I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the name Len Bias.
Alongside that name, there were always the broad outlines of a story. A phenom at Maryland who was drafted second overall in 1986 by the Boston Celtics, and who died, almost immediately thereafter, from using cocaine. But I always wanted to know more. About the world Bias inhabited and the one he left behind.
I’ve spent much of the past year obsessing over his story. Talking with coaches and teammates about his incandescent talent, with his mother and his friends about their grief, with political staffers and historians about how the fallout from Bias’s death harmfully reshaped America’s criminal justice system.
All of it brought me to a story about a moment of triumph followed by shattering loss, about how one night in 1986 left an imprint on American culture that lingers to this day.
The result is The Ringer’s new narrative podcast series, What If? The Len Bias Story. Below is an excerpt from Episode 3: “One Time, I Was Gone.” This episode tells the story of NBA Hall of Famer Spencer Haywood, whose experience with cocaine in the 1970s sheds light on the landscape Bias encountered in the ’80s. The full podcast is available on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, through the Book of Basketball 2.0 feed.
Back when Spencer Haywood played at Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado, you couldn’t enter the NBA until you were four years removed from high school. But Haywood found another path. After just two years of college, he got drafted by the Denver Rockets of the fledgling ABA, and he played a season there. Then, after just one season in the ABA, he signed with the Seattle SuperSonics of the NBA even though he wasn’t technically eligible. And, in 1971, with the support of Sonics owner Sam Schulman, he sued the NBA for the right to join the league.
“The league says, ‘Oh no, you can’t sign him to a contract,’” Haywood recalls. “‘We have a rule in the NBA. You have to wait four years after your high school class had graduated before you can play. That’s a null and void contract.’ So Sam says, ‘Well, I got a legal team that says that you can’t stop him from playing.’”
The lawsuit was messy, drawn out. To dive into it, I recommend reading Gary Washburn and Marc Spears’s book, The Spencer Haywood Rule. But here are the broad strokes: The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. At 21 years old, Haywood was in Washington, having his case decided by members of this nation’s highest judicial bench. And he won, paving the way for future college underclassmen to enter the league. He made it to the NBA. He played for the Sonics. And he was a star.
After a few years in Seattle, Haywood became one of the league’s first journeyman superstars. He went to the Knicks. In New York, he met a supermodel named Iman. They fell in love and got married. New York was also where Haywood tried cocaine for the first time, in the late ’70s. But it was just something he did casually, at the occasional fashion party.
After a few years with the Knicks and a quick stop with the New Orleans Jazz, Haywood ended up going, in 1979, to the Los Angeles Lakers. There, he teamed up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes, and a rookie point guard named Magic Johnson.
“So we travel out to L.A., and everybody’s like, ‘We got Iman and Spencer, man, they’re just the perfect couple to be at all of the parties and everything,’” Haywood says. “And I was like yeah, I think I’m going to let my hair down. I’m going to go and hang out.
“So, one night I was at this big old Hollywood party, and everybody, I’m looking around at everybody I’ve watched in motion pictures and everything, and we’re just kicking it. When you’re a Laker baby, you know, Laker, Laker, Laker. Then some of the great singers that I grew up, you know, like, my god, I was like, ‘Wow, this is the coolest party ever.’ Much cooler than the ones in New York, because it was just fashion.”
At the party, Haywood saw people going in and out of the bathroom, and he got curious.
“They’re coming out, they’re coming out, their eyes all bugged out and shit. And I’m like, ‘What’s going on back there?’ So I wander back there and this guy says, ‘Tell you what now. You know, this year with the Lakers, you don’t need to be snorting coke. You’ll be out on the floor, and your nose all runny. This is the new thing here in the West Coast. So you cook it, and all of the germs and all of the bad shit falls to the bottom of the glass, and the raw coke flops to the top. Then you put it on this pipe and you take a puff.’”
This is called freebasing: heating cocaine with a lighter and inhaling the vapor to generate a more immediate, more powerful high.
So Haywood was there in that bathroom. And as he tells the story today, Haywood looks around with wide eyes, and he says: “‘Yeah. Let me take a hit. Holy shit. Man, my brain, my head. What’s going on?’ Then I come down, and I’m thinking, ‘Can’t wait to have another one.’
“One time, I was gone.”
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity. New episodes of What If? The Len Bias Story release every Wednesday on the Book of Basketball 2.0 feed. Follow on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.