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 2: “He’s Gone.” The full podcast is available on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, through the Book of Basketball 2.0 feed.
Maryland point guard Keith Gatlin took it all in. Paramedics arriving on the scene, doing their best to keep Len Bias alive, to rush him to a hospital. Gatlin, Bias’s suitemate, didn’t know what to do, how to help. The only thing that came to mind was for him to call Lonise, Bias’s mom. At that moment, she was just a few minutes away, asleep at home.
“The phone rang about 6:30 in the morning, and the sun was so bright in my bedroom until it almost hurt my eyes,” Lonise Bias says. “It was so bright. And someone was on the other end of the phone saying that Len was sick and they had taken him to the hospital. And my husband said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘Somebody’s saying Len is sick.’ And he said, ‘What?’”
Now, in this moment, in Gatlin’s confusion, he made a mistake.
“I panicked and I actually called his mother and told his mother the wrong hospital that we was going to,” Gatlin explains.
“And we jumped up and we went to the wrong hospital,” Lonise recalls.
So she and her husband showed up looking for Lenny, and he wasn’t there. Then they rushed over to Leland Memorial hospital, where Lenny had been taken by paramedics.
Meanwhile, Gatlin was already there.
“That time was anxious,” Gatlin says. “You’re waiting, you’re hoping for the best, but you know what, it’s not looking good. And you can’t really grasp, like, all the emotions.”
A lot of people were gathering there. Including most of the Maryland team. It didn’t take long for local reporters to get wind of the news.
“I got the call from the news desk at about 7,” recalls Molly Dunham Glassman, the Terrapins beat reporter for Baltimore’s Evening Sun. “Lenny’s at Leland Memorial Hospital, apparent heart attack. That was all they knew.
“Took me about 45 minutes to get down there, and the scene at the hospital was something I’d never experienced before. The kids on the team were there, most of them just hid their heads and didn’t want to talk. We were just waiting to find out what the doctors were going to say, and the media was talking amongst themselves and the speculation, ‘How could he have a heart attack?’”
Everyone was there, waiting, wondering, praying. At some point in the commotion, Lonise and her husband James arrived and went to their son’s room.
“Everyone was—the teammates and other people—were there, just torn to pieces, and people just crying, and media. And it was just so much,” Lonise says. “And when we got there, they told us, the nurse said that they had him on, not a ventilator, it was something else. They were breathing for him. And she was saying that—I said, ‘Is his heart beating weird?’ ‘We’re making everything work.’
“I said, ‘Well, he’s gone.’ And she said, ‘No. No, no, no, no.’ I said, ‘No, he’s gone.’ And they waited until the doctor actually came in and they pronounced him dead.”
Bias was pronounced dead at 8:50 a.m. on June 19, 1986. And speaking about it today, Lonise thinks back, again, to that premonition. That sense she’d carried within her for months that tragedy was lurking somewhere in her future. And the realization in that hospital room that tragedy had now arrived.
A few minutes later, she walked out of the room, into the waiting area. There, she saw her son’s teammates, his coaches, the friends who loved him, the reporters assigned to cover him. She delivered the news.
“When I think about all of the months of suffering that I had endured knowing that something was going to happen,” Lonise says, “it was like it was building me up and strengthening me for that hour. And at that time so many of the guys were crying and I was trying to comfort them and trying to comfort my family, my husband.”
Bias’s Maryland teammate Derrick Lewis remembers the shock of the moment vividly. “Mrs. Bias comes out and she said, ‘He’s gone.’ And I’m thinking, like, going where? He’s going to another hospital?” Lewis says. “And she just came back and said, ‘He’s gone.’ And you see a bunch of the guys all break down at the same time. I mean, you’re just speechless. She wasn’t crying at all. She didn’t have a tear in her eye. She said to be strong. But it was just an unbelievable scene.”
Gatlin also thinks back to Lonise’s incredible sense of calm. “I’m sure she had her moments, but in that particular time, when she hugged me, she said, ‘I need you to be strong. I have to go make funeral arrangements,’” Gatlin recalls. “And to have a mother to say that when you just lost a son, of that magnitude, it was like, it’s crazy.”
Through all of this, Molly Dunham Glassman and the other reporters were standing in the corner of the waiting area, watching. “It is very surreal,” she says. “And the kids on the team, they were just kids, and they were just too young to be going through that. To lose somebody who had been so vibrant and so strong. I mean, Lenny was such a powerful, physical presence that to think that he had been on this hospital bed and just had the life drain out of him was really hard to imagine. So I think a lot of us, and certainly the kids at the time, kind of went into denial. ‘No, it couldn’t be true.’”
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.