fear the turtle


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.

0 thoughts on “fear the turtle

  1. Father Tim

    I cannot believe that was 20 years ago. It remains one of the most vivid news events of my life. My dad was picking me up from a basketball camp and I was excitedly on my way to a baseball card shop to pick up the hottest rookie card on the planet (Jose Canseco’s). The news came over the radio and my dad whipped the car over to the side of the road and sternly said, “That is why you don’t mess with that stuff. IT WILL KILL YOU!” I was still reeling from someone that good being gone so soon. What a great player and what a sad story. RIP Lenny B.

  2. CP

    — I felt I might be that .1% of people who could die each time they did a line of blow. —
    ian, that is exactly, EXACTLY, how I feel about that nasty, NASTY, disgusting shit I see absolutely everywhere.
    I also think about what a colossal monster I would invariably become were I to go down that road. and how I once heard that coke is like eating a sandwich that never fills you up, only leaves you hungrier each time. fuck. sounds awful.
    now, onto more important things. 1) kenny “sky” walker (#7) used to be my favorite new york knick, before they got charles oakley. 2) he always reminded me of john turturro. 3) 48 hrs. is an amazing movie. 4) person and bias actually look more like members of the bus boys, the band playing at vroman’s in the movie (and before eddie murphy delirious.)
    kids — stay in school, don’t do drugs, eat your greens.

  3. Sean M.

    Considering the facts that I’m a gay 30-something male, work in entertainment (well, when I’m not unemployed like right now) and was a fratboy at a Big Ten school, even I have trouble believing myself when I say that I’ve never even SEEN coke. But it’s true, and I’m OK with that…

  4. Sean Williams

    It turns out that Len had a large coke habit that had been going on for some time. Again, this is one of those cautionary tales that, as parents, we have to be careful telling, like saying that pot is as bad as heroin. Very, very few people die from trying coke once, far less than die doing any other mundane thing.
    Coke is bad in a hundred ways, but it is enticing because the first seven or eight times you do it, it’s really great.

  5. ken

    The first time I ever saw cocaine was a few years ago when I was visiting a friend who worked as a chemist for the DEA. He let me hold (and smell) a kilo of uncut coke, it smelled like a combination of asprin and flour. Funny that the only times I’ve seen it since have been in ridiculously smaller quantities.
    On the subject of anniversaries of tragic celeb deaths, today (6/20) marks the ten year anniversary of Jim (Material Issue) Ellison’s suicide.

  6. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    Part of the reason I love your blog so much is that you reveal things that I would NEVER admit in my blog. Especially if I thought my daughter would ever read it! I suppose I am a sissy who wants to sanitize my life for my kids. Although, in truth, there is not much to sanitize. I never tried cocaine, or any other drug for that matter. Anyway, I always get a little jolt of shock when I read that you tried a drug, etc. — the platonic friend/sex in the shower in France thing from the other day made me jump too! What are your thoughts about Lucy and her friends reading this in the future? Do you feel the need to censor anything, or do you think it is better to throw it all out there? Because you know, the best argument for a teen is to rationalize that since Daddy did it, why can’t I? Do you want her to know ALL ABOUT you? I don’t think I would want to know all the nitty gritty dark underbelly of my parents’ lives. . . that’s all I am saying. . .
    That said, Yes, I remember hearing about Len Bias. My Terp husband will tell you that the MD program took the 20 years to recover. What a horrible thing to happen to him and his family.

  7. scrub #1

    Len Bias was a player to be feared. I heard about his death right after a summer-league game in Winston-Salem, our paltry squad of underclassmen and transients vs. the up-and-coming Glenn High Bobcats, who at the time claimed 2 newbies who would be future NC State studs Bryant Feggins and Kevin Thompson. Many of the players (we all idolized Bias even ‘tho and probably somewhat b/c he had shat all over the Tar Heels in that game)were visibly shaken. I loved Larry Bird and was counting on Bias to keep the Celtics’ opponents green with envy. The coaches immediately sat us all down after the game and told us the supposed details surrounding the death–a fair scare tactic given the circumstances.
    What if became the question about the Celtics and they remained seemingly snakebit with the premature death of Reggie Lewis. I’m not sure old Lefty has ever been the same either since Bias’ tragic death.
    I also recently ran into Donnie Seale at a charity game with the “Harlem Rockets”; you’ll recall he was a NC school-boy star(one of many who thought I was a dirty undercutter and slow-footed menace) and NC State player who also torched Carolina well in one specifically memorable game. Alas.

  8. Matt

    I thought I read that Len Bias ingested more than a gram of coke, which he had mixed into a drink. I’m not sure, but I’ve heard that is a lot. And perhaps since he was hitting the big time, someone gave him higher quality stuff than he was used to. Whatever, it was a terrible waste. He threw his life away for what?
    And I’m with LFMD. There are some things I don’t want to know about my parents. Their sex life, before or during the marriage, is one of them. But then I’m just a sexually repressed theocon.

  9. Tanya

    I share your fear, Ian, and also thank Len Bias for the reason why I was and still am scared shitless of the White Lady. Of course, it’s much cooler to say, “I’m trying to quit” when offered the stuff rather than “I don’t wanna die like Len.”
    Can’t even fathom the stuff that’s worse than coke. My sister is hooked on meth and has the mouth to prove it. There are plenty of real-life examples out there why that shit just isn’t worth it…in my opinion at least.
    It makes me wonder what kind of tales or examples will be around when Caleb comes of age. I would never wish another celebrity overdose death on the world, but I have a feeling that there might still be some examples out there in 14-15 years or so.

  10. Just Andrew

    I was still in High School and was on a trip to Germany when I heard the news on an English speaking radio station. I’d always hated Len Bias – only because of his single-handed destruction of the Tar Heels. I’d never given it much thought until a few years ago when I saw one of his games vs UNC his soph year on ESPN Classic and I quickly came to realize that there was nothing there to inspire hate – his game was a thing of beauty.
    I did, however capture some frames from that game of Steve Hale stealing the ball from Bias and taking it down court for a dunk (UNC did win that game by 1 point) and printed them out for Dr. Hale – he seemed appreciative if only because he could prove to his kids that at one time he really could dunk.

  11. John Schultz

    The two events that shook me most during my senior year of high school were the death of Len Bias and the Challenger explosion.
    His death scared the bejesus out of me.
    The Celtics were so good back then and I remember thinking how this greatness would continue with the addition of Bias. To see him drafted and then dead two days later was incredible.

  12. scruggs

    My husband (Don) and I were talking about this last night and his thoughts paralleled yours even with the comment that Bias’ death “scared the crap out of” him. He grew up right outside the Bronx and basketball was THE sport (and back when the Johnnies were good). That death curbed all desire for anything stronger than alcohol. It must have been mostly a guy thing to some extent as I remember hearing about it but it didn’t register very much. Of course, I was 13 and didn’t even drink until I got to Carolina and became a lush!
    I saw an interview with Bias’ mother this week. Her perspective, though she continues to grieve, was very interesting. She said she believes he accomplished more in his death than he would have in life because of how it impacted so many people and was sobering for that younger generation. So that gives her some consolation.

  13. Steph Mineart

    I never heard of Len Bias, and so didn’t benefit from that cautionary tale in college, but I had a couple of my own examples — a couple of friends who went from being shiny happy people to paranoid, deceitful freaks in the course of a year was enough to make me wary of coke. The personality change was alarming.

  14. kevin from NC

    Len Bias.. either the best or second best ACC player of all time.
    Cocoaine took the lives of two players in that picture (one literally and the other figuratively).
    Washburn’s SAT score was not the lowest in the ACC during that time.

  15. Annie

    I am surprised by how many of us have never done coke at all. I never have, and I worked at freaking Pepper’s! For five years! So it’s not as though I never saw it. Yet thinking back it’s quite astonishing how rarely I was offered it.
    At any rate, I’ve been mulling over the fact that I’ve never had the slightest curiosity about coke. I can’t say that I sustained a mortal fear that I would die. I did fear cocaine and other drugs to some degree, but I think in my younger years I simply had a feeling of moral repugnance against “drugs” that kept me away from them until I was old enough to a) truly grasp the risks, and b) actually know people who were addicted to various things which was in some cases way more than enough to make anyone say no.
    I do remember Len Bias’s death but failed to be adequately shocked because of my then-indifference to both basketball and anti-drug scare tactics. I suppose I am thinking about current anti-drug campaigns and whether or not they are effective with kids/teens, because I know that even though I had not the slightest inclination at that age to say yes to drugs, I still felt like the campaigns were stupid, overblown distortions of fact.

  16. John Schultz

    Never did it. Never will.
    One of my suitemates in Granville Towers used to cut lines on a picture of his grandparents. Nice.
    He would stay up all night and walk around naked. Not a pretty sight.
    He’s a lawyer now…..go figure.

  17. caveman

    “He let me hold (and smell) a kilo of uncut coke”
    holy sh$t that’s funny, I used to smell some from time to time as well.

  18. GFWD

    I remember Len Bias’s death. I was at tennis camp at Belmont Abbey and the news came over the radio during a break in some of the drills. Within two or three songs of the announcement, the song “Hanging on a Heart Attack” by DEVICE came on the radio. Macabre, to say the least.
    As a Tar Heel fan, even then, the Bias death didn’t really impact me as much, other than to serve as the cautionary tale so many of you echoed. Plus, as a Lakers fan, Bias would have been a sworn “enemy” for the Celtics. While I recognized the tragedy of his untimely loss, I was not as personally invested.
    I think it’s a shame that Lefty Driesell had to resign for the actions of a former player who had already been drafted. How in the hell could he have ever prevented that? Babysitting?
    Someone mentioned Larry Bird. Len Bias was so promising that Larry the Legend informed Red Auerbach and the Celtics brass that he would attend the rookie camp just to get an opportunity to play with this kid. Prior to that, no All-Star veterans EVER attended rookie camp.
    Had Len lived, my Lakers and certainly the Detroit Pistons would have had to share some of the NBA titles they split when the Celtics took their nosedive.
    As for me personally, I’ve never done any drug of any kind, aside from alcohol. Hell, I couldn’t even identify the unmistakeable smell of pot until I was in my late, late 20’s. So, for a big ‘ol SQUARE like me, Len’s death didn’t really “scare” me straight. If anything, it just took away the remote curiosity I might have had for the drug. As many of you confirmed here, I don’t think I missed out on anything.

  19. scruggs

    Annie, but did you manage to keep your natural hair color during the Pepper’s stint?
    I bartended at Bub’s during grad school and a few coworkers used to deal coke and all the trimmings from the back cooler. Never got the urge to try any drug besides a little MJ b/c I’m a) a control freak and that would alter my senses b) too cheap to start any habit abd c) generally pessimistic and knew I’d be the one found in an alley somewhere. Of course, I was so “over” being around alcohol and drunks (not incl. our beloved GFWD) that I’m now a borderline teatotaler.

  20. eric g.

    I’ll never forget that morning. The Roanoke Times & World News sat on the breakfast table with its shocking headline: “Death Ends Bias’ Dream.” At first, I thought it meant that a close family member or friend of his had died. I mean, the world was already getting ready for the Bird/Bias Celtics.
    As much as I hated Maryland, and Lefty in particular, I had to respect Len Bias. I remember the 35 points in the Dean Dome (and who can forget Keith Gatlin bouncing the inbounds pass off of Kenny Smith’s butt?), but the game that really got to me was later in the season, when Maryland got clobbered by Duke at Cameron and Bias scored 41 of Maryland’s 68 points. He was absolutely unstoppable, so much so that Coach K must’ve just said “Lenny’s gonna get his points; let’s just try to stop the rest of the team.” He looked so alone out there, like he was Hank Aaron stuck on a Little League team. He was marking time until the draft.
    Speaking of Washburn, a guy I knew in Raleigh played high school ball with him and about three years after Washburn washed out of the NBA, this guy saw Washburn at the Statesville YMCA trying to rustle up a pickup game.
    As for Lefty, it wasn’t just Bias’ death that got him fired. That was just the culmination of a long string of player infractions, including Herman Veal being charged with rape and Adrian Branch getting caught in an airport with a bag of weed.
    I hope Len Bias is ruling the courts in heaven.

  21. eric g.

    and thank you, hilary, for letting me know i’m not the only person in the world who watches “huff.” i ask people if they watch it and i get the blankest of stares…
    i thought the last episode was not so well-written, but i generally love the show. so sad to see pepper go out that way. maybe russell will be scared straight.

  22. Annie

    Scruggs, I did have a couple-year stint at Pep’s in which I sported a bleached buzz cut, but never any pink, green or blue. I mostly played the Breck girl to everybody else’s Kurt/Courtney. Hence the infrequent invitations to share drugs.
    Oddly, Pepper’s still stands as the most fun and in many ways the most satisfying job I ever held.

  23. CP

    I used to go out with a girl who’s now on huff. but not really a fan of the show. I respectfully submit that there’s so much talent, so utterly wasted on that show. IMO. again, not trying to insult anyone’s taste and/or hard work, I just don’t get it.

  24. ken

    No Caveman, I wasn’t being coy. A DEA agent didn’t watch me snort cocaine in his office, I really meant that he let me smell it. I had never seen coke before and he said uncut cocaine has a distinct odor, which it does. Granted I did think it odd that he told me to smell it since if I did smell with too much vigor, I might inhale some but I managed to get a whiff without ‘snorting’ it.
    I’m happy for you though, that you get to snort some once in awhile.

  25. Bill

    I am a huge Celtics fan and recall the day of Len Bias’ death with great sorrow. I arrived at UNC a bit too late to seem him play in person, but his unfortunate morality tale of “one time is too many” kept me away from blow despite numerous opportunities.
    But more importantly, Ian — I didn’t realize you knew the Frye girls. I went to high school with them in Chatham, NJ, and they were the only two people I knew at UNC when I arrived in August 1987. We didn’t hang out much, but they did show me around and help me settle in a bit…I think. Funny how 19 years later I remember more clearly the stuff like going to the Rat for the first time with a friend I made in my C-TOPS group.
    Anyway, shout out to Chatham Township!


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