Twenty years ago tonight, I was working as summer job as a caterer, living in my great-aunt’s garage in Arcadia, CA. Chip (or somebody) called me on the phone and said, “how about Len Bias?” It was then I heard the news that truly affected my micro-generation (those who were between 13 and 23 on that date): Len Bias had tried cocaine once and his heart had exploded.
Why did this strike a chord? Well, for starters:
That player with the ball is Len Bias, three months before that phone call, utterly shellacking the North Carolina Tar Heels in their home arena. You see one of those little white pixels in the middle right part of the picture? That is yours truly, at the age of eighteen, watching in horror as this lone player systematically destroyed one of our perfect seasons. It was the first loss I ever saw in person, and I watched it with Susan and Ellen Frye and their parents.
Bias was one of those players from opposing ACC teams you couldn’t hate, because he was just too good, and unlike the Dookies of his era (Ferry, Laettner, Davis) he wasn’t an asshole. When he was drafted by the Celtics a few weeks after that game, he was largely expected to keep Boston in Larry Bird-like championship status.
Instead, he died two days after getting picked, and it really did scare the ever-loving shit out of most people my age for ever trying cocaine. I did eventually give it a go ten years later, but I thought about Len Bias the whole time. It’s kind of a buzz crusher to do so, like thinking about Janis Joplin while drinking Southern Comfort, but deep inside, I felt I might be that .1% of people who could die each time they did a line of blow. To this day, I’ve never had more than a microscopic amount, just enough to feel a second cousin to the alleged euphoria, and that’s enough.
There were times at my fraternity, years after his death, when Len Bias’ name was a cautionary tale to some brother who appeared to be going off the deep end. If Bias, this perfect, handsome, virile, 22-year-old, 4%-body-fat freak of nature could die doing coke once, imagine what could happen to your dime-store schlubby fratboy.
I post this picture of Len (holding Celtics cap) and Brad Daugherty (Cavaliers) not just because Brad is one of my favorite Tar Heels ever, and not because Chris Washburn (far right) got a 475 on the SAT before going to N.C. State and stealing stereo equipment… although those are pretty good reasons… but because it truly shows what “twenty years ago” looks like.
This photograph could have been taken in 1963, with the fade haircuts and white-lavender tuxes. Bias and Chuck Person both look like Eddie Murphy in “48 Hrs.” In many ways, I can’t believe I was an “adult” when this image was snapped, and I’m not sure how much Len Bias’ death reverberates amongst the would-be recreational coke-using teens of the 22nd century.
After all, Maryland still doesn’t graduate any of its players, every industry party I’ve been to has drugs far north of cocaine, and Len’s name means nothing to the crowds watching the Mavs-Heat final tonight. So I guess this is just a private thank-you to a player I saw perform the impossible in front of my eyes, and then died an impossible death. He might have saved my life, he might have saved thousands of us, but there is immense joy in not having to know one way or the other.