There wasn't a happier young athlete in America than Len Bias on the afternoon of June 17. The NBA draft in New York City's Felt Forum was only 10 minutes old when NBA commissioner David Stern called Bias's name. As expected, the University of Maryland All-America, a prototype NBA small forward who played with both power and finesse, had been summoned by the world champion Boston Celtics as the second pick in the draft.
As Bias walked to the podium, someone handed him a green Celtics cap. He put it on and smiled shyly. For months Bias had been confiding to those close to him his dream of playing for the Celtics, and during a visit to Boston Garden for Game 1 of the NBA finals on May 26 he seemed almost transfixed as he sat at courtside. Well-muscled and 6'8", Bias had the talent and even the temperament—he was unfailingly irritating to opponents—to become the perfect Celtic. "Lenny had fallen in love with the idea of being a Celtic," Boston coach K.C. Jones would say later. The champions were no less enamored of Bias. Red Auerbach, at whose camp Bias had worked the previous summer, advised him to stay in school and not enter the NBA draft early; Larry Bird so looked forward to playing with him that he promised to show up at rookie camp if Bias were chosen.
"It feels good to be a Celtic," Bias said as the cameras clicked and the people applauded and the future spread out before him like a long, smooth, golden expressway. What's wrong with this picture? Nothing that anybody could see.
About 40 hours later, Bias, 22, was dead of cardiorespiratory arrest brought on by the use of cocaine, according to information related by the state medical examiner to SI on Monday. The heart of the man described by former Duke forward Mark Alarie as "the best athlete I've ever seen, and that includes Michael Jordan," had failed him. So, evidently, had Bias's good judgment, for he had been known as someone who avoided drugs. How to explain the unspeakable irony of a young man dying with his greatest dreams freshly tucked away in his pocket? "It's the cruelest thing I've ever heard," said Bird from his home in French Lick, Ind.
Police labeled Bias's death "suspicious" and assigned the case to a homicide unit. Prince George's County State's Attorney Arthur Marshall Jr., expressing dissatisfaction with the cooperation he was getting from Bias's teammates and school officials, said he would ask a grand jury to investigate drug abuse by students. "I don't think the University of Maryland can handle their problems themselves," he said.
Marshall responded to reports that Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell may have instructed some of his players in how to react to questions from reporters and police. "I don't think the role of a basketball coach is to tell student athletes not to talk to police," he said. "If these rumors [about Driesell's instructions] are wrong, we'll give him a chance to talk about it." Driesell could not be reached for comment.
Cocaine became a factor in the Bias case soon after the investigation began. Late last Friday afternoon, police found beneath the dashboard of Bias's leased steel-gray Datsun 300ZX a clear bag containing white granules caked together in a chunk about the size of a bar of soap. A Prince George's County police source told SI that preliminary tests showed the bag contained cocaine, without specifying whether it was crack, the powerful form of cooked cocaine that is smoked. It was still unclear on Monday how, or in what form, or under what circumstances, Bias took the cocaine that evidently contributed to his death.
Marshall said on Sunday that if Bias was shown to have used cocaine during his last hours, criminal charges could be brought against those who supplied the drug. "Remember John Belushi," Marshall said, alluding to charges that were brought after the comedian's death.
Bias had passed physicals given by three NBA teams ( Boston, New York and Golden State), at least one of which included a drug test. He had never failed any of the routine, athletic department-administered tests at Maryland. "I swear on my life, I hope to die if this kid ever used drugs before," Driesell told Auerbach after the death.
Over the years Bias had talked with Bob Wagner, his coach at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md., about drugs. "He had a reputation for not being a drug user," Wagner said. "But I have talked to him about guilt by association. Lenny did associate with some people like that [drug users]. He always said, 'People know I'm not using, so what's the problem?' " Wagner shook his head. "I guess the main lesson is that it only takes once. When it comes time for right or wrong, there's no timeout. It's not a basketball game."