For you youngsters out there, Len Bias was one of the greatest basketball players in ACC history. Hell, some would argue that he was the greatest of All-Time.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski put Bias on par with Michael Jordan.
"“During my years as an ACC coach, the two most dominant players we’ve faced were Michael Jordan and Len Bias,” Coach K wrote to me last year. “I always thought those two players were a cut above. They did things no one else could do. I would put the two of them together.”"
Of course while Michael Jordan went on to become the greatest basketball player in the modern era of the NBA, Len Bias died tragically two days after being drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 draft.
He died from a cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose.
Purely in a basketball-sense, Bias’ death was huge. He landed on the freaking Boston Celtics, the defending NBA champs. A team that featured Larry Bird, Dany Ainge, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. This team was so good, they made it back to the Finals that year, losing to the L.A. Lakers.
Bias would have started from day one (or at least would have been a key reserve because the team was stacked). Remember, some thought he was as good as Jordan. Even if he was just a step below Jordan, Bias still would have ended up being a top-five player for years to come. Just imagine how many more titles the Celtics would have won?
Off the professional court though, Bias’ death had a much more devastating impact.
Maybe because Bias’ cocaine-related death was so high-profile, maybe because College Park, Maryland is so close to D.C., whatever the reason, politicians did what they always do best and overreacted.
Led by House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill (A Boston Celtics fan), both Democrats and Republicans in Congress tried to prove each was more manly on the war on drugs, by rushing through before the 1986 midterm the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.
The “Len Bias Law” as it would be known as, “reinforced the previous drug law with stiffer penalties and expanded the DARE program.”
The key component was the “mandatory minimum” sentences for simple possession of drugs, particularly cocaine and crack cocaine. Of course these new laws tended to effect the black community more…a lot more.
"The law has resulted in 25 years of disproportionately harsh prison sentences for defendants who are disproportionately black. It called for felony charges and mandatory minimum prison sentences for anyone caught with even a small amount of cocaine; inexplicably, it triggered the mandatory sentences for crack cocaine possession at 1/100 the amount of powder cocaine. Rather than rooting out the traffickers, it filled the country’s jails with blacks and Hispanics, who in some cases serve more time for possession than convicted murderers. It was only after ’86 that the number of blacks surpassed the number of whites in prison for the first time, and many of the offenders who were picked up that year are still locked up."
Now this was a blog post about whether Len Bias belongs in the Maryland Athletic Hall-of-Fame. This is the question a lot of people are asking right now because we’re coming up to the 25-year anniversary of his death. I just wanted to talk some history before I try to answer the main question I’m asking.
So does Bias belong in Maryland’s Hall?
The Hall-of-Fame is supposed to be about the athletes’ achievement on the court, so let’s just peek at those first.
At Maryland, Len Bias was one of the most gifted players in college basketball. He was a two-time “ACC Player of the Year.” During his senior year, he averaged 23 points and seven rebounds per game. In four seasons he averaged 16 ppg (pre-three-point shot) and is the second all-time leading scorer for the school. He shot 53-percent from the floor for his career.
Now I’ll agree that there are always exceptions. Pete Rose bet on baseball. That’s a big no-no. If Len Bias was caught rigging spreads, then no, he doesn’t belong in the Hall-of-Fame. If he murdered someone, I could understand why he’d get left out? There is always a limit.
Yet, just like the drug war, cocaine is having a tougher impact in this case. Because Bias’ death was related to cocaine, it’s punishing him more than maybe he deserves. Thing about it…if Bias had gone out, downed eight beers and then wrapped his car around a tree (thus killing just himself) do you think we’d be having this conversation 25 years later?
I could be wrong, I just don’t think so. You could argue that since alcohol is legal and cocaine isn’t, that’s the big difference. Maybe. I just think if you subbed out cocaine with illegally obtained prescription drugs or even marijuana, the situation would be different.
Of course for Maryland, maybe it’s much deeper than that. Len Bias’ death brings back a lot of bad memories. It wasn’t just about one great player overdosing.
Let’s not forget, this incident brought down the Maryland basketball team and the athletic department. The athletic director was forced to resign. Head coach Lefty Driesell also resigned after 17 years. A grand jury report in 1987 ripped the university a new one.
After Bias ‘death, the NCAA began to investigate and discovered both academic and recruiting violations. The Terrapins Men’s basketball program was placed on three years probation, stripped of scholarships and was kicked off of TV for a year.
It would take years for Maryland basketball to recover. Except for kick-starting the investigation, Bias’ death had nothing to do with the probation officially, but you can sort of understand why the school might be hesitant to honor Len Bias’ on-court achievements.
Personally though, I think its time. First, it’s been 25 years. Let’s move on. At the very least, Bias’ death became a cautionary tale. While it’s impossible to know for sure, I’d be willing to bet his tragedy helped keep hundreds of future athletes from making that same mistake.
Secondly, it would be one thing if Maryland’s men’s basketball team never recovered from this episode, but it did officially when the Terrapins won the title in 2002.
I think it’s time to let Len Bias the basketball player have his due…in the Maryland Athletic Hall-of-Fame.