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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Len Bias and historical counterfactuals

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the death of former University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias from a cocaine-induced heart attack. For sports fans of my age group, this is a significant where-were-you-when moment (I was at home studying for my last high school final exams). It was the subject of one of the best of ESPN's 30-for-30 documentaries and Bill Simmons talks about it as the singular event that changed the course of the Boston Celtics and all of the NBA through the late '80s and '90s. And it was a major catalyst for Congress creating the crack/powder disparity that still plagues federal sentencing law.

The assumption always is that Bias would have been an NBA superstar. He was the immediate heir to Larry Bird and would have kept the Boston Celtics (who had just won the NBA title) at the top of the league. And he would have been the truly worthy and equal rival to Michael Jordan in the 1990s. But I always have wondered whether that assumption is correct.

We know (or really, really strongly suspect) two things: 1) June 19 likely was not the first time Bias had used cocaine and 2) Dozens of players drafted in the mid-'80s had problems with cocaine, with several being suspended or kicked out of the league for cocaine use, including some potential stars. So is it equally reasonable to imagine a counterfactual in which Bias' career is similarly undone (or at least fails to live up to its fullest potential) by the league's pervasive drug culture of the time? Especially given that Bias' death itself was one of the major wake-up calls against the drug culture in sports, the event that told leagues, teams, players, and fans in a more explicit and dramatic way that cocaine was something to worry about.

Update: Here is the Salon piece that Joseph mentions in his Comment; it is an interview with Eric Sterling, who was counsel to the House committee that drafted the 1986 drug law and now is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. The irony of the legislation that was produced is that, we now know, Bias was using powder, not crack, the night he did.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 19, 2011 at 10:02 AM in Culture, Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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Posted by: among us | Jul 26, 2021 4:46:47 AM

Also, interesting piece in Salon.com today about Len Bias and the law passed after his death.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 20, 2011 9:09:17 AM

As a fan of the Celtics' hated rivals, the "Bad Boys" Detroit Pistons, I remember this well. I think you have a good point. High draft picks or other high potential players can often be busts because of drugs (William Bedford, Roy Tarpley), injuries (see the Portland Trail Blazers), or just because the player isn't as good as folks thought he would be (hello, Darko!). Heck, we Pistons fans tell ourselves stories about what would have happened if Darko had been the real deal, or if we had drafted, say, Duane Wade or Chris Bosh instead with that pick. Ten straight championships for sure!

So yeah, Simmons is probably engaging in wishful thinking homer-ism. Your point about the impact of Bias on our thinking about cocaine and crack is a much better one.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Jun 19, 2011 10:19:28 AM

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