Remembering Len Bias (1963-1986)

Originally published on June 28 of 2008 at, published to BE Sports on Thursday, 1/31/13.

By Brian Edwards

When President Reagan was shot, you remember where you were. When you got the news of the space shuttle Challenger exploding, you remember your exact location. Ditto for historic events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

In sports, you remember where you were when the news broke about Magic Johnson contracting the HIV virus. You remember O.J and the Bronco chase, Mike Tyson biting a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear off and the riot at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

On a more serious note, you remember the moment that ESPN broke the news of Hank Gathers’ death. You remember where you were when Dale Earnhardt was pronounced dead.

And I remember exactly where I was in June of 1986 when word filtered out that Len Bias was dead. It was absolutely unbelievable. Bias, drafted No. 2 by the NBA champion Boston Celtics, wasn’t even 48 hours removed from donning that green hat at the draft.

I was at Norm Sloan Basketball Camp at the University of Florida. Phil Weber, who was recently hired by the Knicks as an assistant to Mike D’Antoni and was on the UF staff at the time, delivered the news to campers like me.

I was 11 at the time and couldn’t comprehend how such a stud on the verge of greatness could just drop dead. Later that day, we found out why. Bias had died of a cocaine overdose.

As the story goes, Bias’ last words were, “I’m a horse.” Of course, he uttered that phrase as motivation to himself that he could handle another line of blow. Turns out, he couldn’t. Minutes later, he went into a seizure. Within the hour, Leonard Kevin Bias was dead.

Before his passing, there’s no doubt that Bias was ‘a horse.’ He won ACC Player of the Year honors twice. He was that rare combination of size, speed and power.

Bias was Amare Stodemire, but with an outstanding perimeter jumper and better ball-handling skills. He was Shawn Kemp in his best days with the Sonics – but better. Think Paul Pierce – but a leaner, taller, faster and more muscular version.

To this day, Duke’s Coach K claims Bias is the best player he’s ever coached against. And, as you know, that group includes a guy that wore No. 23 at North Carolina.

When Bias played in the early-mid ‘80s, ESPN was in its infancy, but I was all over the all-sports channel. For crying out loud, they showed every game of the ACC Tournament. And this kid watched every game, rooting against Duke and UNC with everything I had (some things never change).

Back then, Dean Smith’s teams never lost at home. However, the Tar Heels went down at the Dean Dome for the first time ever during Bias’ senior season.

One sequence turned the game. Bias drained a deep jumper from the left wing, then stepped in front of UNC’s Kenny Smith and stole the ensuing inbounds pass. Next, he went up and flushed home a nasty backwards dunk. You can check this play out at You Tube if you wish.

Twenty-two years have now passed since Bias’ death, meaning he’s spent just as much time in that cemetery as he spent on earth. To this day, it remains unfathomable.

And it altered the course of history in so many ways beyond sports. When Don Rogers of the Cleveland Browns suffered a similar fate eight days after Bias’ death, politicians hit the panic button. They rushed new laws into legislation, including “mandatory minimums” that have led to the overcrowding of prisons across America.

As for the Celtics, they never recovered until capturing the 2008 NBA title a few weeks ago. Would Bias’ presence have extended the careers of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale? Would Bird, McHale, Robert Parrish and the late Dennis Johnson have another ring (or two)?

We’ll never know. When Reggie Lewis also died of a heart attack a few years later, the Celtics completely collapsed and went into a tailspin.

When Lefty Driesell spoke at Bias’ wake, he concluded his speech with these words: “I’m gonna miss you, Leonard.”

You got that right, Lefty. We all have. We all missed out when Len Bias left us way too early.

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