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 1: “Just About Superman.” The full podcast is available on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, through the Book of Basketball 2.0 feed.
“I just had this premonition,” Lonise Bias says, “this intuitiveness that something was going to happen.”
In 1985, Dr. Lonise Bias and her husband James were content. Their sons Jay and Eric and their daughter Michelle were all healthy and living at home.
And then there was their oldest son, Len.
“He,” Lonise says, “was on top of the world.”
Len was thriving. A 6-foot-8 senior forward at the University of Maryland, he was perhaps the best college basketball player in the country, a powerful athlete with a perfect jumper, poised for NBA superstardom. His athleticism drew frequent comparisons to another young star already in the league: Michael Jordan.
And for Lonise, her son’s rise was incredible to watch—seeing him as a player, and as a person, on the brink of fulfilling his dream.
“It was so exciting to go out to Cole Field House and to see him play, and then just to see him mature in his game, until the end when he was a powerhouse,” she says. “It was actually unbelievable. I could not believe it. It was like a dream. It really was.”
But still. Throughout her son’s senior season, in the back of her mind, Lonise held that sense of unease. Her son had entered a world of infinite possibility. He had fame. He was near riches. And more importantly, whether on the basketball court or off it, he exuded joy.
“People would say, ‘Oh, I know you’re so excited about your son.’ And I can remember telling someone, ‘It’s like you can see a gold ring, but you don’t think you’re going to be able to touch it.’ It just didn’t feel like it was going to happen to me,” Lonise explains. “And it wasn’t that it was too good to be true. It was something weightier down in me that was a truth, that what looks like is going to happen is not going to take place.”
So while she experienced these moments of pride watching her son do what few people on Earth could do on a basketball court, she also felt this weight.
“I knew something was going to happen,” Lonise says, “and I—I was just so sad. It was something in me telling me something is coming. Something is coming.
“I knew death was coming.”
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.