Wednesday, June 28, 2006

On Len Bias

Ok, so I’m a week late in getting around to writing about this, but I still think it is worth the space. Last Monday was the 20th anniversary of the death of Len Bias. On June 19, 1986, two nights after the Boston Celtics selected him as a first-round draft pick, he died of a cocaine overdose. He was 22.

It is hard for me to imagine that this occurred that long ago. My life was completely different then, but I remember the day of his death as though it happened yesterday. I know that I was only nine years old at the time, but I feel I had a pretty good understanding of the situation. I certainly knew of the talent Bias possessed. I would argue that only Travis Usher and Dick Vitale watched more ACC basketball games during the 1980s than I did. As I played out my versions of the games in the basement (complete with uniform changes to match who was playing on ESPN), Len Bias was one of my alter-egos. As I think back to his skills and how they matched up with others of that era, I think about Walter Berry, Chris Mullin, Patrick Ewing, Ralph Sampson, and of course Michael Jordan. When I watch games today, I think about Len Bias when I watch LeBron James. They have that “boy in a man’s body” physique and the same aura on the court. In both cases you understand you are watching greatness.

I don’t know that I knew a lot about cocaine or any other drugs at the time. I was aware of their existence, but certainly as a nine year old living in Nebraska my exposure was limited to episodes of Miami Vice. What I did know, however, after learning of his death was that I would never touch cocaine. I learned that it would kill you even the first time you tried it. I learned that no celebration was worth that cost. These feelings were only strengthened when Don Rogers, a defensive back for the Cleveland Browns, also died of a cocaine overdose just eight days later. For me and for many of my generation, this was the legacy of Len Bias.

It has recently come to my attention that the legacy of Len Bias stretches much further than this. In response to his death, Congress enacted Len Bias-inspired legislation attacking the drug problem. The result of this was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This act contained new mandatory minimum sentences, a death penalty provision for drug "king pins" and no parole for even minor, first-time possession offenses. In addition, although Bias had died from an overdose on powder cocaine, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act also established tougher sentences for crack cocaine offenses. Five grams of crack carried a minimum five-year federal prison sentence, while at least 500 grams of powder cocaine was required for the same sentence.

In other words, one of the major legacies of the death of Len Bias is an explosion in the federal prison population. From 1954 to 1976, it fluctuated between 20,000 and 24,000. By 1986 it had grown to 36,000. Today it exceeds 190,000 prisoners, up 527 percent in 20 years. More than half this population is made up of drug offenders, most of whom are serving sentences created in the weeks after Len Bias died. There is also a racist element to all of this. Although about two-thirds of crack users are white or Hispanic, a recent commission found, more than 80 percent of those convicted in federal courts of crack possession or trafficking in the mid-1990s were black.

Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune makes an excellent point about all of this in his recent column. He states:

Now there's a thought: If you don't think crack sentencing is too severe for first-time offenders, how about increasing the penalties for powder cocaine? Or would that sweep up too many members of the better-off classes to suit our lawmakers?

Just imagine, for a moment, the alarm that would be generated by parades of, say, handcuffed pro athletes, fashion models, fraternity boys and other charter members of the well-to-do silver coke spoon set, all doing their perp walks in front of television cameras? If that does not spur a renewed public demand for humane alternatives to long prison sentences, nothing will.

A second way to look at the legacy of Len Bias is to look at the Boston Celtics. Many Celtic fans argue that the death of Bias is at least partially responsible for the downfall of this once proud organization. They might have a point. In 1986 the Celtics won the Eastern Conference. In 1987 they would have returned with Bird, McHale and Bias to go along with Ainge, Johnson and Parish. How good would this team have been and for how long? Would the Bad Boys from Detroit ever have gotten the chance to shine? Would Michael ever have gotten his titles in the 90s? You have to wonder, especially given that the Celtics also suffered the death of Reggie Lewis in 1993.

Len Bias would be 42 years old now. That is almost as hard for me to fathom as my own impending 30th birthday. It has been nice to look back and think about the greatness of Bias and his impact on the world over the last week. I’m hard pressed to think of the death of anyone, let alone that of an athlete, that has had such a profound impact on our society. His death probably saved the lives of thousands who steered clear of illicit drugs, while ruining the lives of countless others serving long and unjust sentences. And just think, all this and we still never got to truly see one of the great ones, become great.


Blogger mom said...

Your mind amazes me. I remember you having lots of questions when Len Bias died. It seems you still generate lots of questions. I do wish you would be able to shut down that mind so you could sleep.

6/28/2006 7:02 AM  
Blogger oldtennisbum said...

I thought of you when I read several 20th year articles. I knew that Len was going to keep you drug free. His Mother has worked tirelessly for the 20 years in his honor. You should try to forward your blog to her.

6/28/2006 7:31 AM  
Blogger Amy P said...

In response to mom's comment. Are you aware that Red Bull has a TON of caffiene? Best lay off it and get some beauty sleep. If you still can't sleep come sit with my kids for awhile. 2 under 2 will knock you out!

BTW in all seriousness nice blogicle.

6/28/2006 1:59 PM  

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