Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: This column originally ran on June 20, 2001. Page 2 is republishing it in 2006 in remembrance of Len Bias' death 20 years ago.Yeah, I still think about him.
Sometimes I see red. That's the color of Maryland's uniform when Lenny Bias won me over for good, the February day he tossed the Terrapins on his back and toppled the No. 1-ranked Tar Heels by himself. Given that my team (the Celtics) was holding a potential top-five pick in the '86 draft that summer, I almost broke an ankle hurling myself onto the Bias Bandwagon. There was one play when Bias drained a 15-footer, then came flying back in to steal the inbounds pass and dunk the ball behind his head, fluidly, all in one motion. I can't even really describe it. When somebody makes The Leap right before your eyes in sports ... well, you remember. You always remember.Sometimes I see brown. That's the color of a Spalding basketball as it falls into the hands of Larry Bird. The Man is still in his prime -- goofy mullet, wispy mustache, almost bored by it all, searching for little challenges during games to maintain his interest -- and he's jogging upcourt and bouncing that brown ball. Suddenly he spots Bias one stride ahead of the pack. Their eyes lock. What the hell? The Man lofts a lazy halfcourt pass in the air ... the ball looks like it might sail over the backboard and into the stands ... but then there's Bias gaining steam, soaring through the air, rising higher and higher ... and Good God, he might actually get to that thing ... and the brown ball hangs up there, forever... Sometimes I see green. That's Draft Day 1986. A green Celtics hat crammed on Bias' head, millions and millions of green dollars ahead of him, green with experience, holding up the green and white uniform ... nothing but green. That smile on Draft Day, will the image ever completely fade away? Did anyone seem happier, ever? He looked like a little boy, didn't he? Can you still see him? I can. I see that smile and I see miles of green.
Sometimes I see white. That's a pile of cocaine on a coffee table. Maybe it happened this way, maybe it didn't, but I always imagine Lenny Bias turning that Celtics hat around so the bill of his cap wouldn't dip into the pile ... then I imagine him sticking his face into it like Tony Montana. He's happy, he's celebrating, he's kicking butt and taking names, he's feeling like he could bench-press Luther Vandross, he's the life of the party, he's suddenly a millionaire, he's the next James Worthy, he's the heir apparent to Bird in Boston, his prime awaits, and he's utterly and completely invincible. And he crams his face into that white pile. And he takes the Celtic Dynasty with him.Sometimes I see gray. That's the color of the concrete on Wyndover Lane in Stamford, Conn. -- the street where I lived as a kid -- which is relevant since I wandered up and down that street for an entire afternoon on the heels of Bias' death. It took me six hours to digest everything that had happened, my first real experience with sudden loss. Once ESPN started flashing those "Len Bias is dead" graphics that morning -- the "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" moment for all Boston/Maryland fans -- I spent the first few hours in utter denial. Did it really happen? Is it true? Is it possible they screwed up? Are we absolutely, positively -- positive -- that he's dead? Can they give him CPR one last time? Is this a joke? Is this even possible? I finally ended up storming outside during the middle of the afternoon -- June 19, 1986 -- and paced up and down Wyndover Lane for three inexplicable hours. I'm not kidding. Three hours. I walked up. I walked down. I walked up. I walked down. Rinse, lather, repeat. Just a 16-year-old kid looking for an answer. All I found was gray. You can drive yourself crazy thinking about it. And you know what? I almost did. Yeah, I still think about him.
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There was a brashness about him, a swagger, a playground vibe. Remember, these were still the days of tight shorts and awkward high fives; few players were cool, and the ones who were cool -- David Thompson, Gus Williams, Clyde Drexler, Bernard King, Dominique, etc. -- were more subtle and unassuming than anything. Jordan might have embraced that playground demeanor had he attended a school other than North Carolina, where Dean Smith frowned on anything that could be perceived as "showing up the opposition."When Bias' same playground swagger became fashionable in the '90s -- thanks to the UNLV guys, the Fab Five, the post-dunk woofing, the baggy shorts, the trash-talking and so on -- it seemed much more contrived, almost like the players were saying, "Hey, look at me!" Nothing about Lenny Bias was contrived. He went out of his way to dunk on people. He grabbed rebounds and spat out an occasional "Arrrrrrggggggghhhh!" for show. He barked at his teammates, he barked at referees, he barked at opponents. He exhibited a refreshingly honest amount of passion and heart. Quite simply, he stood out. And if he had arrived on the scene seven or eight years later, I'm sure he would have been wearing baggy shorts and woofing it up just like everyone else, but that's the beautiful thing about this -- not just that Bias arrived when he did, but that he wasn't contrived. Even if he ended up with a team other than the Celtics in '86, I would have kept rooting for him. Lenny Bias was ahead of his time. So that UNC game on ESPN Classic reminded me of these things, all of them. Other than Jordan, no basketball player from the '80s resonated with the black community quite like Bias. He reminded them of everything that they valued about the game itself -- the breathtaking athleticism, the competitive fervor, the individuality, those occasional mano-a-mano duels where territories were staked and reputations were made. He belonged to them, a black man excelling in a black man's game. And seeing him in action with Maryland, his whole life ahead of him ... well, I had to turn the channel and watch something else. I couldn't take it.
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|Maybe it happened this way, maybe it didn't, but I always imagine Lenny Bias turning that Celtics hat around so the bill of his cap wouldn't dip into the pile ... then I imagine him sticking his face into it like Tony Montana. He's happy, he's celebrating, he's kicking butt and taking names. ... And he crams his face into that white pile. And he takes the Celtic Dynasty with him.|
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The bad luck continued through the '80s and into the '90s. Bird and McHale broke down for good during a brief resurgence for the team in '91, the last time the Celts ever truly contended for a title. Red Auerbach slowly faded from the scene during that time; many believe that a little piece of Red passed away in '86, given that Red was a staunch Bias supporter during his Maryland days.Reggie Lewis dropped dead in '93 and sent the franchise into permanent doldrums; not only did the team lose its only All-Star caliber player, but the ensuing "Did he or didn't he use drugs?" soap opera cast a shadow over the next few seasons. Suddenly the team was hampered by salary cap problems and inept management. Once the Boston Garden was pushed aside by the Fleet Center in 1995, the glory days of the Celtics disappeared for good. My "Curse of Bias" piece from '95 ended with an anecdote from former Celtics general manager Jan Volk, who remembered a moment before Opening Night in November 1986, the same night the Celtics handed out championship rings and raised the '85-'86 championship banner. About two hours before the game, Volk noticed a piece of paper sticking out from a cushion of the sofa in his office. Curious, he pulled out the piece of paper and found that it was an unused plane ticket with Lenny Bias' name on it. The team had given it to him during his post-draft visit to Boston, about 12 hours before his death. "It must have fallen out of his jacket that day," Volk told me. "To find that ticket on the same night we were raising the '86 banner ... it was eerie. It really was." Makes you think, doesn't it? Did the Sports Gods decide that too many good things happened for the Celtics over the past few decades? Red, Cousy, Heinsohn, Russell, the Jones Boys, Cowens, Hondo, McHale, Parish, Bird, 16 titles ... when they stumbled into the second pick of the '86 Draft and Lenny Bias in '86, did the Sports Gods throw their hands in the air and say, "Enough is enough!" Does stuff like that actually happen? These are the things you think about when you're holding a yellowed page with Lenny Bias' picture on it.
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"I remember when Bias died," my friend said, "that put the fear of God in me.""Me, too," I agreed. "Everyone was like that. It was like this giant brainwashing of all the teenagers at that time -- don't do coke. Len Bias was like a human anti-drug ad." "Maybe that was his legacy." "Yeah, maybe it was." And we moved onto another topic ... but I found myself thinking about it later that night. Why did that have to be Lenny Bias's legacy? Why couldn't they have chosen someone else? More importantly, 15 years later, why did I still care?
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I thought about him last week. My girlfriend asked me about the topic of my next ESPN.com column, so I told her I would be writing about Lenny Bias. Who was that? she asked. So I told her the whole story. She soaked in everything, finally piping in, "I can't believe that he died two days after they drafted him. That's unbelievable. (pause) I mean, isn't that unbelievable? Has anything like that ever happened before?"Having just finished recounting the sordid saga, I found myself nodding in agreement. It's the same way I feel whenever I remember the fact that Red Sox pitchers threw 13 different pitches that could have won them the 1986 World Series. That's unbelievable. That's unbelievable. You couldn't make that up. And you couldn't make up the sequence of events that shaped the last 48 hours of Lenny Bias' life. Imagine having the greatest day of your life. Imagine working towards a goal for years and finally having it come to fruition. Imagine celebrating for two straight days with your family and friends. Then imagine you got a little carried away, and in a flash -- boom! -- paramedics are trying to revive you, but they can't, and things slowly start fading to white ... and then you're gone. Imagine. Later that same day, I received an e-mail from my friend Tim -- a Maryland native and one of the original Bias fans back in the '80s -- warning me about ESPN Classic's impending show about the 15th anniversary of Bias's death. I wrote him back and explained that I would be skipping the show, but I was toying with the idea of writing a column about Bias.
|And maybe that's what this was really about: in a nutshell, 1) betrayal and 2) sadness. It doesn't happen that often in sports, but when those two emotions collide for the proverbial kick in the stomach, you remember. And when that happens in your formative years, you hold onto the lingering side effects forever -- emptiness, grief, anger, disappointment, dismay, everything.|