NBA

The Tragic Death of Len Bias Shocked the Basketball World

Leonard “Len” Bias is easily one of the greatest basketball players to have never played in the NBA. He could score, rebound, and pass extremely well and was arguably one of the best college hoopers of all time and is frequently compared to Michael Jordan, even to this day.

In perhaps one of the most tragic and shocking incidents to have ever occurred in the sports world, Bias died on June 19, 1986 — not even 48 hours after the Boston Celtics selected him second overall in the NBA draft. Unfortunately, Bias wasn’t the only player struck by tragedy in the 1986 NBA draft class. 

Len Bias: A rising star

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Len Bias played basketball in high school and then at the University of Maryland. As a Terrapin, he was named ACC Player of the Year two years in a row and was named to two All-American teams. He also scored 2,149 points in his career at Maryland, which was a record at the time. 

Back in 2003, legendary Duke Coach K told the Boston Globe that in his career, two players stood out to him: Michael Jordan and Len Bias. He added, “My feeling is that he would have been one of the top players in the NBA.”

Powerful potential

Len Bias holding two basketballs while posing for a photo
Len Bias | GettyImages

Coaching icon Red Auerbach was the Boston Celtics’ General Manager in 1986. He had coached the Celtics to nine championships, including eight consecutively from 1959-1966, before becoming the GM in ’66.

Auerbach had been keeping an eye on Bias since his sophomore year at Maryland, looking to bring some fresh young talent to his powerhouse but aging team that included Bill Walton, Kevin McHale, and Larry Bird

There was no question that Len Bias would be selected quickly in the draft, and Auerbach organized a trade deal with the Seattle Supersonics to ensure the Celtics didn’t miss out. Boston traded Gerald Henderson to Seattle in exchange for the team’s second pick and immediately picked Bias when the time came.

An untimely death

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The day after the draft, Bias stayed in New York to tie up some loose ends with his new team and sign a $3 million endorsement deal with Reebok. He drove back to the University of Maryland campus late that evening, where friends and teammates were waiting to celebrate. 

Bias didn’t usually partake in any drugs. In fact, according to the LA Times, it is believed he had never used drugs before that fateful night. He had always passed both the university’s and the NBA’s stringent drug tests, but in the early hours of June 19, 1986, he made the fatal decision to ingest a line of cocaine. 

At 6:32 am, a childhood friend called 9-1-1 in a panic after finding Bias unconscious. An ambulance arrived at 6:40, but paramedics couldn’t revive him. They rushed him to nearby Leland Memorial Hospital, where they tried absolutely everything to bring him back, including a pacemaker. Bias was pronounced dead at 8:55 am. 

Chaos filled the days that followed. Police found cocaine in Bias’ car and it was discovered that his close friend — the same one who made the 9-1-1 call — was a known drug dealer. Investigations revealed that Bias was 21 credits short of graduating, in spite of the fact that he had exhausted all four years of his NCAA eligibility.

17-year veteran head coach Lefty Driesell, who held the university’s win record at the time, reportedly told players to remove any remaining drugs from Bias’ room before police could find them. 

The fallout would have a lasting impact. Bias’ friends and teammates were charged with cocaine possession. In October, Driesell was fired and Athletic Director Dick Dull resigned. The university was banned from TV appearances for one year and the NCAA revoked its scholarships.

Congress passed the U.S. Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, otherwise known as the “Len Bias Law,” dramatically increasing mandatory minimum penalties for drug crimes.

With the NBA draft just around the corner, one can only wonder what would have become of Len Bias if he had been able to play professionally.

All stats courtesy of Sports Reference