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Phil Taylor
January 08, 1996
Many of the NBA's first-round draft choices of 1986 sank, often tragically, out of sight
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January 08, 1996


Many of the NBA's first-round draft choices of 1986 sank, often tragically, out of sight

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The NBA's 1986 first-round picks, in draft order






Brad Daugherty*

North Carolina

19.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg; five All-Star Games; suffered herniated disks in 1994 and has spent last two years on injured list


Len Bias


Died from cocaine intoxication two days after draft


Chris Washburn

N.C. State

Two seasons; 3.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg; banned from NBA in 1989 for repeated drug use; sentenced to three years in prison for cocaine possession; last seen in action in South America


Chuck Person*


17.0 ppg; '87 Rookie of the Year; still rifling them in as valuable reserve forward for the Spurs


Kenny Walker


Six seasons; 7.2 ppg; nickname Sky; '89 All-Star Slam-Dunk Contest winner; fell to earth and ended up a Bullet sub


William Bedford

Memphis State

Six seasons; 4.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg; tore ligaments in right knee as rookie; suspended for '88-89 after admitting cocaine problem


Roy Tarpley


Six seasons; 12.6 ppg, 10.0 rpg; '88 Sixth Man Award; twice suspended for substance abuse; waived by Mavs last month


Ron Harper*

Miami (Ohio)

17.8 ppg, 4.8 apg; onetime star crippled by torn right ACL; now rehabbed, starting for Bulls


Brad Sellers

Ohio State

Six seasons; 6.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg; never developed NBA muscle or inside moves; ragged by teammate Michael Jordan


Johnny Dawkins


Nine seasons; 11.1 ppg, 5.5 apg; hobbled by knee injury


John Salley*

Georgia Tech

7.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg; top sub on two Piston title teams; now Raptor


John Williams


Eight seasons; 10.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg; tantalizing talent but ballooned as high as 300 pounds


Pearl Washington


Three seasons; 8.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg; finished up in CBA

Trail Blazers

Walter Berry

St. John's

Three seasons; 14.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg; segued to Spanish league, where he averaged 35 ppg and earned $1 million salary


Dell Curry*


12.8 ppg; '94 Sixth Man Award; now a Hornet mainstay


Mo Martin

St. Joseph's

Two seasons; 3.0 ppg; career curtailed by injury to right knee


Harold Pressley


Four seasons; 9.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg; failed to show up for year-end physical in '90 and waived before next season


Mark Alarie


Five seasons; 7.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg; damaged left knee ended career


Billy Thompson


Six seasons; 8.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg; admitted cocaine use


Buck Johnson


Seven seasons; 9.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg; suspended for cocaine use four games into '93 stint with CBA Wichita Falls Texans


Anthony Jones


Three seasons; 3.6 ppg, 1.3 rpg; four NBA teams


Scott Skiles*

Michigan State

11.2 ppg, 6.5 apg; '91 Most Improved Player Award; single-game record for assists (30); now a Sixer


Ken Barlow

Notre Dame

Traded to Hawks on draft day but never signed

Trail Blazers

Arvidas Sabonis*

Soviet Union

After injuries and an eternity, is current NBA rookie

*active NBA player
ppg: points per game
apg: assists per game
rpg: rebounds per game

On June 16, 1986, the night before he would be chosen second in the NBA draft, Len Bias, a strapping young forward from Maryland, went to sleep in his room at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City and dreamed that something had gone horribly wrong. He had overslept and was desperately racing to the Felt Forum, the site of the draft. He ran as fast as he could, but it was no use. In the dream he never made it to the place he had been trying to reach all his life. Finally, at 5:30 a.m., Bias woke up and was relieved to find that none of it had been real.

Several days earlier Philadelphia 76er general manager Pat Williams had discussed the draft with the Sixers' director of player personnel, Jack McMahon. Philadelphia had the first pick, but Williams and McMahon were not very impressed with the top candidates. They thought 7-foot center Brad Daugherty, who had had an impressive career at North Carolina, was too soft, and though Bias was widely considered to be the most dynamic player in the draft, the 76ers never seriously considered him. They didn't even bring him in for a routine predraft workout. Philadelphia already had a promising young power forward in Charles Barkley, but that wasn't the only reason for the Sixers' lack of interest in Bias. "I don't know," McMahon told Williams. "There's just something about him I don't like."

Twenty-three other players were drafted in the first round the same day Bias was (chart, next page), and his fate did not determine theirs. The fact that Bias came to such a tragic end—two days after he was picked by the Boston Celtics he died of cardiac arrest brought on by cocaine use—does not explain the misfortunes that have plagued so many of the other 1986 first-rounders in the decade since. Bias's death didn't force Chris Washburn, William Bedford and Roy Tarpley to turn to drugs or alcohol; it didn't cause Daugherty's career-threatening back injury or the pain in Johnny Dawkins's and Ron Harper's knees; it didn't excuse Dwayne (Pearl) Washington's lack of initiative. Still, there was something dark, something vaguely ominous about the class of 1986 that was confirmed by Bias's death. "It will always be the Len Bias draft," says Bedford. "Tell people you were drafted in '86, and they get this look, like they can't figure out which one that was. Then you tell them it was the same year as Len Bias, and they know."

As the draft approached, some scouts and general managers had taken to calling it the Paranoia Draft, so frightened were they of choosing a player who would not only fail but also embarrass them. The talent pool seemed deep—Tom Newell, then the Indiana Pacers' director of player personnel, called it "one of the top three drafts in modern basketball"—but deep pools can be the most dangerous. Washburn and Scott Skiles had already had brushes with the law, Washburn for stealing a stereo and Skiles for marijuana possession and for driving under the influence of alcohol. And there were whispers that several of the top players in the draft besides Skiles had a fondness for alcohol and other drugs.

Still, on that late spring afternoon in Manhattan, it was hard to ignore the promise in the players. They were like princes, dressed in all their finery and striding to the podium one by one as their names were called. Each one accepted the cap bearing the name of his new team and placed it on his head as if he were adjusting his crown. What could a prince have that these young men did not? Adulation? Washington, a New York playground legend, beamed as the New York crowd chanted "Pearl, Pearl, Pearl," urging the New Jersey Nets to select him, which they did. The promise of great wealth? Bias, resplendent in a white suit with gray pinstripes, told reporters that he planned to spend part of his new fortune at the nearest Mercedes dealership.

That morning Bias and Daugherty had sat in the lobby of their hotel, discussing the excitement that lay ahead. "We talked about how anxious we were to get our NBA careers under way, the thrill of being at the draft," Daugherty says. They also talked about the endorsement contracts with Reebok they both planned to sign a few days later that would make them rich men. At the draft Daugherty went first, chosen by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had acquired the top pick from Philadelphia in a trade. Bias went next; the Golden State Warriors took Washburn third, and on it went.

After they were chosen, the players did interviews, hugged family members, talked with their agents. But later in the afternoon several of the young princes found a quiet corner in which to congregate. Bedford recalls that Bias and Washburn were there. Later Bedford would realize how cruelly ironic their discussion was. "We were all talking about drugs," he says. "Everybody was talking about how we were going to be coming into money, and how easy it would be to fall into all that. We talked about how we were going to make the NBA a new league, without drugs, with a better image."

Less than 48 hours later Bias was dead. His, of course, is the most tragic story of the class of '86, but the decade has not been much kinder to many other members of that class. Of the 24 players drafted in the first round that year, only seven are in the NBA—Daugherty, Harper, Skiles, Chuck Person, John Salley, Dell Curry and Arvidas Sabonis—and, more important, at least 14 encountered serious injury, illness or drug or alcohol problems. Some of the first-rounders just didn't turn out to be very good players. One even ate himself out of the NBA. "The only difference between that group and the Titanic" says Williams, now the general manager of the Orlando Magic, "is the Titanic had a band."

Earlier this season Tarpley was banned from the NBA for the second time after testing positive for alcohol. Washburn played poorly during his two years in the league and was banned for drug use in 1989; in '91 he was sentenced to three years in prison for cocaine possession. Bedford, who was suspended for the 1988-89 season after admitting to cocaine dependency, last played in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs in 1992-93.

The litany of misfortune and failure extends to 6'8" John Williams, a versatile forward who swelled to more than 300 pounds, earning the nickname Hot Plate, in contrast to the Phoenix Suns' John (Hot Rod) Williams. Waived by the Indiana Pacers last season, Hot Plate is out of the league.

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