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Sunday, June 19, 2011
Len Bias and counterfactual history

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the death of former University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias from a cocaine-induced heart attack. For sports fans of my age group, this is one of those significant where-were-you-when moments (I was at home studying for my last high-school finals). It was the subject of one of the best of ESPN's 30-for-30 documentaries and Bill Simmons always describes it as the singular event that changed the course of the Boston Celtics and all of the NBA in the late '80s and '90s. It was a major catalyst for Congress creating the crack/powder disparity that still plagues federal sentencing law

The assumption always is that Bias would have been an NBA superstar. He was the immediate heir to Larry Bird and would have kept the Boston Celtics (who had just won the NBA title with arguably the best team in NBA history) at the top of the league. And he would have been the truly worthy and equal rival to Michael Jordan in the 1990s. But I always have wondered whether that assumption is correct

We know (or really, really strongly suspect) two things: 1) June 19 likely was not the first time Bias had used cocaine and 2) Dozens of players drafted in the mid-'80s had problems with cocaine, with several being suspended or kicked out of the league for cocaine use, including some potential superstars. So is it equally reasonable to create a counterfactual in which Bias' career is similarly undone (or at least fails to live up to its fullest potential) by the league's pervasive drug culture of the time? Especially given that Bias' death itself was one of the major wake-up calls against that culture, the event that told leagues, teams, players, and fans in a more explicit and dramatic way that cocaine was something to worry about.

So how about a counterfactual in which Bias does not die, but the sports world never receives the jolt it needs to take cocaine seriously (at least until some other high-profile figure dies)? And then how does Bias' career actually play out?


This is interesting - I'm not a huge basketball fan, but I know the story. I never realized that this was where the coke/crack difference came from, though - I guess I'm just too young.

Anonymous Devon -- 6/19/2011 1:03 PM  

I'm not too young--and I lived in Washington Heights during the height of the "crack epidemic"--and I wouldn't have made that connection either.

Then again, unlike Simmons (or, apparently, Howard Wasserman), I don't count Bias's death as a turning point in sports. Sad, but not so sad as. say, Hank Gathers.

If we're working the counterfactual, and Len Bias turns into, say, Micheal Ray Richardson, Celtic fans no longer have an excuse for the team's mismanagement of the late 1980s and the 1990s. (Knick fans of that era never have an excuse, save to point to the business acumen displayed at Gulf & Western and note that an NBA team is not a monopoly.)

Even if Bias has the career Simmons expected, there is at least a 40% chance that he becomes more Hakeem than MJ--the player who doesn't have quite the supporting cast to dominate, who maybe touches glory once or twice but never becomes revered.

And that's ignoring that the effect Bias probably has on Kevin McHale's reputation and career. Or maybe that is part of the point--with the Bias of Simmons's imagination in 1986-1987, it's difficult to see McHale being an MVP contender, or becoming a perennial All-Star. (Well, this is Boston, where they cheered that Fred Lynn was voted the 1975 Rookie of the Year instead of Jim Rice, but that's not a discussion of the team on the field/court.)

Blogger Ken Houghton -- 6/20/2011 9:28 AM  

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