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“Just Poison”

In this excerpt from “They Weren’t Grown Men,” the fourth episode of The Ringer’s new narrative podcast series ‘What If? The Len Bias Story,’ investigators shift their attention to the cocaine that killed Len Bias

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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 4: “They Weren’t Grown Men.” The full podcast is available on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, through the Book of Basketball 2.0 feed.

The public didn’t immediately know how Bias had died. It would be six days before a toxicology report came back.

“Mr. Bias died of cocaine intoxication,” John Smialek, Maryland’s chief medical examiner at the time, announced, “which interrupted the normal electrical activity of his brain, which controlled his heartbeat.”

In June 1986, Jeff Harding was a young prosecutor in the Maryland state’s attorney’s office. “John Smialek, friend of mine,” Harding recalled. “He’s now passed. But he handled the case personally.”

Soon, state officials revealed that Bias had not only done coke, but that the coke he’d ingested was frighteningly concentrated.

“The state toxicologist informed me that it was like 89 percent pure,” Harding said, “which is just poison.”

Harding gave me a quick lesson on what typically happens to cocaine before it reaches a user.

“Envision a ship pulling into the port of San Diego,” Harding said, “where it comes in a lot, or Miami or Texas or wherever. It comes from various places like South America or the Golden Triangle in Afghanistan and, when it gets here, usually it’s either 100 percent pure or the guy that’s bringing it here takes a little bit off and puts some filler in it.”

Fillers can be baking soda, or some other kind of powder. And as the coke moves down the supply chain, from high-level dealers to the streets, it gets “stepped on,” diluted with more and more filler at every step.

“So to give you some perspective,” Harding said, “the kids in the ’70s and ’80s that were doing coke at every party you would go to had these little vials, with the little spoon on it. And that is about 3 to 4 percent pure.”

So after learning that Bias did coke that was 89 percent pure, here’s what Harding remembers the medical examiner telling him.

“He said to me, ‘Jeff,’ he said, ‘If Bias would have been lying on the emergency room table after he ingested, there was nothing we could do.’”

So the central question became: Where did the cocaine come from? In an effort to answer that, investigators turned to the three men who’d been doing coke with Bias that night: his Maryland teammates Terry Long and David Gregg. And Brian Tribble.

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.