In addition to being the title of my favorite poem by Rudyard Kipling, the word “IF” is the most far-reaching two-letter word in the English language.
I was reminded today by a buddy that Len Bias, one of the greatest young basketball talents to ever streak across the celestial sphere, would have turned 50 years old today had he lived.
When remembering Len Bias, we can’t help but insert the word into almost every sentence.
If he didn’t die, Michael Jordan might’ve been the second best player of his generation!
If he didn’t die, the championship legacy of the Boston Celtics might’ve hummed along uninterrupted into the 1990’s and beyond!
If he didn’t die, he might’ve taken Reebok to the same heights in the sneaker market that Nike enjoyed with MJ!
If he didn’t die, he might have been the greatest player ever!
The list goes on.
One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that Leonard Kevin Bias was, unequivocally, the greatest talent I ever saw in the ACC. He might’ve been the best forward to ever grace the college game. He was easily the most dynamic college player I’d ever seen.
And like everyone else with a love and infatuation with our beautiful game, we experienced an indescribable sadness in the summer of ‘86 when he died. On that day, the sports world stood still.
And everyone in that world!
Even now, all of us who lived through the Len Bias tragedy will never be the same. I wanted to utilize this space today to take a look back and marinate on the significance of Lenny B, while taking us back to ’86, mentally and spiritually, to those days when his future was pregnant with possibility, when it seemed like every time he played, he wasn’t just playing a game, but rather making music with it.
His sudden death was comparable to the older generations’ feelings toward President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. It sounds absurd to compare the tragic killing of the leader of the free world with a 22-year-old basketball player, but it’s no exaggeration.
People felt those deaths with every ounce of their inner fiber. And they can tell you exactly where they were, and what they were doing, when they heard the news.
With an otherworldly flight game, immense physical stature and his ability to create beautiful symphonies with his bizarre combination of strength, size, coordination and skills, Len Bias’ game embodied the direction that the game was heading in. He was the sign on the basketball highway that said, “Exit 6 – LeBron James – 1000 miles.”
Whenever he stepped on the court at the University of Maryland, it was a demonstration of pure excitement and athletic brilliance.
By the time he was 15, Bias was jumping out of the gym. The dunk was his early signature, and he dominated with it. On his first trip away from home with an AAU team, Bias went to Philly and demoralized players three years his senior.
“You’re looking at an All-American!” he’d scream with youthful exuberance after another scintillating rim-wrecker.
By his senior year at Northwestern High School, a host of elite college coaches were locked in a fierce recruiting battle for his services. Cole Field House was only a short ride from the Bias home. He’d sold ice cream there during Terp games to make a little extra pocket change while still in high school. During those days, Lenny would also slip into Cole Field House to play pick-up ball with the older Terps. Among them was another area player that he looked up to, Adrian Branch, who took him under his wing.
“I raised him,” Branch would smile and tell the assorted players in the gym as he watched his young protégé ripping the rims off with the strength of Run-DMC’s lyrics riding over the beat in Peter Piper.
After his senior year in high school, Bias struggled with the initial adjustment to college basketball. But in the final game of his freshman year, he held his own against Clyde Drexler and the University of Houston’s exceptional Phi Slamma Jamma team.
He returned for his sophomore season in 1984 as a man on a mission. He scored 26 against Duke in the ACC Championship and was named the conference tournament’s MVP. As a junior, he was recognized as ACC player of the Year. As a senior in 1986, he won the award again, in addition to making every First Team All-American squad imaginable.
His signature moment came during his senior year, at the Dean Dome against the University of North Carolina. He’d already torched Duke for a scintillating 41 points a month prior. In Maryland’s 77-72 upset of the superior Tar Heels, Bias scored 31 points. It was North Carolina’s first loss in their sparkling new basketball palace.
Near the end of that tight game, Bias splashed the nets with another smooth jumper. On the inbounds pass, he jumped Kenny Smith, seemingly from out of nowhere, stole the ball and went straight up in one fluid motion to deliver what’s been called “The Jesus Dunk.”
Rocketing off the floor, he spun, threw it down backwards with two hands and then extended his arms on the descent back to earth. For Terps fans, from that day forward, it was a guaranteed love that was highly secured.
“God was with us tonight,” said one of his teammates. “And God was Lenny Bias.”
But Bias, we would soon find out, was not some superman who was immune to life’s disasters while solely soaking in its triumphs. A few short months after “The Jesus Dunk”, after being selected by the Celtics with the #2 pick in the 1986 draft, he was gone. And we knew that he’d never take his broken wings and learn to fly again.
His death would become the most socially influential moment in the history of modern sports.
I remember that NBA draft in June of 1986 like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful Tuesday in New York City, a pretty, blue sky welcoming the start of summer vacation that was symbolic of the wide expanse of the promise that lay ahead.
I’d spent the morning hours squeezing off some jump shots and playing the NYC playground game we call “Utah” (which is similar to the every-man-for-himself game of “21”, but we played up to 200, where each bucket is worth five points) at the courts behind P.S. 11 on Greene Avenue in Brooklyn, as MC Shan and The Bridge leaped out of a nearby boombox.
After a quick trip to the barbershop a few blocks away on Grand Avenue, my cousin and I hopped on the A-train, which had us in front of Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum, on Eighth Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Streets in Manhattan, in less than 30 minutes.
The doors were closed. They weren’t letting anybody else in the Garden to watch the NBA Draft. But a set of speakers were set up outside, giving us the audio of what was going on inside. So we mingled on the sidewalk with all the other hoop fiends, talking about the players, what the various teams needed, and of course, the moves that our New York Knicks needed to make.
It was a wonderful feeling standing out there with the other basketball junkies, young and old alike.
We were also a little extra excited to see where our hometown products and neighborhood superheroes like Syracuse’s Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, St. John’s Walter “The Truth” Berry and Georgia Tech’s John “Spider” Salley would wind up.
The crowd was a mix of serious young ballers sporting their Bronx Gauchos or Riverside Church Hawks practice jerseys, suited businessmen who’d slipped out the office for an extended lunch break, and fat guys who smelled like hot dogs, knishes, mustard and relish dressed in full Knicks regalia.
In the midst of the excited sidewalk banter, the sound of honking horns and the standard workday hustle and bustle of a mid-town Manhattan street, after the Cleveland Cadavaliers selected Brad Daugherty with the top overall pick, there was a noticeable hush to the conversations.
And I’m rather certain that every Knicks fan was mumbling the same thing I was. “Please don’t take him. Please don’t take him. PLEASE!”
“And with the second pick of the 1986 NBA draft,” Commissioner David Stern’s voice floated out of the speakers and over the perpetual honking of taxi cabs on Eighth Avenue, “the Boston Celtics select Len Bias from the University of Maryland.”
We all sighed.
Loving Lenny’s game, the majority of the crowd momentarily stared at the sidewalk and shook our collective heads, knowing that Boston, who’d just won the NBA championship, was now indestructible. The show in the Boston Garden would go on unimpeded.
And I knew I was in for some serious self-reflection, for there was no way, with him on their team, that I could hate the Celtics with the same vehemence ever again.
Moments later, he came out of the building. Resplendent in his shiny white suit, Lenny B looked like he was walking on sunshine. And I couldn’t help but be in awe. He slapped five with some of us youngsters, and then slinked off into a waiting limo.
And then, he was dead. As the sordid details of his drug experimentation and last moments came to light, the mistakes of one young man took on an amazing significance. The death of Len Bias forced America to examine, not only its institutions of higher basketball and their educational deficiencies, but also the drug culture as a whole.
In the aftermath, academic standards were raised and athletic departments were subject to much more control and oversight. The poor choices of one phenomenal 22-year-old player who died of a drug overdose indicted the hypocritical infrastructure of college sports. But the outcry was only momentary.
“If it hadn’t been Lenny, and it hadn’t been right after the draft, and it hadn’t been the Celtics, nobody would have noticed,” a longtime Maryland official told Michael Weinreb, author of the fantastic ESPN piece, The Day Innocence Died. “I guess that’s the good that came out of it.”
America couldn’t stop thinking about Len Bias.
In the summer of 1986, Congress’ knee jerk reaction was a set of draconian drug conspiracy laws that demanded mandatory minimum sentences. In a matter of hours, America’s drug problem, viewed through the lens of the Len Bias tragedy, was THE issue in the powerful corridors of the nation’s capital.
The politicians smelled opportunity and got caught up in the semantics of the prime time drama. Then, Cleveland Browns’ safety Don Rogers died a similar death, which served to validate the brewing political storm.
Hence, you have today’s current state of low-level drug offenders serving more prison time than convicted murderers.
The impact of Len Bias’ death is still being felt by those who have no idea who he is.
And for those of us who saw him play, who knew what he could’ve become, who understood that he was the rarest of talents, we’re still shaken back to the sadness of June in 1986 whenever we think of a young man whose poor choices cost him the gift of a charmed life, as we wish that we could hold back the years.
Happy Birthday, Lenny. Many of us are still sitting here, all these years later, wondering if….