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 7, “It Just Feels Like Loss,” our season finale. The full podcast is available on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, through the Book of Basketball 2.0 feed.
June 19, 2021 marked the 35-year anniversary of Len Bias’s death. Thirty-five years later, and Bias still conjures powerful memories for those who watched him, played with him, and loved him. Thirty-five years later, and his place in our collective cultural memory remains fixed.
Personally? I was born about 18 months before Bias died. I have no memory of watching him play, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who he was. We’ll never know who Bias could have become in his life. In his death, he has become an object of fascination and a source of incredible grief. He has become someone whose name is known everywhere—for how he died, for what his loss meant, for who he was during the 22 years he lived.
The entire time I’ve worked on this project, something Lonise Bias said has stuck with me: “I really didn’t know who Len was until he died.”
She knew him as her son. She knew she loved him. But she didn’t know what he meant to people.
For so many of the people in this story, Bias’s memory has followed them everywhere in the years since. Keith Gatlin is now an assistant coach at High Point University. He finds himself talking about Bias with young players sometimes, trying to make sure they understand who his friend and teammate was.
“I think the perception when you talk to young kids about Len Bias, is that, ‘I saw the YouTube. He was a great player. He died of drugs,’” Bias’s Maryland teammate says. “That’s what all the young kids say. ‘What happened?’ or ‘How good was he?’ whatever. And I tell them all the time, ‘A YouTube clip is nothing. You’ve got to really see his full body of work.’”
As the years pass, the number of people who really saw him gets smaller, bit by bit. Memories of watching Bias live slip away, replaced by another generation who only remembers watching clips of him online. Even in his own home, Mike Wilbon finds himself working to keep Bias’s memory alive.
“I think that because people don’t hear Lenny’s voice, they don’t hear his voice, there’s no real clips, they’re grainy,” Wilbon says. “I’ve tried to make—my son has come in when I’m in the room watching and he’s like, ‘Dad, I can’t even tell what this is.’ So maybe if there were more footage of that jump shot that he beat UT-Chattanooga with, you could explain it to a new generation. It’s hard. They can’t go to YouTube and get something digital in super HD.”
Wilbon continues: “They don’t really want to hear the story being told. But it’s the saddest story, saddest ending, to a story that I’ve ever been part of as a journalist. This one, I think it haunts all of us who were there for it.”
For Scott Van Pelt, it can feel as raw today as it did 35 years ago.
“He was a public school kid like me who is from here, who went here, and stayed here and became this guy who’s going to carry our hopes and wishes with him, and then he died.”
Van Pelt continues: “Right now I am emotional. Right now. It hurts that he didn’t get to go be that, and that his family had to carry that weight with them. That just is an unreasonable burden and so, it’s just, I don’t know, it was and is heavy. It’s the kind of loss that it’s odd how it—like, I lost my dad not long after that, and that’s far different, that’s intensely personal clearly. But I got a chance as an older man—and I got married later in life—but I got a chance to become a husband and a dad, and I got a chance to now, I have a son named after my dad. And there’s ways to process that loss and grow from that loss and have it become something that in some ways feels positive.
“Leonard’s loss will only ever feel like what it was and is, which is just this loss. I don’t feel like you grow from it. I don’t feel like anybody benefited from it. It just feels like loss.”
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity. All seven episodes of What If? The Len Bias Story are available on the Book of Basketball 2.0 feed. Follow on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.