King of the Court – The Tragedy of Basketball Superstar Len Bias
On June 17, 1986, the Boston Celtics drafted Len Bias, a University of Maryland forward already touted as the next Michael Jordan. Two days later, the All-American rising star died in his dorm room at the age of twenty-two. What happened to cut his life and career short?
Bias grew up in Landover, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. Despite numerous recruitment offers, Bias chose to attend college close to home: the University of Maryland is a ten-minute walk from Bias’s high school, Northwestern High School in Hyattsville.
At the University of Maryland, Bias blossomed from a hulking teenager into an explosive, well-rounded star. He jumped high, shot accurately, and intuitively timed blocks and rebounds. He was named ACC Player of the Year in both his junior and senior years. Bias was the second overall NBA draft pick when the Celtics claimed him, and he signed a $3 million endorsement deal with Reebok.
Bias spent the day of June 18 in Boston, accepting his contracts with the Celtics and Reebok, and he flew back to Washington in the evening. Police surveillance observed his car on Montana Avenue, a street notorious for drug dealing, that night. Bias came home for dinner with friends, left for an off-campus party, and returned to his dormitory at around 3 AM.
The 911 call, placed by Bias’s friend Brian Tribble, came at 6:32 AM on June 19. According to reports from his friends, Bias had leaned back into the couch as if falling asleep but instead collapsed in a violent seizure. The emergency medical team arrived swiftly, but Bias had already lost consciousness and stopped breathing, and his heart was no longer beating. At the hospital, doctors spent two hours attempting to revive Bias with drugs and a pacemaker, but he was pronounced dead at 8:55 AM.
Bias’s autopsy confirmed that he had died of a cardiac arrhythmia caused by cocaine use. He probably took the cocaine shortly after he returned to his dormitory from the party at 3 AM. The investigation of his death revealed that Tribble had most likely given Bias the fatal dose of cocaine.
Len Bias’s death had both immediate and lasting effects on basketball and on society. The tragedy led to tighter NCAA monitoring of players’ academic achievement and extracurricular activities and to more stringent federal drug policies in America. It also left thousands of basketball fans with sad and angry memories of limitless potential cut brutally short.