national titles.
Instead, Boston settled into a 22-year winning-less slump and Bias became a tragic memory of what might have been.
BOXING September 26, 2009 Vitaly Klitschko defeats Chris Arreola in the 10th round after the latter calls it quits. It was the 40th professional bout for the Ukrainian fighter who retained his WBC heavyweight title. Klitschko retired in 2012 with a record of 47-45-2, including 41 knockouts. Two years later, he was elected Mayor of Kiev, a position he still holds.
GOLF September 26, 1999 Americans defeat the Europeans at the 33rd Ryder Cup, which was held in Brookline, Massachusetts. Winning by a narrow margin of 14½ to 13½, the Americans were trailing 10-6 before rallying in the final day to claim the tournament. Rude behavior by spectators on the course was heavily criticized by all media outlets.
TENNIS September 16, 1989 Six days after losing the US Open final to Boris Becker, Czech tennis player Ivan Lendl marries Samantha Frankel; they would have five daughters together. Lendl turned pro in 1978 and held the #1 world ranking for 270 weeks in the 1980s. A baseline power hitter, he won eight grand slams during his prolific career.
BASEBALL September 24, 1979 In his first year with the Philadelphia Phillies, Pete Rose reaches 200 hits a season for the 10th time; he was previously with the Cincinnati Reds from 1963-78. A 2x World Series champ, Rose won his 3rd Fall Classic with the Phillies. The Ohio native retired in 1986 as a player and remains MLB’s all-time leader in hits (4,256).