Leonard Kevin “Len” Bias (November 18, 1963 – June 19, 1986) was a first-team All-American college basketball forward at the University of Maryland. He was selected by the Boston Celtics as the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft on June 17, and died two days later from cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose.
He is considered by some sportswriters to be one of the greatest players not to play at the professional level. A statue was proposed to be created in his honor in 2013.
Bias was born and raised in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.. He was known to friends and family as “Frosty”, a nickname he received from his pastor because of his cool demeanor.
Bias was one of four children born to James Bias, Jr. and Dr. Lonise Bias. He had a sister, Michelle, and two brothers, Eric and James III, known as “Jay”.
From Landover, Maryland, Bias graduated from Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, and subsequently attended the University of Maryland.
As a freshman, he was viewed as “raw and undisciplined”, but developed himself over time into an All-American player. In his junior year, he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring and was named the ACC’s Player of the Year.
His senior season was highlighted by his performance in an overtime victory against top-ranked North Carolina in which he scored 35 points, including 7 in the last 3 minutes of regulation and 4 in overtime.
At the end of the year, Bias collected his second ACC Player of the Year award and was named to two All-America teams.
Bias impressed basketball fans with his amazing leaping ability, his physical stature and his ability to create plays, and was considered one of the most dynamic players in the nation. By his senior year, scouts from various National Basketball Association teams viewed Bias as the most complete forward in the Class of 1986.
According to Celtics scout Ed Badger, “He’s maybe the closest thing to (Chicago guard) Michael Jordan to come out in a long time. I’m not saying he’s as good as Michael Jordan, but he’s an explosive and exciting kind of player like that.” Jordan was then in his second professional season with the Chicago Bulls.
On Tuesday June 17, Bias was selected by the defending NBA champion Celtics as the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft, which was held in New York City at Madison Square Garden.
Arnold “Red” Auerbach, as the Boston Celtics President and General Manager, had previously dealt guard Gerald Henderson and cash to the Seattle SuperSonics for the pick in 1984. After the draft, Bias and his family returned to their suburban Maryland home.
On Wednesday June 18, Bias and his father flew to Boston, Massachusetts, from Washington, D.C., for an NBA club draft acceptance and product endorsement signing ceremony with the Celtics’ coaches and management. Bias had discussions with Reebok’s Sports-Marketing Division regarding a five-year endorsement package worth $1.6 million.
After returning home to Maryland, Bias retrieved his newly leased sports car and drove back to his room on the campus of the University of Maryland.
He then dined with some teammates and a member of the football team. He left campus at approximately 2 AM on Thursday June 19 and drove to an off-campus gathering, which he attended briefly before returning to his dorm in Washington Hall at 3 AM.
It was at this time that Bias and some friends used cocaine. According to the campus timeline, Bias had a seizure and collapsed sometime between 6:25 and 6:32 AM while talking with teammate Terry Long. At 6:32 AM, when the 911 call to Prince George’s County emergency services was made by Brian Tribble (a long-time friend), Bias was unconscious and not breathing. All attempts by the emergency medical team to restart his heart and breathing were unsuccessful.
After additional attempts to revive him in the Emergency Department at Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale, Maryland, Bias was pronounced dead at 8:55 AM of a cardiac arrhythmia related to usage of cocaine. It was reported that there were no other drugs or alcohol found in his system after his death.
Four days after his death (Monday June 23), more than 11,000 people packed the Cole Field House, the university recreation and student center where Bias played for the Terrapins, for a memorial service. Those speaking at the service included Red Auerbach, who said he had planned for three years to draft Bias for the Celtics.
Auerbach added that the city of Boston had not been so shocked since the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Bias is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.
On Monday June 30, 1986, the Celtics honored Bias with their own memorial service, giving his never used #30 Celtic jersey to his mother, Lonise.
On July 25, 1986, a grand jury returned indictments against Bias’s friend Brian Tribble for possession of cocaine and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and Bias’s Maryland teammates Terry Long and David Gregg (both for possession of cocaine and obstruction of justice). Long and Gregg were both suspended from the team on July 31. All three defendants entered not guilty pleas in August.
On October 20, 1986, prosecutors dropped all charges against Long and Gregg in exchange for their testimony against Tribble. On October 30, the grand jury added three more indictments against Tribble—one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and two counts of obstruction of justice.
Also on October 30, Kenneth Mark Fobbs, Tribble’s roommate, was charged with perjury for allegedly lying to the grand jury about the last time he saw Tribble. The state ultimately dropped the perjury charges against Fobbs on March 24, 1987, and a jury acquitted Tribble of all charges related to the Bias case on June 3, 1987.
In October 1990 following a two-year undercover sting operation, Tribble pleaded guilty to being a major drug dealer. He cooperated with the government and was sentenced to ten years and one month of confinement.
In 1988, the U.S. Congress passed a stricter Anti-Drug Act that is known as “The Len Bias Law.” It was backed by both parties and reinforced the War on Drugs with stiffer penalties and expanded the DARE program.
The circumstances surrounding Bias’s death threw the University of Maryland and its athletics program into turmoil. An investigation revealed that Bias was 21 credits short of the graduation requirement despite having used all his athletic eligibility. On August 26, 1986, State’s Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr. stated that in the hours after Bias’s death, Maryland head basketball coach Lefty Driesell told players to remove drugs from Bias’s dorm room.
Two days later, Bias’s father, James, accused the University of Maryland, and Driesell specifically, of neglecting the academic status of its athletes. The National Collegiate Athletic Association subsequently began its investigation into the affair that fall.
The controversy prompted athletic director Dick Dull to resign October 7, 1986, with Driesell following suit October 29, after serving as the Terrapins’ coach for 17 years. The grand jury presiding over the Bias case issued a final report on February 26, 1987, that criticized the University of Maryland’s athletic department, admissions office, and campus police.
On December 5, 1990, Jay Bias, the younger brother of Len Bias, was murdered in a drive by shooting at age 20, following a dispute in the parking lot of Prince George’s Plaza, a Hyattsville shopping mall located just a few miles from the University of Maryland.
Two gunmen, Jerry Tyler and Gerald Eiland, had fired several times into the vehicle Jay Bias and two friends were in, hitting Bias twice in the back. He was pronounced dead at the same hospital where Len Bias had died, and was buried next to him at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Tyler and Eiland were both later found guilty of murdering Jay Bias.
His father did a TV interview about the death of his son on national television.
Like his brother Len, Jay Bias was also a star player at Northwestern High School, and was planning to transfer to American University in Washington, D.C. to play basketball.
Following their sons’ deaths, James and Lonise Bias assumed vocal advocacy roles. Lonise Bias became an anti-drug lecturer, while James Bias became an advocate for handgun control.
Lonise Bias, in the memory of her children, opened the Len and Jay Bias Foundation, which served to encourage better examples for youth.
A film about Len Bias’s life, directed by Kirk Fraser, was promoted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and was released June 19, 2009.
The documentary Without Bias premiered on ESPN on November 3, 2009, as part of their 30 for 30 documentary series, commemorating the network’s 30th anniversary.
Bias’ parents and surviving siblings were interviewed for the film, as were several of his friends and teammates including his coach, Lefty Drissell, as well as Brian Tribble and Keith Gatlin, who called Lonise Bias to inform her of her son’s condition, and Washington-area journalists Michael Wilbon, James Brown, Steve Buckhantz, and Jim Vance (who himself had fallen victim to a cocaine addiction).