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Bias' death resonates after 25 years

Twenty-five years ago this past Sunday, a young man died.

He wasn't just an ordinary young man. He was tall, strong and blessed with the gift for playing basketball.

But his light went out just when it was about to shine.

The death of Len Bias was one of those where-were-you-when-it-happened moments that sent shock waves throughout the country.

For those of you who don't remember, Bias was an All-American at the University of Maryland, who was selected second overall in the 1986 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics.

The reigning NBA champions were already loaded with Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish and Dennis Johnson. Bias' arrival was supposed to ensure the Celtics' dominance into the '90s.

Bird was so excited about Bias' arrival he planned to attend the team's rookie camp to get in some early work with the prized newcomer.

But two days after the draft, Celtic dreams of more championship banners turned into a nightmare.

While partying with teammates and friends on campus, Bias died of cardiac arrhythmia caused by an overdose of cocaine. He was only 22 years old.

By all accounts, he was a good guy who generally did the right things. Acquaintances said he was offered drugs many times, but he just said no.

But one mistake, one moment of recklessness and a total lack of good judgment brought down a man who seemed indestructible during his remarkable college career.

Bias is one of the great "what might have been" stories in sports history. He would be 48 now, and probably looking back on a special NBA career.

If you never saw this guy play, I advise you to check out highlights on YouTube. Trust me, you'll like what you see.

Bias was a muscular and wondrously athletic 6-foot-8 forward who could shoot from distance, score inside, rebound and handle the ball. He was a breathtaking leaper with marvelous body control.

Michael Jordan is a great player, arguably the greatest ever. But I have no problem saying Bias was, at the very least, Jordan's equal coming out of college.

Bias compared physically to LeBron James. But as good as James was entering the NBA out of high school, he couldn't hold a candle to what Bias was when he turned pro.

Playing next to Bird, it's frightening to think about how good Bias would have become.

Alas, his legacy is being the poster child for a troubled 1986 draft class that included several players whose careers crashed and burned because of drugs.

The NBA was already trying to shake the negative image brought on by a drug culture that nearly destroyed the league in the 1970s. Chris Washburn, William Bedford, Roy Tarpley and Bias didn't help change public perceptions.

For the Celtics, it took nearly two decades to fully recover from Bias' death, which began a long stretch of misfortune that included the untimely death of all-star guard Reggie Lewis and the departure of Bird and his legendary supporting cast.

It's been 25 years since Bias died, but his story remains a cautionary tale that athletes who live the right way aren't immune to deadly temptations.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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