It’s been nearly 25 years since the saddest moment in NBA history occurred. Twenty-five years since we learned that no one is invincible. Twenty-five years since we really understood the meaning of “life isn’t fair.”
On Sunday, it’ll be exactly 25 years since we lost Len Bias.
By now we all know the story. Bias, the second overall pick by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 Draft, overdosed on cocaine two days after he was drafted.
Many believe that Bias was one of the most talented players never to play in the NBA. He was the missing piece that would help continue the Celtics dynasty (the Celtics had won two of the last three NBA Championships, and three of the last six before drafting Bias). Many believed only one other athlete rivaled his mix of talent and potential…Michael Jordan.
He was that good. And in one night filled with a few terrible decisions, Bias was gone.
There was considerable drug use in the 1980s, even among professional athletes. You can just look at Bias’ draft class for proof. According to a story by HoopsHype.com, four of the top seven picks in the 1986 class saw their careers ruined by drug use.
Washburn, a powerful and agile center, would play just two seasons with the Warriors and Atlanta, and was banned by the NBA for life in 1989 after failing a third drug test. William Bedford, a center taken No. 6 by Phoenix, played six uninspiring seasons while battling drug problems and has been in prison the past eight years due to a drug-related offense. Forward Roy Tarpley, selected No. 7 by Dallas, also lasted just six seasons before being banned from the NBA for life for drug use.”
And drug use wasn’t just limited to basketball players. Darryl Strawberry — a baseball player drafted in 1980 — battled drug abuse throughout his career. Pitcher Dwight Gooden was drafted in 1982 and saw his career shortened by heavy cocaine use.
No one will ever argue that Bias’ death was in any way good thing…and they shouldn’t. But the one thing his death did do was shed a light on a problem that many were turning a blind eye to.
Drugs were a major problem for the NBA — and professional sports in general — and going largely ignored by fans, coaches, scouts and league personnel. Seeing Bias, the NBA’s next big star, succumb to cocaine was more than just a wake-up call. It changed America’s perception of drugs.
When kids saw that if someone like Bias; a marvel athlete; a demigod on the basketball court; the kid with the bright smile and incredibly promising career; could lose his life to drugs, than anyone could. He proved that drugs were serious and very real, and could affect anyone.
His death changed the culture. Athletes realized that hardcore drug use could end their careers before it even got started. Scouts and coaches started to look at athlete’s characters and backgrounds before choosing them.
Athlete’s “big” mistakes are nothing now compared to then. We think LeBron James is the worst athlete in the world because of a television special and a welcome party. Tiger Woods was publicly demonized for adultery — a terrible thing but in no way a criminal act.
There has been drug use by athletes since Bias’ death, but rarely is it for recreational use. Athletes like Barry Bonds (allegedly), Roger Clemens (allegedly) and Alex Rodriguez took steroids for competitive advantages. Athletes aren’t doing hard drugs to celebrate, but rather to become better.
Bias’ death didn’t just affect himself, his friends and his family. It also had an incredible effect on the NBA. Bias was supposed to be the player that would help the Celtics win titles for the rest of the decade. He was also supposed to help prolong Larry Bird’s career.
Instead, his death opened the door for Magic Johnson’s Lakers to win two more titles and hoist Magic into the pantheon of all-time great players. It helped the Bad Boy Pistons win two titles and cement Isaiah Thomas as one of the best point guards ever. It robbed the NBA of having a true athletic rival to Jordan. It forced Larry Bird to play big minutes with severe back injuries; minutes that could have been shared with Bias.
We’ll never know what Len Bias could’ve become. He and we were robbed of seeing him fulfill his potential.
But we do know what Len Bias’ death taught us. It shows us that life is short. It shows that drugs are serious and dangerous.
But most of all, and most importantly, it showed a nation of young kids and young basketball players that everything can be taken away with just one big mistake.