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Never forget story of Bias' death

WP: 20 years ago, a star's life was cut short by overdose of cocaine
Len Bias shakes pumps fist
Maryland star Len Bias celebrates after being chosen second overall in the 1986 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics.Getty Images file

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.

It's an overwhelming American Tragedy for those of us of a certain age.

On the occasion of what would have been Bias's 40th birthday, 2 1/2 years ago, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who played with Bias on summer barnstorming tours and against him while at Duke, said: "For people of my parents' generation, they mark time by when President Kennedy was assassinated. For me, and I think for many people who are about this age, I mark time by the death of Len Bias."

That's why Mourning knew exactly what he was doing — washing a car at a summer job with a dealership — when the news came over the radio. Bird, eager to see his new teammate, put it better than anybody when he called it "the cruelest thing I've ever heard."

Ever since, we've been forced to wonder: Would the Celtics have remained a force with Bias in uniform? Wouldn't he have added years to the basketball lives of Bird and Kevin McHale and ultimately succeeded them as the next franchise player and face of the Boston Celtics? How many of the four titles won by the Pistons and Lakers in the late 1980s would they have won had Bias lived? How many of the Bulls' six titles would they have won if Bias had lived? Would Jordan have had the rival and true equal many of us suspect Bias would have been? Can you miss if Bird and Magic swear to your potential greatness at 22? How many people did his cocaine overdose discourage and how long did his death impact would-be users? Would Jay Bias, Len's younger brother who wandered into the wrong crowd and was shot to death, still be alive had his brother lived?

Twenty years ago, the course of the NBA was altered and not just the standings; teams started hiring investigators to check out potential draft picks. The entire University of Maryland community was rocked; the athletic department seriously undertook reform. Perhaps Gary Williams would never have come home and the basketball team wouldn't have won that NCAA championship in 2002. So many things were set in motion 20 years ago, most of it sad but perhaps some of it productive.

Charles Barkley, who would have gone head-to-head with Bias for more than a dozen years in the NBA, recalled the morning of June 19, 1986. Having just finished his second season with the 76ers, he was sitting in his apartment in Philadelphia when he saw the words "Breaking News" on the television.

Bias's death hit Barkley hard because his brother had been in and out of drug rehab for cocaine. He had considered trying it, but the news stopped him cold. "It scared me into not trying it even once, not going anywhere near it," Barkley said Saturday night.

Magic Johnson, about as upbeat and positive a man as you'll find despite living with HIV for the last 15 years, worries that in general we didn't pay close enough attention to Bias's death.

"It devastated the entire minority community, beyond him dying," Magic said last week. "Our neighborhoods are terrorized because of drugs. In some communities young kids can barely walk down the streets without being approached. I don't think the subject of the tragedy of Len Bias comes up enough. Too many people have forgotten. It should be talked about every year at every high school, every college, and definitely the NBA season, especially for the rookies."