The life and death of Len Bias was unbelievable, surreal and sad.
A chiseled superhero in high tops, Bias was one of the most dynamic college basketball players in the nation in the mid-1980s.
The two-time ACC Player of the Year was considered the most complete player in the 1986 NBA draft. “He’s maybe the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in a long time,” said Boston Celtics scout Ed Badger.
A tremendous leaper who was viewed as raw and undisciplined as a freshman at Maryland, Bias blossomed in College Park. He led the ACC in scoring in his junior season. As a senior, Lenny was named consensus first team All-American and ACC Athlete of the Year.
“The two most difficult opposing players to prepare for in my time in the ACC were Michael Jordan and Len Bias,” said Mike Krzyzewski, who has led Duke to a dozen conference titles. “When I think about Len Bias, I think of how hard he competed and how tremendously talented he was.”
Len Bias said his dreams came true when he was selected by the world champion Celtics with the second pick of the 1986 draft. Less than two days later, he would be dead.
Born in Landover, Maryland, November 18, 1963, Leonard Kevin Bias was the second of James and Lonise Bias’ four children – and their eldest son.
An explosive and exciting talent with a swagger and a playground vibe, he grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and attended Northwestern High School in Hyattsville.
Known as “Frosty” for his cool demeanor, Bias opted to stay near home and play for Charles “Lefty” Driesell at the University of Maryland. He went on to become the greatest player in school history.
“I used to have to pull him out of practice,” Driesell said of his star’s ability on the basketball floor, “because he would dominate so much.”
In the early morning hours of June 19, 1986 – less than 48 hours after he had become a Celtic — Bias and some friends celebrated while using cocaine in his dorm suite. Around 6:30 a.m., Bias had a seizure, lost consciousness and stopped breathing. His friend, Brian Tribble, called 911.
Tribble, to emergency dispatcher: “Len Bias needs help…he’s not breathing right…This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die. Seriously sir. Please come quick.”
Bias’ heart stopped beating. He was rushed to the hospital but never regained consciousness. Just 22, Leonard Bias was pronounced dead of cocaine intoxication at 8:50 a.m.
The death of Len Bias became national news, sending shockwaves across America. Hearing the story was like getting kicked in the gut. “It’s the cruelest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Larry Bird, who never got to play with Bias.
The 6’7”, 220-pound forward was a physical specimen – he was LeBron before there was a LeBron — who had never failed a drug test, including the one administered by the Celtics before drafting him.
Lenny Bias has been dead for 31 years, far longer than he was alive. The impact of his death is so far-reaching it has been described as the most socially influential moment in the history of modern sports.
His legacy may be that he was a human anti-drug act. In the three decades following his death, dozens of former drug users have told Lonise Bias that they stopped using after learning of the death of her son. Lenny’s death scared them straight.
In the aftermath of Bias’ passing, Lefty Driesell was forced to resign after 17 seasons at Maryland, and new strict national anti-drug laws went into effect.
Four of the top seven picks in the 1986 draft were severely affected by drug addiction. Chris Washburn, who was selected one spot after Bias, developed a crack habit that led to him living in abandoned buildings and eating out of trash cans.
William Bedford washed out of the league, was arrested multiple times for possession, and spent ten years in prison. Roy Tarpley was banned by the NBA for drug and alcohol abuse before dying from liver failure at 50.
In 1987, Jay Bias, Len’s younger brother, led Northwestern to the Maryland state high school basketball title. Three years later, Jay Bias was gunned down in a Prince George’s County shopping center parking lot for no apparent reason. He died in the same emergency room where his brother was pronounced dead in 1986.
Following their sons’ deaths, Lonise Bias became an anti-drug lecturer, while James Bias became an advocate for handgun control. Two of their sons rest side by side in a cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.