Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Was Len Bias a basketball Jesus?

It's the 20th anniversary of Len Bias' death. From reading all the gushing praise, you'd think he was going to be the next coming. The next Jordan. The next great Celtic. Instead, if you believe everything you read, Bias ended up a Basketball Jesus who died for all of our sins.

Please. Bias was a kid who pissed away a considerably bright future by shoving a mountain of coke up his nose and OD'ing. Nothing more. Not exactly messiah like.

It's an overwhelming American Tragedy for those of us of a certain age.

That's an exact quote from Michael Wilbon's 6/19 column in the Washington Post. Wilbon is normally a writer I think is spot on. But I guess I'm not of a certain age. Bias OD'ing is far from a tragedy. The Marshall football and US Figure Skating teams plane crashes in the 60's were utter tragedies. Darryl Kile passing away in the prime of his life due to an undiagnosed heart aliment is a tragedy. Chuck Hughes dying on the field is a tragedy.

A 22 year old who partied too much and managed to off himself before he could suit up with Larry Legend is not tragic. It's a waste. It's stupid. It's a shame. It's sad. It's a fastlane to martyrdom. But it sure as hell isn't tragic.

Along with the praise of Bias' hoop skills, you have writers playing the "What if" game. Wilbon plays it with gusto...

Ever since, we've been forced to wonder: Would the Celtics have remained a force with Bias in uniform? Wouldn't he have added years to the basketball lives of Bird and Kevin McHale and ultimately succeeded them as the next franchise player and face of the Boston Celtics? How many of the four titles won by the Pistons and Lakers in the late 1980s would they have won had Bias lived? How many of the Bulls' six titles would they have won if Bias had lived? Would Jordan have had the rival and true equal many of us suspect Bias would have been? Can you miss if Bird and Magic swear to your potential greatness at 22?

Talk about going over the top. Wilbon is suggesting that Bias could have changed NBA history as we know it. Well, I can play "What if" too. Bias may not have lived up to the hype and been the the next Harold Miner, aka Baby Jordan. Bias could have continued to do coke while in the NBA and become the next Roy Tarpley. He could have torn up his knee like Benard King, and had his skills taken away. Who truly knows? I don't, and the mainstream writers don't, either.

The cult of Len Bias is much like the cult of James Dean. Even though he only starred in 3 films, Dean's legend has only grown over time. Much of what is said about James Dean is in regard to his potential to become an acting great. But we all realize that there are no guarantees. For all anyone knows, if he had lived, 10 years after starring in "Rebel Without a Cause," Dean could have been guest starring in grade B TV shows, like his Rebel co-star, Sal Mineo. That's how fickle entertainment, and basketball is entertainment as well, can be. So saying that Bias would have been the next great hall of fame player is being generous to his legacy.

Would the death of Bias be as resonant today if he wasn't a Celtic first round draft pick? Probably not. But it makes for good stories, in regardd to the idea that Bias' shuffling off this mortal coil was the first step in the downfall of the Celtics dynasty. But you'd also be ignoring the Rick Pitino era, bad trades, worse drafts, horrible free agent signings, questionable front office decisions, and the death of Reggie Lewis as biggger reasons to blame for the decline of the Celtics. It was much more than just Len Bias passing.

I remember when I heard Len Bias died. I wasn't a middle or high schooler, or in college, unlike many of those I've read sing Bias' praises. Supposedly, his death scared a generation away from the so-called "Hell of a drug" that is coke. I had long ago been exposed to what coke could do, and didn't need to be scared straight. For someone that was a little older and had been around the block a couple of times, I thought that Len Bias' death was just another example of athlete excess.

Bias isn't a martyr to me. He's just a dumb, naive kid that fucked up.


  1. The story of Bias is, I would say, a cautionary tale -- perhaps not tragic. Hank Gathers was tragic.

    Certainly Bias' career might not have panned out from a basketball sense. And I agree that Wilbon took it a bit fat. But it's still a sad story. Pathetic, even.

  2. I agree with you 100%. 3 other top ten picks from 1986, Chris Washburn, Roy Tarpley and William Bedford. 3 guys with limitless potential who threw everything away with cocaine. Whose to say Bias wouldve been different had he lived. It wasnt the first time he did drugs and wouldnt be the last. If Im looking for a Celtics tragedy its Reggie Lewis or Dino Radjas Eastern European sweaters