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Last summer I bought a Len Bias throwback jersey out of the back of a white Ford Tempo. Considering that throwbacks were going the way of Cross Colours and Hypercolor shirts, it was an odd purchase. But this was a white jersey with kelly green numbers, letters and trim. The Celtics jersey Bias never wore.
I had to have it. I just wasn't sure why.
Because of his premature death 20 years ago today, Bias has become a bit of a folk hero, particularly in his native D.C. Metro area. His game was surely memorable, a spectacular combination of grace, power and explosion.
But I don't remember seeing it live. The first memory I have of Bias was the world's last -- the day he died. After being chosen by the NBA champion Boston Celtics with the second pick in the 1986 draft, Bias celebrated by bingeing on a lethal amount of cocaine. I was too young to grasp the magnitude of the situation; death seems foreign to kids, and I figured people just said no like Nancy Reagan said they should. But my daddy made one statement that day that stuck with me:
"With Bias, the Celtics would have kicked butt for another 15 years," he said, expressing a thought that mortified him to his Celtic-hating bones.
Should you need a way to measure how good Bias could have been in the NBA, consider that the Celtics had the best frontline in NBA history in 1986. Larry Bird won his third consecutive MVP that season. Robert Parish was an All-Star in '86. Kevin McHale, armed with a set of post moves that could be issued only by the Swiss army, was probably the best power forward in the league. On top of being a great post scorer, he made the NBA All-Defensive team in '86.
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Yet the Celtics still took Bias. And they did so while Red Auerbach still had a golden touch with personnel, especially players he was sure would be stars.
When he was drafted, in a Washington Post article one Celtics scout invoked the name of Michael Jordan -- who was already the ultimate measuring stick two years after he was drafted -- to lavish praise upon Bias by saying he was the "closest thing" to MJ he'd seen. Mike Krzyzewski has said that two players stood above all the rest in his time in the ACC -- Jordan and Bias.
That's how good Bias could have been. Except he never played in the NBA.
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The "never" part was what stuck in my mind after I bought that jersey. Bias' Celtics uniform was the ultimate confirmation that Bias never made it. The number 30 he was supposed to wear never made it to the court, let alone the rafters. To see the jersey was actually saddening. It was like I bought a Bill Buckner 1986 World Series MVP T-shirt, except the sadness was borne from something far more consequential.
In a way, it felt like I was mocking his memory. This was different than his Maryland jersey, whose style points were rivaled in D.C. and Prince George's County, Md., by only Doug Williams' Redskins jersey. That was a reminder of everything great about Bias. The soft, feathery touch on his jumper, the stunning aura he emitted when he stepped on the floor, the 1984 ACC championship to which he led the Terps.
The Celtics jersey had nothing behind it but the specter of death stained with cocaine. On a trivial note, it was an artifact of the beginning of the end of the last Celtics dynasty. Even though Bird and McHale were still in their primes and Parish was the youngest old man in the NBA, the Celtics reached only one more NBA Finals (in 1987) after Bias died.
More significantly, that Bias jersey meant death. Not death in an unimportant, metaphorical way. It meant eyes that would never blink again, cheeks that would never rise again to make a smile, and a heart that couldn't beat because it was choking on blow.
After more thought, it was clear that cocaine was the reason I had to have the jersey, the reason I had to wear it, the reason people needed to see it.
Without question, Len Bias has influenced my life and the lives of my generation more than any other. He might be the most influential athlete of the 20th century.
Most would argue Michael Jordan is the most influential because of his global impact on commerce, or Babe Ruth because of his role in making baseball an American institution, or Muhammad Ali for his defiant stance against the war in Vietnam and his appeal in the Third World.
They were reflections of social movements and represent periods of time, but those men didn't directly change the way people behaved. By dying, Bias did something no public service announcement could accomplish -- his death made cocaine no longer cool.
In the Washington Post on June 9, Bias' mother Lonise said that over the last 20 years, a countless number of people have told her that they stopped snorting blow the day Len died. That makes perfect sense. Bias might have ingested enough cocaine to kill two or three smaller men, but he looked invincible to anything earthly. His arms and legs were magnificently sculpted, in a time that preceded the popularity of weight training in basketball. He looked cut from granite, but still was lithe and possessed flexibility that made his game more graceful than powerful. And his game was pretty friggin' powerful.
If cocaine could stop his heart, God knows what it could do to the average man.
That was definitely enough to make the average man take pause. It surely was enough to make my friends and me take pause. Because no matter how many times we might -- or might not -- have puffed the magic dragon, not once have we considered a line of cocaine. Whenever we heard someone had been arrested for cocaine possession, we had a standard response.
"Hasn't he heard of Len Bias?"
In that respect, Bias was a martyr of sorts. He wasn't heroic, but his death made it abundantly clear that cocaine was no joke. It wasn't the harmless good time many considered it to be. It could kill you, especially if it could kill Len Bias.
It should also be noted that dying of an overdose should not have made Bias a demon, either. He made a terrible mistake, one his mother -- who lost another son, Jay, to gunfire in the parking lot of a shopping mall -- has had to live with for two decades. That didn't make him a bad person. It proved he was prone to irresponsibility, which made him different from approximately zero 22-year-olds in the history of the world.
One year after Bias' death, Michael Wilbon wrote a magnificent column that expressed his fear that athletes didn't take heed of what Bias did to himself, and that children might not, either. Nineteen years later, I hope Wilbon's fears have been assuaged. There are plenty of people who remember what happened to Bias. My brother, 13 years my senior, had just finished his freshman year of college when Bias died. He's told me stories about how common cocaine was when he was in school, and it sounds foreign to me and many of my contemporaries.
Bias has a lot to do with that.
And it's the reason that jersey is one of my prized possessions. Even though I don't wear it much, it stays at the top of one of my drawers. It represents too much for me to throw it into storage.
Though he died in disgrace, I hope Len Bias rests in peace. He's been too important for me to wish for anything less.
Bomani Jones is a frequent contributor to Page 2. Tell him how you feel at email@example.com.