This may be hard to believe, but June 19th will mark the 30th anniversary of the death of Len Bias. The University of Maryland all-star and first-round pick for the Boston Celtics died two days after the NBA draft after overdosing on powder cocaine. His death was partially responsible for the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which in many ways set the tone for the excessively punitive drug war to come.
I was recently contacted by Tom Bonanno, editor of the website Celtics Life, who wanted to run segments of a blog post I wrote last September about visiting Bias’s grave in Suitland, Maryland. Bonanno’s post did a nice job of comparing my description of Bias’s small, quiet and frankly neglected grave with some of the flashier and more extravagant graves of other Celtics players who have passed. The differences between the graves – their size, their upkeep, their obvious visitors – is striking, and I think it speaks to what happens when we lose someone before their peak, when we’ve only seen glimmers of what they were truly capable of. Bias was an incredibly talented college player, but he died before playing a single NBA game, and his death was clearly tainted by its association with an illegal drug.
I thought that it would be appropriate to run the blog post I wrote on my personal site last September shortly after I visited Bias’s grave, as a tribute to the man we lost three decades ago, and as we remember the aftereffects of his death and work to mitigate the excesses of a drug war that was, unfairly, waged in his name. The post begins below.
I had always said that if I ever sold my book, I wanted to do two things: use the advance (assuming I received one) to take my friends mini golfing at Hains Point, and visit the grave of Len Bias in Suitland, Md.
Well, we’re all going golfing in October, and I visited Bias’s grave last Sunday, August 30.
Len Bias, the 6’7″ star of the University of Maryland’s basketball team and first-round pick of the Boston Celtics, is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, just over the border from the District of Columbia. The cemetery is a large and sprawling place, green and verdant if we got any rain, but dry and brown from the end of summer drought that we’ve experienced for the past six weeks. The sun was so relentlessly bright that the grave – which is just small bronze plaque – was almost too hot to touch. Nearby, where his brother is buried alongside countless other grandpas and aunts, there were decaying stuffed animals and sunbleached plastic flowers. It looked like no one had been there in weeks.
Bias is buried in the Frederick Douglass section of a cemetery filled with notable African Americans. There are doctors, scientists, playwrights and opera singers. Just up the road from his hard-to-find grave is a large memorial dedicated to bishops of the United House of Prayer. Entire families have purchased plots where ornate headstones with blank spaces wait for those who are still alive. There’s a small pond where a white heron was perched, and “Babyland,” a section just for the deceased young. Standing on the hill where Bias rests, you can look around and see nothing but trees. It feels miles away from Washington, D.C., miles away from Capitol Hill.
I like visiting cemeteries, but not because I have any real affinity for the macabre. I do it because I want to pay my respects, and visit the (often only) remaining place dedicated solely to the person I admire. It’s ironic, I guess, but I go to these places to celebrate the life of someone now dead, and I do it because I feel called to make the visit, to meet in death a person I had never met in life, but whose books I read, or whose art I admired, or whose movies I watched. Or, in the case of Bias, whose death shaped decades of American drug policy in a way that, frankly, I think he would have despised.
When we got back home, Dickson and I watched the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, “Without Bias,” released in 2009. Despite all the books I had read about Bias (Lewis Cole’s Never Too Young to Die is my favorite), I had never seen it before.
The title refers to so many things. Obviously it’s about a world – of professional basketball, of life at the University of Maryland, of life at the Bias home in Lanham, Maryland – that is now without Len. But it’s also a good descriptor of the film itself, that is so much without bias that it’s blameless to a fault.
The first part of the film is about Bias himself: his development as a basketball player, his tight relationship with his family, the way the university rallied around him, his selection by the Celtics and what would have been a lucrative contract with Reebok. But then it moves into the night Bias died, with interviews from friends who were there, teammates who waited at the hospital, his family and his coach. And here’s where the blamelessness gets weird. It mentions how Bias’s friend Brian Tribble procured the almost entirely-pure cocaine that stopped Bias’s heart, and it supposes that access to such a drug meant that Tribble was pretty far up the food chain. But then it stops: it doesn’t blame Tribble for being a drug dealer, and it doesn’t even blame Tribble for doing coke with Bias the night he died. Perhaps this is because Tribble already went through a lawsuit and was cleared for involvement in Bias’s death (even though he got busted for dealing coke again in 1993), and Tribble’s lengthy interview for the film allowed him to represent himself, with few other interviewees negating what he said.
But as the film moves on to what happened in the wake of Bias’s death, the blamelessness gets almost too weird. It discusses the drug war launched in Bias’s name, and mentions the millions of young African American men who were incarcerated on its heightened charges, but it doesn’t blame the legislators who passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (or its extension in 1988) and who kept mandatory minimums in place despite their horrific costs. It discusses the impact of Bias’s death on young children, but it doesn’t blame the scare tactics the drug war used, or the massive funding anti-drug education programs received while treatment or rehabilitation programs withered on the vine. There is one representative from Families Against Mandatory Minimums interviewed, but her brief words are overshadowed by – surprisingly – Len’s mother Lonise, who says that her son’s death was “like a seed.” Len went into the ground and what sprouted was an entire generation of children who knew, because of Len Bias, the dangers drugs could cause.
I wanted to shake my head and rub my eyes. It was hard for me to reconcile someone supporting the laws that had incarcerated millions of people from Bias’s demographic, all because of Bias’s death. Were there children who avoided drugs because of the subsequent media frenzy? Probably – I had a few friends say that it had. But unfortunately there are no statistics documenting the number of kids who didn’t try cocaine because Len Bias died in 1986. There are, however, numerous stats that show how many young black men were incarcerated because of the laws passed in Bias’s wake. Couldn’t the film have a certain amount of bias to say that, hey, maybe some kids didn’t use drugs, but because of the legislation passed in 1986/1988, the overwhelming costs to society were far too high? And that it was deeply and shamefully ironic that the death of one young black man resulted in the incarceration of millions more, and most of them for crack cocaine, a drug that wasn’t in Bias’s system at his time of death?
I left Lincoln Memorial Cemetery thinking about something other than the drug war too, and that was about the rapid and illusory costs of fame in the United States. Bias was predicted to be one of the best – a contemporary of Michael Jordan, the second overall draft pick. But he died before he played a single NBA game. His considerable abilities are now relegated to highlight reels, all because of one night of celebration. If his tiny plaque in an infrequently-visited section of a cemetery is any indication, you don’t get remembered if all you had was potential, and Americans are astonishingly quick to forget.
I left Lincoln thinking Len deserved more from a lifetime of athletic and personal achievement. He deserved more than a simple plaque in the ground, more than legislation that incarcerated millions, more than a documentary that refused to place blame. The whole world is without Bias now. Isn’t it time we realized the cost?