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 5: “Someone Had to Pay.” The full podcast is available on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, through the Book of Basketball 2.0 feed.
In the hours after Len Bias’s death, legendary Maryland coach Lefty Driesell says he did his best to support his team.
“I told several of them over at the hospital,” Driesell told me, “they were crying and upset, and I said, ‘Look, you get all the players together and come to my house at 1 o’clock,’ or whatever the time was. And so they did, they all came over to my house, and we just prayed together, and I tried to comfort them the best I could.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but the events of that morning would begin the process that led to Lefty’s downfall at Maryland. According to comments made that August by Arthur Marshall Jr., the state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, Bias’s agent Lee Fentress called Lefty that morning and asked him to have someone clean up the room where Bias had used cocaine. Marshall said that Lefty then asked assistant coach Oliver Purnell to do so. Purnell went to the room, but didn’t clean it.
This brought up an important question. Did Lefty try to have someone destroy evidence?
It led to an obstruction of justice investigation by police. Grand jury proceedings began on August 23, a couple months after Bias’s death, and wrapped just four days later. Ultimately, they chose not to indict Lefty. The testimony remains sealed, and neither Fentress nor Purnell agreed to speak with me.
Jeff Harding, who worked in the state’s attorney’s office, was a big part of the investigation into Lefty. Even today, he won’t say much about the grand jury investigation.
“The idea there was did Lefty know what had happened before the police, or did he obstruct justice?” Harding told me. “Or did he hinder the investigation? And the grand jury didn’t charge him with anything.”
And though he can’t say more about the grand jury, Harding does want to remind us of something. Lefty was still an icon in Maryland.
“Take the grand jury out of it,” Harding said. “I’m not commenting on that. But you’re in Prince George’s County in the apron of the University of Maryland and you charge Lefty Driesell with something? I mean, look what happened with Tribble. But you put Lefty in front of that jury, they’re going to convict me of putting him in front of them.”
I asked Lefty about all of this.
“I know one of the things that came up was you telling coach Purnell to clean things up at the apartment. Did you ask him to do that?” I asked.
“I don’t remember telling him that,” Lefty replied. “Who said I said that? That was public?”
“Because you had the—ultimately, the charges were dropped, but when you were facing some of the legal stuff in the aftermath, I know that that was one of the—”
“Yeah, I didn’t give—look, I can show you a notebook that I sent him a clip every time some athlete died of drugs. I didn’t have anything to do with him using drugs. You know, I hate drugs. I always hated them. In fact, when I got my master’s degree, my thesis, or whatever you call it, was ergogenic aids in sports. So I’ve always been opposed to drugs and sports.”
Lefty continued: “I never told Oliver Purnell that, to my knowledge. I told him to go over to the dorm, ’cause not all of them were at the hospital, and tell them to be at my house at 1 o’clock, or whatever time it was, I don’t know. I don’t recall telling him to clean up a room or you know—”
“OK. Yeah, that’s just one of the things that was in the—you know, when I went back at some of the newspaper articles.”
“Well, look, there was a lot of crap in the newspaper articles. Why did they not want me to coach anymore? Can you answer that? What did I do? I loved Leonard Bias like he was my son. And he called me to thank me for helping him get drafted that high. And, you know, I don’t want to say anything bad about Maryland, but it was just turned into a big political thing.”
Lefty went on like this for a while. Talking through the criticism he received, the consequences he faced in the aftermath of Bias’s death like it’s all still raw, all these years later. But after several minutes, the conversation turned back to that request.
“If I told him to clean up the room, I don’t remember it,” Lefty said. “I remember, I think, telling him to go and tell the players to come to my house. I might’ve asked him, ‘Did you clean up the room?’ Or ‘Did you see any drugs?’ But I don’t remember that. I don’t think that.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I replied. “And I, the only thing that I—”
“Hey, hold it, hold it,” he said. “Say I did? So the freak what? He was in the hospital, they were going to find out if he was on drugs. Right? I mean, I never told him to clean out. I don’t think. I don’t know, maybe I did. But I wasn’t trying to hide that he was on drugs. Hey, everybody knew he was—the doctors were going to find out whether he was on drugs. I never told Oliver that, I don’t think. I think I told him to go over there and tell them to come to my house. Ask him.”
“Yeah, I would love to,” I told him, “I’m trying to talk to him as well.”
“Well, see,” he replied, “you’re trying to find out that I did something wrong. If I did do something wrong—”
“Oh, that is not—I can assure you that is not the case.”
“See, that’s what I don’t like about talking about this! To you or anybody else! I never—I loved Leonard Bias! If I thought he was on drugs, I’d have kicked his ass off the team. And—how the hell do I remember something 35 years ago?”
“Even if I did, I wasn’t telling him to try to hide what killed Leonard.”
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.