Leaving Las Vegas

Powerful Stuff

Still haunted by Len Bias

Yeah, I still think about him.

Sometimes I see red. That’s the color of Maryland’s uniform when Lenny Bias won me over for good, the February day he tossed the Terrapins on his back and toppled the No. 1-ranked Tar Heels by himself. Given that my team (the Celtics) was holding a potential top-five pick in the ’86 draft that summer, I almost broke an ankle hurling myself onto the Bias Bandwagon. There was one play when Bias drained a 15-footer, then came flying back in to steal the inbounds pass and dunk the ball behind his head, fluidly, all in one motion. I can’t even really describe it. When somebody makes The Leap right before your eyes in sports … well, you remember. You always remember.

Sometimes I see brown. That’s the color of a Spalding basketball as it falls into the hands of Larry Bird. The Man is still in his prime — goofy mullet, wispy mustache, almost bored by it all, searching for little challenges during games to maintain his interest — and he’s jogging upcourt and bouncing that brown ball. Suddenly he spots Bias one stride ahead of the pack. Their eyes lock. What the hell? The Man lofts a lazy halfcourt pass in the air … the ball looks like it might sail over the backboard and into the stands … but then there’s Bias gaining steam, soaring through the air, rising higher and higher … and Good God, he might actually get to that thing … and the brown ball hangs up there, forever…

Sometimes I see green. That’s Draft Day 1986. A green Celtics hat crammed on Bias’ head, millions and millions of green dollars ahead of him, green with experience, holding up the green and white uniform … nothing but green. That smile on Draft Day, will the image ever completely fade away? Did anyone seem happier, ever? He looked like a little boy, didn’t he? Can you still see him? I can. I see that smile and I see miles of green.

Len BiasSometimes I see white. That’s a pile of cocaine on a coffee table. Maybe it happened this way, maybe it didn’t, but I always imagine Lenny Bias turning that Celtics hat around so the bill of his cap wouldn’t dip into the pile … then I imagine him sticking his face into it like Tony Montana. He’s happy, he’s celebrating, he’s kicking butt and taking names, he’s feeling like he could bench-press Luther Vandross, he’s the life of the party, he’s suddenly a millionaire, he’s the next James Worthy, he’s the heir apparent to Bird in Boston, his prime awaits, and he’s utterly and completely invincible. And he crams his face into that white pile. And he takes the Celtic Dynasty with him.

Sometimes I see gray. That’s the color of the concrete on Wyndover Lane in Stamford, Conn. — the street where I lived as a kid — which is relevant since I wandered up and down that street for an entire afternoon on the heels of Bias’ death. It took me six hours to digest everything that had happened, my first real experience with sudden loss. Once ESPN started flashing those “Len Bias is dead” graphics that morning — the “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” moment for all Boston/Maryland fans — I spent the first few hours in utter denial. Did it really happen? Is it true? Is it possible they screwed up? Are we absolutely, positively — positive — that he’s dead? Can they give him CPR one last time? Is this a joke? Is this even possible?

I finally ended up storming outside during the middle of the afternoon — June 19, 1986 — and paced up and down Wyndover Lane for three inexplicable hours. I’m not kidding. Three hours. I walked up. I walked down. I walked up. I walked down. Rinse, lather, repeat. Just a 16-year-old kid looking for an answer. All I found was gray. You can drive yourself crazy thinking about it. And you know what? I almost did.

Yeah, I still think about him.

***** ***** *****

I thought about him last February, when ESPN Classic showed that aforementioned Maryland-UNC game from ’86. You forget how good Lenny Bias was. For example, back in ’86, Mike Tyson was invincible, Eddie Murphy had his fastball, Don Johnson was the coolest man on the planet and Michael Jackson didn’t look like an alien. Hoosiers hadn’t even been released yet. Wayne Gretzky and Bird were basically the kings of sport. Ronald Reagan controlled the button. Kids were still playing Intellivision and Atari. Fifteen years is a long time; maybe it’s easy to forget

As for Bias, he always reminded me of a more physical James Worthy, but with Michael Jordan’s leaping ability, if that makes sense (other than MJ and
Dominique Wilkins, nobody in the 80’s attacked the basket like a young Lenny Bias). But those weren’t even the qualities that separated him from his peers.

Len BiasThere was a brashness about him, a swagger, a playground vibe. Remember, these were still the days of tight shorts and awkward high fives; few players were cool, and the ones who were cool — David Thompson, Gus Williams, Clyde Drexler, Bernard King, Dominique, etc. — were more subtle and unassuming than anything. Jordan might have embraced that playground demeanor had he attended a school other than North Carolina, where Dean Smith frowned on anything that could be perceived as “showing up the opposition.”

When Bias’ same playground swagger became fashionable in the ’90s — thanks to the UNLV guys, the Fab Five, the post-dunk woofing, the baggy shorts, the trash-talking and so on — it seemed much more contrived, almost like the players were saying, “Hey, look at me!” Nothing about Lenny Bias was contrived. He went out of his way to dunk on people. He grabbed rebounds and spat out an occasional “Arrrrrrggggggghhhh!” for show. He barked at his teammates, he barked at referees, he barked at opponents. He exhibited a refreshingly honest amount of passion and heart.

Quite simply, he stood out. And if he had arrived on the scene seven or eight years later, I’m sure he would have been wearing baggy shorts and woofing it up just like everyone else, but that’s the beautiful thing about this — not just that Bias arrived when he did, but that he wasn’t contrived. Even if he ended up with a team other than the Celtics in ’86, I would have kept rooting for him. Lenny Bias was ahead of his time.

So that UNC game on ESPN Classic reminded me of these things, all of them. Other than Jordan, no basketball player from the ’80s resonated with the black community quite like Bias. He reminded them of everything that they valued about the game itself — the breathtaking athleticism, the competitive fervor, the individuality, those occasional mano-a-mano duels where territories were staked and reputations were made. He belonged to them, a black man excelling in a black man’s game. And seeing him in action with Maryland, his whole life ahead of him … well, I had to turn the channel and watch something else.

I couldn’t take it.

***** ***** *****

  Maybe it happened this way, maybe it didn’t, but I always imagine Lenny Bias turning that Celtics hat around so the bill of his cap wouldn’t dip into the pile … then I imagine him sticking his face into it like Tony Montana. He’s happy, he’s celebrating, he’s kicking butt and taking names. … And he crams his face into that white pile. And he takes the Celtic Dynasty with him.  

I thought about him last March, when the Utah Jazz came into Boston to play the Celtics, I glanced at my program before the game and noticed that Karl Malone was playing in his 16th season for the Jazz. That triggered a Bias flashback for me because the Mailman had entered the league in ’85, a year before Bias, well … you know.

Would Bias still be chugging along, much like Malone? Would he have stayed clean? Did he have a drug problem in the first place? Was that awful night at Washington Hall just an aberration? Would he have approached the 32,000 points and 15,000 rebounds that Malone compiled over the course of his career? What would he look like? Would he still be playing in Boston? Would he have a few tattoos? Would he have a shaved head? Would we call him Len or Lenny?

Finally my girlfriend nudged me, snapping me out of my stupor.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked me.

“Nothing,” I said.

***** ***** *****

I thought about him later that same month, when I was cleaning out my office and found a yellowed feature that I had written for the Boston Phoenix back in December of ’95 called “The Curse of Lenny Bias” — a piece which described every dreadful moment that happened to the Celtics since Bias’ death. You won’t find a more vivid example of a single tragedy altering the destiny of a sports franchise. The Celtics has just captured their third championship in six years, they were bringing back the Big Three (Bird, McHale and Parish) in their respective primes, and they were adding the most explosive college player in the country. Within 48 hours, Bias was dead; the franchise would eventually follow suit.

It happened slowly. The champions limped through the regular season in ’87, with Bird and McHale logging big minutes from October to June and carrying them to another appearance in the Finals (a painful loss to the Lakers in six, and yes, the Celts were a player short). McHale injured his foot during the last month of the season, returned for the playoffs, fractured that same foot and, incredibly, kept playing on it. He was never the same player again. And Bird’s body was never the same after that season; over the next few years, he started to break down like the Bluesmobile.

How many titles would Bias have been worth? How many years would he have added to the careers of Bird and McHale? Is it safe to argue that the addition of Len Bias to the ’86 Celtics would have locked up at least two or three more titles in the ’80s? We’ll never know.

Len BiasThe bad luck continued through the ’80s and into the ’90s. Bird and McHale broke down for good during a brief resurgence for the team in ’91, the last time the Celts ever truly contended for a title. Red Auerbach slowly faded from the scene during that time; many believe that a little piece of Red passed away in ’86, given that Red was a staunch Bias supporter during his Maryland days.

Reggie Lewis dropped dead in ’93 and sent the franchise into permanent doldrums; not only did the team lose its only All-Star caliber player, but the ensuing “Did he or didn’t he use drugs?” soap opera cast a shadow over the next few seasons. Suddenly the team was hampered by salary cap problems and inept management. Once the Boston Garden was pushed aside by the Fleet Center in 1995, the glory days of the Celtics disappeared for good.

My “Curse of Bias” piece from ’95 ended with an anecdote from former Celtics general manager Jan Volk, who remembered a moment before Opening Night in November 1986, the same night the Celtics handed out championship rings and raised the ’85-’86 championship banner. About two hours before the game, Volk noticed a piece of paper sticking out from a cushion of the sofa in his office. Curious, he pulled out the piece of paper and found that it was an unused plane ticket with Lenny Bias’ name on it. The team had given it to him during his post-draft visit to Boston, about 12 hours before his death.

“It must have fallen out of his jacket that day,” Volk told me. “To find that ticket on the same night we were raising the ’86 banner … it was eerie. It really was.”

Makes you think, doesn’t it? Did the Sports Gods decide that too many good things happened for the Celtics over the past few decades? Red, Cousy, Heinsohn, Russell, the Jones Boys, Cowens, Hondo, McHale, Parish, Bird, 16 titles … when they stumbled into the second pick of the ’86 Draft and Lenny Bias in ’86, did the Sports Gods throw their hands in the air and say, “Enough is enough!” Does stuff like that actually happen?

These are the things you think about when you’re holding a yellowed page with Lenny Bias’ picture on it.

***** ***** *****

I thought about him last April. A college buddy of mine and I were discussing Shawn Kemp’s battle with cocaine, which landed him in a drug rehab program right before the NBA playoffs were about to commence. Neither of us could understand why a professional athlete would even mess with cocaine after Lenny Bias’s death.

Red Auerbach“I remember when Bias died,” my friend said, “that put the fear of God in me.”

“Me, too,” I agreed. “Everyone was like that. It was like this giant brainwashing of all the teenagers at that time — don’t do coke. Len Bias was like a human anti-drug ad.”

“Maybe that was his legacy.”

“Yeah, maybe it was.”

And we moved onto another topic … but I found myself thinking about it later that night. Why did that have to be Lenny Bias’s legacy? Why couldn’t they have chosen someone else?

More importantly, 15 years later, why did I still care?

***** ***** *****

Len BiasI thought about him last week. My girlfriend asked me about the topic of my next ESPN.com column, so I told her I would be writing about Lenny Bias. Who was that? she asked. So I told her the whole story. She soaked in everything, finally piping in, “I can’t believe that he died two days after they drafted him. That’s unbelievable. (pause) I mean, isn’t that unbelievable? Has anything like that ever happened before?”

Having just finished recounting the sordid saga, I found myself nodding in agreement. It’s the same way I feel whenever I remember the fact that Red Sox pitchers threw 13 different pitches that could have won them the 1986 World Series. That’s unbelievable. That’s unbelievable. You couldn’t make that up. And you couldn’t make up the sequence of events that shaped the last 48 hours of Lenny Bias’ life.

Imagine having the greatest day of your life. Imagine working towards a goal for years and finally having it come to fruition. Imagine celebrating for two straight days with your family and friends. Then imagine you got a little carried away, and in a flash — boom! — paramedics are trying to revive you, but they can’t, and things slowly start fading to white … and then you’re gone. Imagine.

Later that same day, I received an e-mail from my friend Tim — a Maryland native and one of the original Bias fans back in the ’80s — warning me about ESPN Classic’s impending show about the 15th anniversary of Bias’s death. I wrote him back and explained that I would be skipping the show, but I was toying with the idea of writing a column about Bias.

  And maybe that’s what this was really about: in a nutshell, 1) betrayal and 2) sadness. It doesn’t happen that often in sports, but when those two emotions collide for the proverbial kick in the stomach, you remember. And when that happens in your formative years, you hold onto the lingering side effects forever — emptiness, grief, anger, disappointment, dismay, everything.  

About 15 minutes later, Tim sent me a return e-mail that ended like this: “I will look for the Bias article. Truly one of the saddest days of my life. We all looked up to him.”

And maybe that’s what this was really about: in a nutshell, 1) betrayal and 2) sadness. It doesn’t happen that often in sports, but when those two emotions collide for the proverbial kick in the stomach, you remember. And when that happens in your formative years, you hold onto the lingering side effects forever — emptiness, grief, anger, disappointment, dismay, everything. You harbor those feelings, each of them, all of them, a permanent grudge. And it doesn’t go away. It just doesn’t. And if none of this makes sense . . . well, it never happened to you.

That’s why I avoided watching that ESPN Classic show about Lenny Bias on Tuesday night. That’s why I still have trouble discussing the whole thing. That’s why I feel myself getting angry even as my fingers rattle on my keyboard at this very moment.

Yeah, I still think about him.

And I hate it.

Last week, Bill Simmons folded up his award-winning “Boston Sports Guy” site at bostonsportsguy.com, where he wrote for the past four years. Simmons is a Page 2 columnist.

Filed Under: Movies, Sports, Ted

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

Archive @ BillSimmons