June 19th, 2011

It’s the 25th anniversary of Len Bias’s death, meaning I might as well get some words out on a topic I’ve been weighing for some time. Or in other words, competitiveness and timing can be important motivating factors.

I dimly remember watching Bias on television in ACC games. I was 8 years old when he OD’ed, hours after being drafted by a Celtics team so badly in need of a Next Jordan, two years into Jordan’s career. He was stupefyingly long, graceful, and controlled despite a surplus of what we would now call “fast-twitch muscle”. I knew what drugs were, sort of, and that cocaine was one of them. They were bad and dangerous, and the Bias tragedy proved it.

I didn’t have a “say it ain’t so” moment, and it neither changed the way I saw the world around me, nor altered my perception of athletes. I was largely unaware of the ways in which his death tainted casual coke use. Cocaine was an abstraction to me; it didn’t, in any form, affect my community as far as I could tell. I was a few years away from discovering hip-hop and learning about exotic places where crack razed communities. Athletes were rational animals first, repositories for sentiment, second. Call bullshit if you want; I was just that kind of distanced child.

It took about 7 or 8 years for me to realized what Bias had meant to me. The first time I saw cocaine, in high school, I was terrified. I was myself beginning to exhibit all sorts of self-destructive tendencies, but this was that line I couldn’t cross. Cocaine was the devil and it could stop your heart cold if it so desired, no matter how healthy or unspoiled you were; that’s what Len Bias taught me. I know I’m not the only person who was scarred in this way by Len Bias. Discursively, that was kind of the point. Crack’s doomsday had replaced cocaine glitz, and if powder was still favored in the courts, eighties babies were still supposed to associate death and destitution with the drug in all its forms.

But by the time I graduated from college, cocaine was back in full force, to the point where it practically defined a particular slice of New York, and the Bias morality play seemed more and more improbable, if not totally irrelevant. Cocaine was almost mundane; even crack just seemed like a scuzzy cousin. Heroin was far scarier, as well it should have been. New facts about Bias emerged: It turned out that Bias wasn’t flirting or experimenting, but doing it up, like anyone eighties athlete might have done after making the NBA. What’s more, generalized coke death took a backseat to the select few who fell victim to it. There was no celebrity plague, especially not compared to the ravages of heroin chic. Other than Blind Melon lead singer Shannon Hoon, no one was dying from yay and yay alone. If previously, even Len Bias was the warning, just like Shannon Hoon was grimly laughable.

Here’s when Len Bias—and I say this out of honesty, not to upset anyone whose relationship with Bias’s death differs from mine—began to look very different to me. I had seen lots and lots of people do lots and lots of cocaine and survive. It was like the eighties all over again, I think, except for a lingering understanding that there was something seedy about it all. Cocaine lost its innocence but came back stronger than ever. Bias, too, went from an angel destroyed too soon by the temptations of Satan, to a profligate bundle of talent who lived (albeit maybe too soon) like a star, and met with some incredibly bad luck because of it. There’s a difference between “died in a car accident” and “died in a car accident while driving drunk and reckless”. Bias is the latter, which makes him both less singular and less generic.

To call Bias heroic now involved a certain leap of faith, and one that might get you shouted at. He’s a tragic hero, the darkest, most conflicted kind of Romanticism. Live fast, die young, and never give an inch, even if the consequences could throw the entire nation into disarray. Sometimes, phenomenal people do things that are probably bad ideas. Sometimes, we have to acknowledge that this dynamic is very much a part of sports.

In the eighties, Bias served as a wake-up call—”hey, this stuff can be bad”. Over time, and with new information available, he’s turned from an absolute with no face of his own, to a ridiculously good basketball player who also happened to be an ass-out hedonist. So many of the assumptions that initially gave his story such weight were bound up in not only misconceptions about drugs, but about athletes—especially the false veneer of “amateurism” that served to give Bias his innocence in the media. It sucks what happened, but Len Bias seems more relevant to the current coke revival than the one he abruptly ended 25 years ago.

(My wife just got back from a garage sale and handed me a photo of Sam Cooke on the night he was shot.)

(Not long before I left Philly, I was at a party where someone’s heart gave out from over-indulgence. Everyone stood around confused; a friend of mine knew to keep him from having a seizure. Finally, the host called 911. The paramedics sauntered in, and one, a younger black dude said “Looks like we’ve got us a Len Bias here.” It was equal parts gallows humor, nostalgia, and miscast irony, and no one there was particularly offended.)