Bias’ sudden death brought shock, disbelief in ‘86

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“He’s just a great athlete. He’s got good work habits. He’s a good kid.”

Red Auerbach, President, Boston Celtics, June 17, 1986

Everybody was delighted as Len Bias, the University of Maryland’s best basketball player ever, posed for photographers at the NBA Draft in New York’s Felt Forum. Bias had always wanted to play for Boston. The Celtics, in turn, were happy to nab a 6-foot-8 All-American who would help keep them in the NBA’s upper echelon for years.

As the second player picked, Bias was sure to become a rich man, at least by athletic financial standards of the period. In its story the next morning, The Washington Post noted, “The world turned green for Len Bias today.”

And then, with unfathomable and unthinkable speed, it turned black.

Two days later, Bias suddenly went into a seizure and collapsed at dawn in his Washington Hall dormitory room in College Park. Two hours after that, he was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale at the ridiculous age of 22.

The date was June 19, 1986, 21 years ago today. Throughout the District, Boston and the sports world, the grim news sped. The most common reaction was shock and disbelief: Len Bias dead? Impossible! OK, what’s the joke?

Today people still shake their heads when his name is mentioned. Such talent. Such a future. Such a shame.

“I still think of Leonard every day,” said Lefty Driesell, his coach at Maryland. So do a lot of others.

Now, of course, we know more about Bias than we did then. Traces of cocaine were found in his system, identifying him fairly or unfairly as a drug addict. Regardless of whether he was an experienced or first-time user, the fact cast a huge shadow on his image as “a good kid.”

So did the knowledge, uncovered during a subsequent university probe, that he and several teammates had flunked classes during the spring semester. Sixteen months later, Driesell was forced to resign after 17 years as the Terrapins’ coach, although he remained at Maryland briefly in an executive capacity.

At the time, Celtics superstar Larry Bird called Bias‘ death “the cruelest thing I’ve ever heard.” But nearly a year later, as Boston played in the NBA Finals, Bird chirped a different tune.

“I would have hated to have him come into this situation if he was on cocaine,” Larry Legend said. “A guy like that could have come here and destroyed our team.”

Good guy or bad guy? Like most people, Len Bias probably was somewhere in the middle. The family’s grief was exacerbated four years later when his younger brother, Jay, was shot to death in the parking lot at Prince George’s Plaza by a reputed drug dealer. He was 20. Now the Biases’ mother, Lonise, works tirelessly in anti-drug campaigns that seek to prevent such tragedy and loss in other families.

Certainly, Len Bias‘ death affected the University of Maryland. Two internal probes led to significant changes, including a stricter admissions process, greater emphasis on a mandatory drug testing program, higher academic standards for athletes to remain eligible and expanded tutorial and guidance staffs.

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