At the risk of overstating, everyone who was a fan of sports at the time remembers where he or she was the day Len Bias died.
I know I do.
It was the summer of my 16th year, and basketball -- both college and pro -- was an important part of who I was becoming. Other than coming of age with the Islanders' NHL dynasty, I've never rooted for any team harder than I rooted for Lou Carnesecca's St. John's basketball teams. For a kid from Long Island whose father cheered for the Johnnies, nothing could've been more special than rooting for Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson, Bill Wennington, Walter Berry, Willie Glass and on and on. Those players and teams, and what college basketball was becoming at that time in my part of the Twitter-less, Facebook-less world, shaped my love of sports and planted some fertile seeds for what would become my love of sports writing.
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And in that summer of 1986, the year my beloved Mets would win the World Series, Len Bias of the University of Maryland was the toast of the basketball world. I was standing in one of your typical Long Island pizza joints on the afternoon of June 19 when the frightening news came pouring out of the radio. "You give us 22 minutes," 1010 WINS announced, as it still does today, "we'll give you the world."
That day, they gave us an enormous piece of the sports world's foundation crumbling, and it quite literally swept me off my feet. I sat down in one of those curved-back, Formica pizza-joint booths and just stared at the speakers from whence the news came. Len Bias? Dead?
Even at 15-going-on-16, I took in this event as a sports writer does -- thinking of angles, wondering about the why and how, contemplating the greater impact as best I could comprehend it. At that age, I was naive and ignorant of the NBA's drug scandals. Writers and commentators doing then what I do now were responsible for contemplating how widespread this problem was in basketball, and what to do about it.
|Bias shakes hands with David Stern on draft night, 1986. (Getty Images)|
Washburn, who has been clean since 2000 and tries to educate kids about the perils of drugs, recently told NBA reporter Chris Tomasson that on the very night of Bias' fatal cocaine binge, Washburn was snorting coke in a Bronx, N.Y., apartment with 10 other people -- including three NBA players he refused to name.
Since that tragic and transformative summer of '86, the NBA has prided itself on what drug authorities regard as the most effective and comprehensive anti-drug program in professional team sports. Tarpley and the Suns' Richard Dumas were the last players permanently banned, during the 1995-96 season. The Nuggets' Chris "Birdman" Anderson was permanently banned in 2006 but reinstated two years later. The two recent cases of Rashard Lewis and O.J. Mayo involved the ingestion of banned supplements, which speaks to either carelessness or a possible hole in the NBA's drug-testing policy, which subjects players to four random tests for banned substances between Oct. 1 and June 30.
The impact of Bias' death has been felt in basketball now for a quarter century, three years longer than Bias lived. Not only did a talented young athlete rob himself of a chance to realize his potential in sports and in life, but the proud franchise that drafted him, the Celtics, was relegated to years of darkness. Bias was supposed to be a Hall of Fame talent who would bridge the generations between Larry Bird's era and the next chapter of championships and memories. Unthinkably, the Celtics were struck again by tragedy in 1993, when Reggie Lewis succumbed to non-drug-related sudden cardiac death at age 27.
Twenty-five years later, we would all be naïve to think that drugs in general, and cocaine in particular, have been stricken from basketball -- or any other walk of life where the money and good times flow freely and relatively inexpensively. The mistakes committed by members of Bias' own draft class provided stark evidence that some of his friends and contemporaries failed to heed the warning. But you have to wonder how many young athletes, entertainers, or people from any other walk of life were informed enough or simply frightened by their memory of Bias' death to never once try cocaine. Those are the small victories, the impossible-to-count side effects of the day Len Bias died, and innocence in the sports of my time perished with him.