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 6: “Who Can You Trust?” The full podcast is available on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, through the Book of Basketball 2.0 feed.
When the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and state-level “Len Bias laws” were passed, Derrick Curry, childhood friend of Len and Jay Bias, barely paid attention to them. He was still in high school. He was still mourning Bias’s death. But he would experience the full impact of these laws just a few years later, in 1990.
After high school, Curry went to Kansas to play junior college basketball. But during a break from school, he was back home in Maryland. There, he spent a lot of time hanging out with another good friend named Norman.
“Norman was a drug dealer,” Curry tells me. “I mean, I knew what he did, you know, but he never really brought it around me or anything like that. And yeah, I was naive. I’d never been in trouble before, never did anything illegal. My thing was, I’m not doing it, so why am I going to get in trouble?”
To Curry, Norman was a friend from the neighborhood. Though he admits that he occasionally let himself linger a little too close to Norman’s business.
“I will say, I was probably in two, maybe three situations that looking back on it, it was risky,” Curry says.
“Where, like, there’s something in the car?” I ask.
“Right, right. But again, I was just naive, honestly, that it ain’t mine,” Curry recalls. “My fingerprints ain’t even on nothing.”
Once, Curry was driving Norman’s station wagon, aware that drugs were in the car. He saw police behind him, and he got scared. He left the car in a parking lot, and FBI agents wiretapped him talking with Norman on the phone.
“Where the shit at?” Norman asked him.
“In the car,” Curry said.
And then one night…
“I was actually at Norman’s house that night asleep when they came and bust down the door,” Curry remembers. “They didn’t even know who I was initially. And when I told them who I was, they was like, ‘OK, well, he’s not on this list.’ So they was like, ‘OK, we’re going to take him down anyway.’ So they took me down there, at court, to ask me a bunch of questions. I said, ‘I don’t know anything.’ Which I really didn’t. I mean, I was—how old was I? 19? Yeah, 19.”
He didn’t have any clue what was going on.
“It was real confusing. I mean, I had never been stopped for jaywalking,” Curry says. “So I ain’t know nothing about being arrested or anything. So after that they ended up letting us know what’s going on, so I’m like, ‘I’m not no drug dealer. What is the conspiracy in?’ All those different things.”
“What was the charge?” I ask.
“Conspiracy to distribute and possess drugs. And so it was like, OK, well, I ain’t got nothing to do with this.”
I ask Curry what he felt at the time; whether he was scared.
“Oh, yeah,” Curry says. “I was scared shitless. Yeah, I was scared. But just the scared of … of not knowing. I guess that had a lot to do with it. Just not knowing what’s going on or what.”
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.