The NBA draft star and his overdose – a death that changed America
Dressed in an all-white suit, sitting next to his father in a room full of hope and anxiety, basketball player Len Bias had been waiting for this moment his whole young life.
At the NBA draft of 1986, Bias was 22 years old. He was 6ft 8in and weighed 15st (95kg). Pundits had already labelled him the best prospect around – better even than 1984’s third pick, Michael Jordan.
Bias duly went high and early. His name was called out second. The Boston Celtics, who had just won a second NBA Championship in three years but secured an early pick via a deal with the Seattle Sonics two years earlier, added him to their roster.
The green Celtics cap thrust into his hand represented ambition and expectation for a side built around ageing champions.
As wild cheers rung out, he hugged his dad before striding up on stage to shake NBA commissioner David Stern’s hand, cameras trained on his every move.
Grainy film shows a glimpse of how Bias had built his reputation to this point. He had already mastered a silky-smooth jump shot other players spend years crafting. He was explosive, athletic, destined for superstardom – it should have been just the start of the showreel.
Instead, short clips are all we have. Two days after being drafted to the Celtics, Bias died from a cocaine overdose.
His death shook basketball, but the reverberations went far further, touching America’s street corners, courtrooms and highest offices for years after.
Bias drifts wide, unnoticed by the defence, and calls for the ball. His team-mate Jeff Adkins spots him and floats the ball towards the rim. One of North Carolina’s finest, Brad Daugherty, a future NBA all-star, is under it. But Bias, still a freshman, is too strong, too explosive. Bias soars above Daugherty, seizes the ball and buries it through the hoop in a single, smooth movement.
The Washington Post journalist watching in the stands described Bias “defying physics by hanging in the air for about three seconds, and unleashing a 20-megaton dunk that sent the overflow crowd rocking in ecstasy”.
It is perhaps the most memorable moment from Bias’ most memorable game. It came in February 1983, when Bias, playing for University of Maryland, took on the University of North Carolina and their own phenomenon, Jordan.
Despite being a 19-year-old in his first year on the team, Bias struck the more impressive figure, bigger and more athletic than Jordan, and a potentially more dominant force on the court.
Jordan was already a certified star. He had landed the game-winning shot when North Carolina snatched a thrilling national title win the previous year. Bias, on the other hand, was just a freshman. But, as Maryland secured a 106-94 win, it was clear Bias was going to bring Jordan trouble.
As the era of Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson was drawing to a close, could this be the next rivalry for a new generation of basketball fans? Little did spectators know that Jordan and Bias would never get the chance to renew their rivalry on the professional stage.