Cocaine singlehandedly transformed the world of sports in the 1980’s.While drugs have always been a major issue in professional sports, nothing compares to the impact this highly addictive, white powdered substance had during this time period. Through their rampant drug use, athletes created an exclusive culture where cocaine became a symbol of status and power for the elite and the marginalized.
From its innocent beginnings as a remedy for addiction and a solution for depression, cocaine morphed into the choice drug of abuse according to the Drug Enforcement Agency and the most popular drug in America during the 80s. With all that being said, cocaine drastically changed the sports landscape during this era by the destroying the NBA career Len Bias before it ever started. The basketball player’s death shattered our nation’s drug policies and left the black community reeling. The damaging effect of Bias’s overdose continues today with the hypocrisy and the corruption of the War on Drugs.
Before diving into the story of Len Bias, it is critical to first understand the overarching legacy of cocaine and its connection to our drug culture today. Long before Hollywood’s glorification of the drug, blow was known as a less harmful stimulant than alcohol and a suppresser of morphine addiction. Sigmund Freud was the first person to extensively study the drug in the late 1800’s, referring to it in his paper Uber Coca as a drug of limitless potential and a source of exhilaration and lasting euphoria (Freud 1884, 7). This statement created the perception that cocaine was harmless in moderation and even a performance enhancer.
Additionally, Freud created a culture of tacit approval for cocaine based on his adamant belief in the substance as a solution for digestive orders, addiction and fatigue. However, the conversation about the addictive nature of cocaine shifted when the drug became racialized. Media portrayal of cocaine users played a major role in altering the perception of the drug. As Catherine Carstairs writes in The Most Dangerous Drug: Images of African Americans and Cocaine Use in the Progressive Era, “whites used cocaine to relieve illness while blacks used it on account of its exhilarating effects” (Carstairs 2000, 55). These words showcase the idea that skin color was a key factor in determining our nation’s perspective regarding the effects of cocaine on the body.
This idea came crashing to the forefront with the tragic and unexpected death of Boston Celtics forward Len Bias. Just 48 hours after being selected second in the 1986 NBA Draft, by the team he always dreamed of playing for, the University of Maryland standout died of a cocaine overdose in his dorm room. Celtics legend and Bias’s future teammate Larry Bird spoke for the nation in the aftermath of the death saying, “this is the cruelest thing I’ve heard” (Sports Illustrated 1986). The death of this 22-year-old is unique because of its monstrous impact athletically, politically and historically.
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas believes Bias’ death is one that will never be forgotten, “for people of my parents generation, they mark time by when President Kennedy was assassinated. For me and I think for many people who are my age, I mark time by the death of Len Bias” (Washington Post 2006). It’s interesting to think that Bilas puts a man who overdosed on cocaine in the same light as the President. Some like ESPN’s Scoop Jackson have even gone as far as referring to Len Bias as a martyr.
Never in the history of the nation has a black cocaine user been portrayed by the media like this. Bias’s enduring love serves as a stark contrast from the New York Times articles of the 1800’s that pinned African American men as cocaine crazed, hypersexual rapists (Carstairs 2000, 52). The lesson to be learned with the coverage of the Len Bias tragedy is that fear of the unknown is more powerful than you may think. Writer Michael Weinreb illustrates this point in his article The Day of Innocence,
“The media was so naïve about drugs. Few imagined a human as healthy and robust and muscular as Len Bias could actually die from a substance like cocaine. This was not John Belushi we were talking about; this was not a man who abused his body to its breaking point. This was just the opposite” (ESPN.com 2008).
Understanding the 1980’s drug culture is an important piece of the puzzle here. At the time of Bias’ death, cocaine was still a relatively new drug and still a few years away from becoming a staple across college campuses. The lack of information about cocaine’s damaging effects and the surprise of Bias doing lines of blow completely threw everyone for a loop. This overdose would be treated completely differently today based on the fact that in the year 2013 we have seen too many athletes fall victim to the evils of drugs and alcohol over the years. The death of Len Bias was truly the first of its kind as a black athlete made the whole country reconsider its drug habits.
While many believed at the time that Lenny Bias had never used cocaine prior to his overdose, there’s no doubt in my mind that is utterly false. First and foremost, according to police reports, there were copious amounts of cocaine in his system. In fact, Bias had three to five times the lethal dose of coke in his body and a blood cocaine level of 6.5 milligrams per liter (Los Angeles Times 1991). Another key detail about this massive overdose is the amount of dangerously pure cocaine found in Bias’s system.
According to court documents, this cocaine was 98% pure, leading me to believe that the University of Maryland student knew exactly what he was messing around with on the night of his death in 1986. Plus, the cops later found a bag of coke underneath the driver’s seat of his Nissan 300ZX sports car. Furthermore, Bias’s teammate Terry Long completely dispelled the myth that his friend was a first time user, saying under oath that he and Lenny had used cocaine together as many as six times (Los Angeles Times 1991).
I believe the reaction to this overdose would’ve been completely different had we all known that Len Bias was a frequent cocaine user. The perception of his death would’ve shifted from an American tragedy to the death of just another irresponsible 22-year-old. As more information about that infamous night at the University of Maryland has surfaced, the depiction of Len Bias the man has changed. Sports reporter Gene Wojciehowski illustrates this idea in his article Death Be Not Proud writing, “eventually the basketball hero himself, who had made the fatal mistake of using a drug that preys on weakness and insecurity, was blamed. Blamed for cheating himself. Blamed for cheating others of his rare gifts” (Los Angles Times 1991).
This powerful statement not only questions the integrity of Len Bias but also depicts him as a selfish man for not sharing his extraordinary gifts. Regardless of your feelings on the passing of this basketball player, the bottom line is that his early departure from this world had an colossal impact based on the fact that the public narrative about this story continues today.One of the biggest questions I had when first researching the story of Len Bias was why in the world did a future NBA star with everything in the world to look forward to, ever think it was a good idea to start using cocaine. The answer to that question is complicated but based on the Maryland native’s economic security and inner circle, it is not surprising he fell victim to cocaine.
However, Bias’ drug use still raised eyebrows considering his background and upbringing. Unlike cocaine addicts Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, Len had the good fortune of coming from a secure domestic situation. Raised in a middle class suburb of Maryland, Bias was a rare breed as he saw his father everyday and had a positive relationship with him. While Bias’s supporting father and reliable mother broke the mold of the stereotypical black family, his parents couldn’t keep their son away from Brian Tribble.
Tribble and Bias had been friends for several years, yet there were many telling signs that Brian was nothing but bad news. For starters Tribble became one of the top cocaine dealers in the DC area during the 1980s after being cut from the University of Maryland JV basketball team. Michael Weinreb acknowledges Tribble’s high standing in the drug community in his article A Day of Innocence, “in the drug business amid the perverse logic of celebrity that we would soon grow accustomed to, Tribble was seen as a rising star who hosted several parties at night clubs” (ESPN 2008).
Even though he didn’t go to jail until after Bias’ death, Tribble spent 10 years behind bars after a federal sting operation caught him trying to buy nearly nine pounds of cocaine (Washington Post 1993). Tribble was Bias’s gateway to the cocaine community and the bad influence that put him on the wrong path. As Washington DC City Council Member Harry Thompson Jr said in the ESPN documentary Without Bias, “cocaine used to be an elusive drug, an elite drug. You had to know someone to get it, even if it was in the streets” (Without Bias 2009). There was no way that Bias was going to be the one himself making the drug transactions and that is why he remained close friends with Brian Tribble until his death.
Another reason why the University of Maryland basketball star got involved with cocaine is because of its powerful symbol of status. After being cut from his JV high school basketball team and lightly recruited, Len Bias was determined to prove the doubters wrong at Maryland. Although Bias’s college teams never made any serious noise, Len quickly became one of the best players in the country. He was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the year for two straight seasons and led the Terps to an ACC championship his junior year. Bias never could’ve expected to rise as quickly as he did and that is why cocaine ultimately came into the equation.
Bias’s drug use relayed the idea that he had finally made it and more importantly was on the cusp of beginning a life of luxury. The most explosive player in college basketball totally bought into his star status when he began skipping several classes his senior year and failed to get enough credits to graduate. Bias’s slacking was typical considering only seven of the 18 players selected in the first round of the 1986 NBA Draft had earned a college degree (Sports Illustrated 1986). There’s no doubt the star basketball player was feeling invincible but Washington Post columnist Mike Wilbon never believes Bias was mature enough for this situation, “things were coming at him in a way he wasn’t ready for” (Washington Post 2009).
The reality is that the best player in the history of Maryland basketball was naïve and unprepared for this moment. For example, Bias’s girlfriend Sia Rose constantly warned Len about his friends and the girls hanging around him, but he didn’t catch on until it was too late (Without Bias ESPN Doc 2009). All of these things made the young basketball star susceptible to the champagne of drugs, cocaine. As Time Magazine stated at the beginning of the cocaine craze of the 1980’s, “Cocaine epitomizes the best of the drug culture- which is to say a good high is achieved without the forbiddingly dangerous need and addiction of heroin or the mind twisting wrench of LSD” (Time Magazine 1981).
This all sounded appealing for a man who never thought he would be living in the lime light and was beginning to do so before even graduating from college. That being said, Bias was still a college student and thus should’ve had more guidance when it came to the dangers of a pervasive drug like cocaine. In the aftermath of Bias’s death, Maryland head basketball coach Lefty Driesell was accused of not properly watching over his players and caring little about their academic progress.
As Mark Hyman of the Baltimore Sun points out, saying nothing may have been the worst thing Driesell could’ve done, “Lefty didn’t buy drugs for Len Bias and he didn’t encourage him to take drugs. But the question is was his style of discipline such that the kids thought it was ok to do this” (ESPN.com 2008). This quote exposes one of the many issues in the state of college athletics that continues today. The fact of the matter is that star athletes have the ability to do as they please as long as they perform on the court and win games.
Who knows how different things would be today if Coach Driesell suspended Bias for a positive cocaine test or for being academically ineligible. But in the end, the Maryland native was able to take full advantage of his celebrity. For example, in the months prior to his death, Bias bought everything from a $1300 necklace to a brand new car. According to author Michael Weinreb, Lenny set up an installment plan for his new purchases and even took out two personal loans for the car (ESPN.com 2008).
Even if Len Bias didn’t live up to his sky high potential, the University of Maryland product was set for life after agreeing to a 5 year $1.6 million shoe deal with Reebok and a $700,000 rookie contract with the Celtics (Sports Illustrated 1986). Len’s extravagant lifestyle makes it clear he wasn’t in danger of being priced out of a $50-100 a day cocaine habit.
Bias’s unexpected death ended up having a major ripple effect on the University of Maryland’s athletic department. In the span of just a few months, the team’s academic advisor was fired, athletic director Dick Dull resigned and Coach Driesell walked away from the Terps. Let’s not forget Bias’s teammates who immediately became national targets when they were asked to testify in front a grand jury in a lawsuit against Bias’s friend Brian Tribble. Gene Wojciehowski perfectly encapsulated the end result of this whole ordeal, “a school’s reputation has been partially mended. But like it or not, Maryland will never be able to hide the scar left by Bias’s death” (Los Angeles Times 1991).
Bias’s overdose tainted the lives of those he was closest to and demonstrated the vicious powers of cocaine in destroying all that is good in a person’s life. The story of this deceased basketball player proves that the evils of cocaine can even take away the best of our society.Although Len Bias left this world far too early, during his 22 years he managed to develop a dynamic relationship with the black community. Coming from the unheralded Maryland suburb of Prince George County, Bias’s roots illuminate why his death caused such hysteria.
According to The Nation’s Dave Zirin, Prince George County was one of the most vital majority African American regions in the country during the 1980’s. In fact, it was the only town in the United States that went from majority white to majority black while rising in per capita income and education (The Nation 2013).Bias championed his hometown and had every intention of showing the world how fortunate he was to live in such a wonderful place. Zirin points out this idea in his story The Death of Len Bias, My Generation’s One-Shock Doctrine writing, “Len was not only going to rep that to the world but he told everyone that he would be bringing them along for the ride” (The Nation 2013).
Zirin’s words showcase why an entire nation, especially the African American community, was so distraught after the cocaine overdose of Len Bias. The University of Maryland basketball player had a special connection with black men and women across the country. ESPN’s Bill Simmons takes this point one step further, “other than Michael Jordan, no basketball player from the 1980’s resonated with the black community quite like Bias. He reminded them of everything that they valued about the game itself” (Grantland 2013).
There is no question that Len Bias was a role model for children and adults on and off the court. Bias’s death relayed the powerful relationship between race and drugs as his cocaine overdose made fellow African Americans and NBA players petrified to use the drug. For example, NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said he was scared to go near cocaine let alone trying it even once (Washington Post 2006). Black sports media personality Bomani Jones echoed Barkley’s thoughts in his story Len Bias Gone, But Not Forgotten, “it surely was enough to make my friends and me take a pause because no matter how many times we might or might not have puffed the magic dragon, not once have we considered a line of coke” (ESPN.com 2006).
Jones’ caution towards coke brings up an interesting point about Len Bias’s impact on black drug culture. While it is clear through Bomani’s experience that marijuana was still in vogue, the bottom line is that Bias made cocaine uncool. Even with its connections to status and wealth, cocaine took on a new symbol as a heartless murderer. This representation brought back the horrifying memories of the many black men and women cocaine defeated. Remember, according to the New York Tribune, this was the same drug that threatened to depopulate the African-American population in the South (Carstairs 2000, 52).
While the media at the time certainly exaggerated this point, the black community of Prince George County was reminded that Len Bias wasn’t the first black man to fall victim to cocaine and more importantly wouldn’t be the last. This eye opening experience serves to remind us all that the black community is tightly knit and a group of people that too many times have had to mourn the loss of a drug related death. Hall of Famer Magic Johnson puts the NBA’s most famous overdose into perspective through the black lens,
“It devastated the entire minority community, beyond him dying. Our neighborhoods are terrorized because of drugs. In some communities, young kids can barely walk down the streets without being approached. I don’t think the subject of the tragedy of Len Bias comes up enough. Too many people have forgotten. It should be talked about every year at every high school, college and definitely the NBA season” (Washington Post 2006).
The most alarming part of this whole narrative is it can be argued that Len Bias’s death has done more harm than good to the black community over the past three decades. The reason being is that today we live in a world where drug addiction is much more of a criminal issue than a medical one. Our drug laws have marginalized the poor, low-level drug distributors while allowing the big time players to roam the streets freely.
The fact of the matter is the overreaction following Len Bias’s death is the ultimate reason why we ended up with such hypocrisy. After failing to control drug use for the majority of the 1980’s, the US government used Len Bias’s death as a way to reexamine and rehash the nation’s drug policies and awareness. Former Assistant State Attorney Jeffrey Harding puts this point into perspective saying, “the perfect storm of the events that coalesced with Len Bias’ death was a direct cause and effect of where we are now” (Without Bias ESPN 2009).
Harding speaks the truth as Bias cocaine overdose directly led to the passing of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, also known as the Len Bias Law. Congress’s bi-partisan bill created mandatory minimums for drug offenders, expanded police arresting powers and poured major dollars into the DARE program. This piece of legislation also created the 100 to 1 ratio between crack and cocaine.According to former US House Committee Counsel Eric E Sterling, by 1995, no white person had been prosecuted under the crack mandatory minimums in Los Angeles and other major cities while several hundred African Americans had been (PBS Frontline 2001). Instead of focusing on large-scale offenders, this bill allowed the Justice Department to target small time drug users. The lasting effect of this bill can be seen in the high prison populations today.
By 1999, nearly half of all African American prison admissions in Maryland were drug related compared to just 21% for whites (PBS Frontline 2001). There is no question that the Democrats were feeling pressure to make a national statement after the outcry over Len Bias’s overdose. Author Michael Baum brilliantly pinpoints the state of Congress following Bias’s passing in his book Smoke and Mirrors,
“Immediately upon returning from the July 4 recess, Tip O’Neill called an emergency meeting of the crime-relate committee chairmen. Write me some goddamn legislation, he thundered. All anybody up in Boston is talking about is Len Bias. The papers are screaming for blood. We need to get out front on this now. This week. Today. The Republicans beat us to it in 1984 and I don’t want that to happen again. I want dramatic new initiatives for dealing with crack and other drugs. If we can do this fast enough, he said to the Democratic leadership arrayed around him, we can take the issue away from the White House (Baum 1996, 230).
Baum’s investigative work reveals several alarming thoughts behind this controversial piece of legislation. First and foremost, O’Neill and the rest of his cronies used Bias’s horrifying overdose as an opportunity to gain an advantage on the Republican Party. O’Neill, a Boston native, realized that an anti-drug campaign would be a powerful way to dismiss the idea that Democrats were soft on drug crime. On top of that, Congress rushed through a bill that completely shattered our nation’s drug culture and policies in order to get it passed before the November election.
The irony is that our nation’s policymakers ended up marginalizing an African American group that has traditionally voted Democratic. What’s most horrifying about this quote is the weakness of our nation’s leaders. Congress played right into the hands of the media and eventually the Republican led White House followed suit. Bias’s cocaine induced demise had a major ripple effect on our country’s stance on drugs. Julie Stewart, the founder of the Families Against Mandatory Minimums firmly stands behind this notion, “Len Bias’ death was a turning point for Congress. They realized that combined with an election year, the rise of drug crimes made representatives want to pass mandatory minimum sentences” (Without Bias ESPN 2009).
The cold hard truth is that a huge part of Len Bias’s legacy today are the racially loaded and damaging drug laws that went into order following his death. It’s incredible to think that our government has changed the lasting image of Bias into a symbol for the War on Drugs. Author Michael Baum ties it all together in his book Smoke and Mirrors, “In life, Len Bias was a terrific basketball player. In death, he would become the Archduke Ferdinand of the total War on Drugs.
In the same way his early departure impacted US drug policies, Len Bias’s cocaine overdose had a domino effect on the sports world. Although Don Rogers died from coke just eight days after Bias, the University of Maryland basketball player saved many lives with his premature death. As ESPN’s Bill Simmons put it, Len Bias was truly a human anti-drug act and his inability to control his cocaine use helped to reinforce anti-drug rhetoric to athletes during the 1980’s (Grantland.com 2013). We will never know how many people Len Bias saved but its clear his experience forced athletes to reconsider their drug habits.
The most fascinating part of Bias’s death, is how he completely altered the history of the NBA. After winning the championship in 1986 and their third title in the last six years, the Boston Celtics were well on their way to building one of the most dominant dynasties in the history of the league. With stars Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish all in their prime, the athletic and explosive Bias was the perfect fit.
No one was more excited to play with Bias than Bird. In fact, Larry Legend vowed to show up to rookie camp in the summer of 1986 just so he could get extra time with the team’s newest member. There’s a reason that Celtics owner Red Auerbach spent the past three years keeping his eyes on Bias and selling him on Beantown. Current Celtics President Danny Ainge reflects on Bias’s high standing with the organization, “he was perfect for us. I was never so excited. With Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Larry Bird, he would give us the perfect rotation. I looked at it as a great fit for him and the franchise” (Gazette 2006).
However, within 48 hours of the 1986 NBA Draft, Bias was dead and the Celtics franchise spiraled downward with him. Boston made it back to the NBA Finals in 1987 despite not having their newest player. But in the end the Celtics were one player short as Bird and Parish were forced to play extended minutes while McHale played the entire postseason with a broken foot. Boston wouldn’t win another championship until 2008.
Bias was supposed to be the next player to take the torch from Larry Bird, but without him the Celtics weren’t even close to being contenders in the Eastern Conference. Without Bias in the East, a guy named Michael Jordan took control of the league winning six championships during the 90’s. While it is impossible to speculate how many championships Len Bias would’ve won in Boston, the fact of the matter is that he was on the verge of becoming one of the greatest players in the NBA.
Bias’s skills continue to receive high praise from many today including basketball historian Bill Simmons, “Bias always reminded me of a more physical James Worthy but with Michael Jordan’s leaping ability. There was a brashness about him, a swagger and a playground vibe” (ESPN.com 2001). Pretty high praise for a guy that never played a single NBA game.
Black journalist Bomani Jones built on this idea by calling Bias the most influential athlete of the 20th century based on the effect he had on the lives of Jones’ generation. The 22-year-old’s demise wiped away a future filled with trips to the Eastern Conference Finals against the greatest of all Michael Jordan and a battle for NBA titles against the likes of Hall of Famers Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and James Worthy.
This tragic ending allows us all to think about the idea of a dead athlete having a larger impact on the sports world than he ever would’ve. It took sports pundits a long time to come to this realization, but the person who knew from day one was Lenny’s mother Lonise Bias, “I believe God had to take the best to save the rest. I am a first believer that he has done more in death than he could have ever done in life” (Los Angles Times 1991).It is unimaginable that a woman like Lonise could be so level headed after being forced to bury her own son. The saddest part of this whole story is Lenny was not the only son she buried as her other son Jay was shot just four years later.
With all that being said, it is still unclear today how Len Bias should be remembered. This narrative recently returned to the forefront, at the place where it all began: Northwestern High School. This past February, State Senator Victor Ramirez proposed the idea of erecting a statue of Len Bias in front of his old high school. Ramirez, who also graduated from Northwestern High, had a $50,000 bond all ready to cover the costs of creating the statue, but pulled the idea after concerns were raised about Bias’s character.Several government officials across the state were opposed to the idea such as Mount Rainier Mayor Malinda Miles who said, “to have died of an overdose of drugs regardless of the reason or circumstances is not something I would want my grandchildren to model” (Washington Post 2013).
Is it really fair for us to judge a person’s character and position as a role model based on just one night of their life? Bias provided hope for a minority community that severely lacked faith in the system during the mid 1980’s. The basketball player also demonstrated that there truly were opportunities for minorities and that children didn’t have to follow in the footsteps of their parents. Even though kids today weren’t alive during Bias’s overdose, it is encouraging to see how the youth of Maryland perceives the local hero’s legacy. Northwestern High School senior Iman Abdulrahiman hit the nail on the head when she said, “just because one part of his life was a little messed up, that doesn’t mean us putting up a statue is a promotion of that. It is displaying the good part of his legacy, I wouldn’t have an issue with that” (Washington Post 2013).
While cocaine has a powerful effect in shifting the way we think about a person, it shouldn’t overshadow the belief that everyone deserves a second chance. Unfortunately Len Bias never got that second chance. Cocaine may have taken this man’s life, but the fact of the matter is that his presence has not been forgotten. His death helped the nation to realize just how dangerous and addictive coke really was.
Reverend Jesse Jackson put it best at Bias’s funeral when he said, “the Lord sometimes uses our best people to get our attention” (Los Angeles Times 1991).Legendary Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson held Bias’s death in an even higher light by saying, “it caused a lot of other people to be saved because he created a consciousness of it and caused people to act because we respond to crisis” (Without Bias 2009).
Who knows what our drug culture would look like today without the death of Len Bias. It is completely ridiculous that this gifted basketball player has become known as the trigger for the War on Drugs by no fault of his own. The star basketball player made a mistake by getting involved with a drug that takes control of your body mentally and physically, but that doesn’t mean he should be the scapegoat for our nation’s corrupt drug policies.
Our nation attempted to reconcile the sins of Len Bias, but ended up making matters worse by taking things too far. Regardless of how you feel about Len Bias’ death, the reality is he monstrously impacted the world of sports, the perception of cocaine, government policies and the black minority community. Len would have been 50 years old this year, but in the span of 48 hours, all of his dreams floated away on a powered white cloud.