It Was 20 Years Ago Today

Hey, did you hear who won the award for the best basketball player under six feet?
Len Bias.
That’s the joke that the speaker at my high school overheard while she was in the bathroom before her speech. It was less than two years after the death of her son and now Lonise Bias was hearing some snooty white kids joke about it.
When she told us all that she just overhead some among us joking about her dead son, my classmates and I cringed. While she may have thought we were all just callous rich kids, it wasn’t true that we didn’t care. It didn’t matter who you were, if you were a fan of college basketball in the mid-80s, particulary of ACC basketball, you were a fan of Len Bias. He was a baaaad man. I hated Maryland, but I loved watching Bias play. He was big, strong, agile and competitive as hell. Think Michael Jordan with two more inches and 20 pounds more muscle. In ACC terms, Bias was sort of a cross between Jordan and James Worthy, too strong for small players and way too quick and athletic for power forwards.
There’s no guarantee of course that Bias would have been a star in the NBA, but I’ve never heard anyone say they thought he’d be anything but. He had All-Star written all over him. Or so we thought.
It turned out that Bias had another side that we didn’t see. A stupid, irresponsible side. That aspect of his life killed him at 22. When reports first came out, it was claimed that June 18 was the first time he’d ever used cocaine. Slowly, other stories leaked out that challenged that notion. Bias had been a user for some time. Those darker stories of his partying, along with the revelations that he hadn’t really been going to school, took down Lefty Dreisell and sent the Maryland basketball program into a nearly decade-long tailspin.
But there’s another side of the Len Bias story, one a bit more positive. Often times out of extreme bad news comes good. As Jay Bilas says in this Michael Wilbon article, everyone of my generation remembers where they were when they heard the news of Bias’ death. I was home for the summer after my sophomore year of high school. I worked as a bus boy, so went to bed late. When, I woke up on the morning of June 19 at the crack of noon, I flipped on SportsCenter and very quickly heard the news. It stunned me. How could Len Bias, the biggest, baddest mother around die just like that? At that point in my life I had never been around cocaine (and to my great fortune, never since either), but sitting there watching that story unfold, I quickly determined that I would never, ever touch that stuff. If it could kill Len Bias, it could kill me. I’d never take that chance.
Lonise Bias realized quickly that that would be her son’s legacy. He wouldn’t set NBA records or win titles, but he would, in death, save lives. She realized that and hit the road to tell her son’s story to everyone she could, even if it meant enduring the cruel jokes of adolescent punks.

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