What Should Have Been: Len Bias

Photo source: ESPN


This is part three of a series titled “What Should Have Been,” documenting players and teams in NBA history who should have been great but were held back by injuries or other setbacks.


“The Boston Celtics select Len Bias of the University of Maryland.” Commissioner David Stern spoke those words on June 17, 1986. Len Bias was supposed to bridge the gap between the 1980s and the 1990s, taking the place of the aging Larry Bird. The Celtics, who were fresh off of an NBA championship upon defeating the Houston Rockets in six games in the Finals after a 67 win season. Before the 1984 season, the Boston Celtics traded Gerald Henderson to the Seattle Supersonics in exchange for a 1986 first round pick. In the 1985-86 season, the Supersonics finished with a 31-51 record, and were awarded the second overall pick in the second ever NBA draft lottery. This resulted in the defending champions receiving the second pick.

Leonard Kevin “Len” Bias was born on November 18, 1963 to James Bias, Jr. and Dr. Lonise Bias. He grew up in Maryland, a short drive away from Washington D.C. Bias attended Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, and went to the University of Maryland. The 6-8 forward averaged 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds in 22 minutes per game as a freshman for the Terrapins. The following season, Bias doubled his points per game and assists per game and slightly upped his rebounds per game in 34.5 minutes per game. His junior year saw more improvement, as he scored nearly 19 points per game and grabbed nearly seven rebounds in 36.5 minutes. Bias was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of the Year, and was a consensus second-team All-American. He exploded for 23.2 points and 7 rebounds per game while playing 37 minutes in his senior year, and repeated as ACC Player 0f the Year. This season, he was a first-team All American. Bias was one of the top prospects in the nation and many believed he would become the next great player. Some even thought he had the potential to be the greatest of all time.

Then came that Tuesday in 1986 where he saw his dreams realized as David Stern called his name as the newest member of the Boston Celtics. On Wednesday, Bias went back to his room at the University of Maryland. He went to dinner, and then went to a party off-campus at about 2 in the morning on Thursday, June 19. Len Bias and some of his friends were using crack cocaine at the party, and, while talking to his teammate Terry Long sometime between 6:25 and 6:32, he had a seizure. When his friend Brian Tribble called 911, Bias was not breathing. The emergency medical team tried multiple times to restart his heart and his breathing, but they could not. More attempts to revive him took place at Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale, Maryland, but once again it was unsuccessful. At 8:55 AM, on Thursday, June 19, 1986, Len Bias was pronounced dead of a cardiac arrhythmia due to an overdose of cocaine, which was the only drug found in his system after his death. On June 23, over 11,000 people showed up for his memorial service.

The next month, a grand jury returned indictments against Brian Tribble for possession of cocaine and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and Terry Long and another teammate, David Gregg were indicted for possession of cocaine and obstruction of justice, but their charges were dropped in return for a testimony against Tribble. In October, three more indictments were added against Tribble. In 1987, Brian Tribble was acquitted of all charges related to the Len Bias case. Three years later, Tribble was busted as a major drug dealer and was sentenced to ten years in jail. Two years after the death of Len Bias, the United States Congress passed “The Len Bias Law,” a stricter anti-drug act the reinforced the war on drugs. It also resulted in the expansion of the DARE program, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education and is a substance abuse prevention education program.

A later investigation found that Bias was 21 credits short of the requirement for graduation. In August, 1986, it was revealed that Maryland coach Lefty Driesell had told players to remove the drugs from Len Bias’ room just hours after his death. The impact of his death was felt by everyone. Len Bias was expected to carry on the winning tradition of the Celtics; instead, the Celtics did not win another championship for 22 years. There have been multiple films about Bias and his death. How good of a player could Len Bias have been? Leave your thoughts in the comment section.




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