Len Bias' Death Provoked Change, Questions, Memories
 
 

June 16, 2006

BALTIMORE (AP) -When he completed his extraordinary basketball career at Maryland, the only question surrounding Len Bias was whether he would dominate the NBA in the same fashion he ruled the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Twenty years later, many still wonder.

Bias appeared destined for greatness when the Boston Celtics selected the 6-foot-8 forward with the No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA draft. The plan was for Bias to team with future Hall of Famer Larry Bird for a few years, then take over as leader of pro basketball's most storied franchise.

"It's a dream within a dream," Bias said that night. "My first dream was just to play in the NBA. To get drafted by the world champions is an extra one."

Two nights later, on June 19, 1986, Bias died of cocaine intoxication. He was 22.

"The news of his death was tragic, as he would have been an amazing professional player after his college career," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said recently. "It was a sad day for the entire sport of basketball. We lost one of the best players of that era."

Bias averaged 16.4 points per game at Maryland and won the ACC player of the year award in 1985 and 1986.

"I have said many times that the two most difficult opposing players to prepare for in my time in the ACC were Michael Jordan and Len Bias," Krzyzewski said. "Len was a gifted player. He was special, and our league has had a lot of great players."

Bias led Maryland to the ACC title in 1984, the only one the Terrapins won under coach Lefty Driesell.

"I've coached a lot of great players, and if Leonard wasn't the best, he was right up there," Driesell said in a telephone interview from his home in Virginia Beach, Va. "I know this much: No one improved as much from his freshman to his senior year."

The Terrapins' current coach, Maryland alum Gary Williams, was coaching at Ohio State in 1986. But he saw enough of Bias to know he would have been a star in the NBA.


 

 

"By the time Bias was a senior, he was one of those players that could do anything on the court. That's one of the sad things, that no one got the chance to see how good a pro he could have become," Williams said. "He would have really helped the Celtics. At the time, Larry Bird, Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale were pretty old; I think Bias could have kept that dynasty going."

Bias' death affected everyone around him, including Driesell, who was forced to resign. It also altered the way America perceived - and policed - recreational drugs.

"The attitude in the country was that doing cocaine was exciting fun," said John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Len Bias' death changed the nation's attitude about drug use. People said, 'This is wrong, this is bad.' It energized parents to do something about it."

The government acted, too. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which provided leadership in establishing drug abuse prevention programs. The legislation, introduced by President Reagan, also created the Office for Substance Abuse Prevention.

In addition, stiffer sentences were enacted for those convicted of trafficking drugs.

Twenty years have passed since her son died, and Lonise Bias remains unrelenting in her quest to teach the nation about the danger of using drugs. She heads workshops and seminars on the subject, eager to ensure others learn from her son's fatal mistake.

"When Len first died, someone said take lemons and make lemonade. That disturbed me, because it was one of the most painful things that I had ever experienced. It was very difficult for me," Lonise Bias said. "But 20 years later, I have lemonade. That's been the hardest thing - sweetening this thing that was so bitter by helping other people and learning through life's experiences."

Walters said drug use by teens in the United States is down 20 percent since 2001, and a portion of the credit belongs to Lonise Bias.

"Bias speaks with the power of a parent who lost a child," Walters said. "Obviously, she has had to endure some pain, but she makes that sacrifice for the betterment of others."

Len Bias died after inhaling a large amount of cocaine during a late-night gathering with a few friends in a Maryland dorm room. A year later, during a trial in which Brian Tribble was acquitted of charges he provided Bias with the cocaine that killed him, two Maryland players said Bias had used the drug several times before.

Driesell still refuses to believe it.

"He was one of the nicest young men I ever met. He went to church every Sunday and always worked hard in practice," Driesell said. "We had drug tests, and he never tested positive. He didn't even drink beer. I would almost bet my life he never tried it before that night."

Williams said Bias' death caused college teams to upgrade their drug-testing programs.

"The NCAA looked at drug testing as something that could prevent what happened to Len Bias," the coach said. "Before that, drug testing wasn't very scientific. After Bias died, teams went to random testing, which is how it should be."

In a university investigation following Bias' death, school officials found Bias failed to attend his courses for the final weeks of the spring semester, cutting classes after playing his last game with the Terrapins. Driesell and athletic director Dick Dull were forced to resign.

Asked if he could have done anything differently, Driesell replied, "The only thing I regret is that Len Bias passed away. The NBA lost a great player, and I lost Len Bias as a friend."

Bias' No. 34 jersey hangs from the rafters at Maryland, a tribute to one of the school's finest players. If he had played for Boston, would there have been a place for his jersey on the ceiling of the Celtics' arena?

"When I think about Len Bias now, I think of how hard he competed and how tremendously talented he was," Krzyzewski said. "Other than Michael Jordan, he is the player that no teams had the answer for. He was that good."


 
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