Publish date:

Twenty-five years later, Bias' death remains a seminal sports moment

About 9:30 on the morning of June 19, 1986, I got a call at home from John Papanek, an editor at Sports Illustrated. It was a Thursday, the beginning of SI's workweek.

"So, what about Len Bias?" he asked.

I had just completed my first year on the NBA beat, so I started right in on my basketball knowledge.

"Perfect draft pick for the Celtics," I began. "He's too big and strong for most of the small forwards who'll guard him, and too quick for most of the power forwards ..."

"Jack," John interrupted me. "Bias is dead."

This was before the age of ubiquitous bombarding of social media, so it was within the realm of possibility to have gone to bed the night before without hearing big news.

"You're kidding, right?" I said, echoing the response of a million others when they heard the news. "How? When? Why?"

"Looks like drugs," said Papanek. "You're on the story."

So much for the vacation that was supposed to occur after a long NBA season that had ended 11 days earlier.

Within a couple hours I was in my car driving somewhere, either to Landover (where Bias grew up), College Park (where he played at the University of Maryland) or Baltimore or Washington (where he might've gotten the cocaine that killed him). As I recall, I encamped somewhere in the nexus of those places.

Twenty-five years later, the death of the 22-year-old Bias -- who had just been selected by reigning champion Boston as the No. 2 pick in the 1986 draft, the player who was going to be the bridge to another Celtics title, not a "new Larry Bird" but certainly a next-generation version of the legend -- remains one of the most memorable stories I ever covered. And not just for me. Documentarian Kirk Fraser created "Without Bias" for ESPN's "30 for 30" film series. At the NBA Finals in Dallas recently, I had breakfast with Mike Wilbon, the former Washington Post columnist who is now with ESPN, when the death of Bias came up in conversation. "Covering Len Bias and covering the Dream Team were the most important stories in my career," Wilbon said.

I feel the same way.

There were many reasons the Bias story was so big and why it has endured -- and will continue to endure -- for so long:

• The timing of his death was shocking, existentially horrific. The NBA draft had been held only 40 hours before he died, and Bias had been there, in New York, one of the prime attractions, the smiling Sure Thing wearing a Celtics cap. Then it all went away. The New Kid on the NBA block was suddenly, and startlingly, the Dead Kid on the Block.

• The tragedy involved a player at a major school, and, more significantly, one of the most storied franchises in the sport. The story was so big in any case but would've gotten far less play had Bias been drafted by, say, the Los Angeles Clippers.

• The central character was an extraordinarily talented player, one of the best ever to play in the ACC. That brought an even larger dimension of snuffed-out potential to the story.

• The cause of death was puzzling and alarming. Most of us who covered pro basketball at that time had some experience in writing about players and cocaine. But nobody, as far as we knew, had ever seized up and died from it suddenly, certainly not a college kid in the prime of life. That meant there was a medical mystery to uncover.

• There was a true detective mystery, too. With whom had Bias spent his final, fateful hours? Had someone given him bad stuff? How had he alone turned up as a fatality when he didn't have the reputation for being a drug user? The next three days became a search for a Bias acquaintance named Brian Tribble, who had allegedly supplied the coke and made the ominous 911 call to the police that Bias was dying.

SI Recommends

• The story had implications for the Maryland basketball program, far more than we knew at the time. In the early hours of discovery, coach Lefty Driesell had reportedly coached his players on how to respond to questions from police, a violation of the law.

• Finally, the death of Bias had a truly lurid aspect to it that brought out the tabloids. It was the first story I ever covered at which I was fighting the National Enquirer for access.

And, really, access was the issue. In journalism, access is always the issue. But access with whom? Who to talk to? What to ask them? With a dead protagonist, who was the central character? And what was the story essentially about? Was it one kid's tragedy? One league's tragedy? An investigation into rampant drug use among college athletes? A cautionary tale for the body politic?

The Celtics provided the standard quotes -- Bird's "It's the cruelest thing I've ever heard" being by far the most memorable -- but none of them knew Bias well, and there was only so far to take that. Driesell wasn't talking. This Brian Tribble was in the wind. Bias' parents, Lonise and James, were in hiding. My worst moment of the weekend occurred as I staked out the Bias home, feeling like a thief waiting to strike or a guy in a raincoat staring into a window. And that was before I spotted a National Enquirer reporter hiding in a tree with a long-lens camera. Covering sports has never been exactly like covering cotillions, but the guy in the tree made me nauseous about our information-gathering techniques.

"That's it," I said to my photographer. "I don't care if Bias' parents do show. I gotta get outta here."

At one point we thought we had spotted Bias' gray Datsun 300ZX being hitched up to be taken to police impoundment. It was in that vehicle that they eventually found, as the investigator put it, "white granules caked together in a chunk about the size of a bar of soap." It was coke. But as we advanced warily upon the car, looking like two members of the bomb squad, it turned out not to be Bias'.

Like everyone else, I tried to find Tribble. I recall getting a tip on where he was and, with the SI photographer at the wheel, we sped down to the dangerous intersection of Montana and New York Avenues in northeast D.C. Against all odds, we came upon metro police executing a bust. They wouldn't talk to us, but somehow I became convinced that we had happened upon the Tribble arrest. We followed the police to the station and I bugged them so bad that they almost arrested me. Alas, it was not Tribble.

We found out that Bias' brother, Jay, a promising high school player who was about to turn 16 years old, had a summer basketball game scheduled for that night. We drove to the gym, which was about seven miles from the Maryland campus, and I introduced myself. Obviously, he wasn't glad to see me and I managed to gather only a couple of mumbled quotes. "Len would've wanted me to play," the young man said. I felt like Vlad the Impaler even asking the kid to talk about his brother at such a time. I also talked to Jay's coach, who claimed that Jay "was a little further along than Len at that age" in his basketball development.

I continued to collect details. There were signs and a general atmosphere of zombied disbelief around the quiet Maryland campus. It would've been a lot more dramatic and animated had school been in session. Bias was the Terrapins' favorite son, the one who was going to make everyone forget all those North Carolina and Duke stars who had made it big in the NBA.

I made a call to Bias' agent, Lee Fentress, who went through Bias' final days, the emphasis being on how excited he was and how ready he was to become a Celtic. I made repeated calls to the state medical investigator, who finally concluded that Bias had died of "cardiorespiratory arrest brought on by the use of cocaine." But what did that mean exactly? Was it bad cocaine? Why didn't it happen to everyone who had been partying in the dorm room?

So many questions and so few answers as I sat down to write the story on Saturday night. It was due on Sunday morning, bound for the cover.

When a story is dramatic and the facts aren't all in and the big questions remain, your best strategy as a journalist is to just tell the story as simply and completely possible. Don't amp up the drama and the tragic nature -- they are implicit.

What none of us realized at the time was how far-reaching the repercussions of the story would be. The Bias death was the catalyst for an investigation of the Maryland program, which eventually caused the dismissal of Driesell, one of the nation's best-known coaches. Driesell was no angel, but in this case he was more administration scapegoat than villain. It happens.

Tribble was eventually apprehended, but was cleared in 1987 of any wrongdoing in the Bias case. In 1990, however, he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for distributing cocaine. He appears as a talking head in the Fraser documentary.

Bias' death was only part of a litany of misery visited upon the NBA's draft class of 1986, now widely known as the "cursed draft." No. 3 pick Chris Washburn (who later admitted that he, like Bias, was snorting coke to celebrate his selection) struggled mightily with drugs and was homeless for a while before cleaning himself up. William Bedford, the sixth pick, did extensive prison time on drug-related offenses. Roy Tarpley, selected right after Bedford, wrecked an All-Star career with drug use and was banned for life.

It was because of 1986 that NBA teams began putting a higher priority on pre-draft investigations of players and the league instituted programs to counsel rookies about life lessons. Those programs don't have a 100 percent success rate, but we can't say for sure that they haven't saved someone from becoming another Bias.

The saddest echo of the tragedy occurred right back in the Bias home. In December 1990, Jay Bias, the quiet kid I had interviewed about his big brother's death, was shot and killed in the parking lot of a shopping center in Hyattsville, Md., apparently because another man thought he was flirting with his wife. Jay had been a terrific high school player but could never get his academics together to play at a big-time school.

"If you had to pick one person who suffered the most," Lonise Bias told The Washington Post after the death of her second son, "it has been Jay."

I'll take her word for it. But I can't imagine the agony that a mother who has buried two sons has gone through. It's a small matter that means nothing in the grand scope of things, but I'm glad that I stopped hiding in her front yard on that surreal weekend 25 years ago.