26 Years Following Len Bias’s Death, What Have We Learned? The Role of Drugs in Sports

Unless you are an avid fan of college basketball, the name Len Bias may not mean much to you. Leonard Kevin “Len” Bias was born in 1963 in Landover, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. Following graduation from high school, he went to the University of Maryland to play on their basketball team as their star forward. In his four years with Maryland, Bias was quite impressive on the court.

With an unmatched leaping ability, agility, speed and stature (standing 6 feet, 8 inches tall), he was considered the ideal forward. In his senior year with Maryland in 1986, already chosen as the forward for the All-American team, and the recipient of the ACC Athlete of the Year, comparisons were already being made to Michael Jordon, who by this time was with the Chicago Bulls for two years.

Two Decisive Events, Separated by 2 Days in the Short Life of a Promising Young Man

On June 17, 1986 the National Basketball Association held its annual draft, in which each team may pick from eligible college graduates to play on their teams. Coming off their 1985-1986 NBA Finals win, the Boston Celtics selected Len Bias to join their already all-star team, which included Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge and Bill Walton.

Following the draft, Bias, accompanied by his father, traveled to Boston the morning of June 18 to sign a contract to play for the Celtics. His career all but assured, upon their return to Maryland that evening, Bias went out with friends to celebrate. On the morning of June 19, Len Bias was pronounced dead from cardiac dysrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat) caused by a cocaine overdose. He was 22 years old.

Considered by many to be the greatest basketball player never to have played in the NBA, more than a quarter century later, the death of Len Bias continues to have his family, his fans, sportscasters, the Boston Celtics and the NBA speculating about the career that never was.

From Baseball to Wrestling, No Sport is Immune to Drug Usage

In a New York Times article from 1987, titled, “In Sports, Cocaine is Here to Stay,” despite football, basketball and baseball’s then commissioners acknowledgement of the widespread use of cocaine, all three were highly reluctant to institute mandatory drug testing of their players. Instead, with the cooperation of players’ unions, they concluded that education and treatment and after-care programs were the best measures to decrease drug usage. The question is, have these helped?

And unfortunately, each has also lain to rest many otherwise promising athletes.

To follow are just a few highlights of the last 25 years in sports:

  • Herb Abrams – Pro Wrestler died of cocaine related heart attack in 1996
  • Dwight Gooden – Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher and youngest Cy Young award recipient began his affair with drugs the same year Len Bias died. Multiple suspensions for cocaine use and drug busts, including jail time, ended an overall abysmal career in 2000.
  • Paul DeMayo – Former bodybuilder died of heroin overdose in 2005.
  • Steve Howe – MLB pitcher was the first player banned from baseball for drugs. A history of cocaine abuse, Howe died in 2006 when his truck flipped over. Methamphetamines were found in his system.
  • Gertrude Elizabeth Wilkerson – Professional Wrestler, died in 2010 the result of an overdose of oxycodone and benzodiazopine.
  • Marco Pantoni – Professional cyclist, who competed against 7-time Tours de France winner Lance Armstrong, died in 2004 of pulmonary edema, the result of a cocktail of tranquilizers, antidepressants and sedatives. He had a history of cocaine abuse.
  • Four Texas Christian University football players arrested in February 2012 for selling narcotics to undercover officers.
  • Sam Hurd – NFL player was busted in 2011 trying to purchase 5 to 10 kilograms of cocaine and 1,000 pounds of marijuana a week with intent to distribute.

Whatever is to blame – whether it’s the fast lifestyle, lack of guidance, or people in their “camp” not having the chutzpah to confront these players on their usage – one could argue that twenty-six years after Len Bias’s death, illegal drugs and sports are a union unlikely to divorce anytime soon. What does the future hold for our little leaguers of today, who have dreams of playing professional sports? Clearly you cannot rely on the teams’ owners who are throwing millions upon millions at them to play. Once athletes have signed on the dotted line, they are a commodity and no longer a human to be treated with care. And when that commodity is no longer of use because of addiction, it is discarded.

If you have a child with dreams of playing professionally, the earlier you begin talking with him or her about drugs, and maintaining that relationship after s/he is an adult, you have a fighting chance of keeping them away from drugs.