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Len Bias: Drugs, Race, and the Law

Summary:

  • Len Bias went to the University of Maryland where he was quickly regarded as a “can’t miss prospect” and one of the best players in college basketball.
  • The day after Bias was drafted, he signed a shoe contract with Reebok and went back to the University of Maryland to celebrate with his friends and later died.
  • Congress enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 known as the “Len Bias Law,” which enacted mandatory sentences for several drugs, which many have found to be unfair.

This article is by Danny Berliant, a 2L from Chicago-Kent.

ESPN recently aired an episode of its new series, 30 for 30, entitled “Without Bias.” The episode was directed by Kirk Fraser.  “Without Bias” is the story of the rise and shocking, sudden fall of a “can’t miss” basketball prospect, Len Bias.  While I knew what happened to Bias, I did not realize how many aspects of society that Bias’ story affected, and I decided to look further into his story…

On June 17th, 1986, Len Bias’ dream came true when he was drafted with the second pick in the NBA draft by the defending champion, Boston Celtics.  On June 19th, 1986, Len Bias was dead from a cocaine overdose.

Len Bias grew up in Landover, Maryland, and earned a scholarship to play basketball in his home state at the University of Maryland.  As a freshman at Maryland, Bias was described as “raw,” but with endless potential.  Bias had a great work ethic and by the time he was a sophomore, he established himself as one of the best players in college basketball.  By the time Bias was a 6-foot-8, 210-pound senior, it was said that he was redefining the forward position.

ESPN analyst, Mike Wilbon, described Bias’ shot as the purest shot he ever saw.  Mike Krzyzewski, legendary coach of Duke, said that he has witnessed two “defining players” in his time in the ACC, and that they were Michael Jordan and Len Bias.  It was undisputed that Bias was destined to be a star.

The day after he was drafted, Bias signed a multi-million dollar shoe contract with Reebok, and returned home to Landover, Maryland with gifts for his family and friends.  Everyone that saw him that day remembered how excited he was, and how he kept mentioning how he “made it.”  Bias had a contract waiting for him in the NBA with a legendary team coming off of a championship; had a shoe deal; and had his whole future ahead of him.  That night, he said goodbye to his family, and headed back to the University of Maryland to celebrate with his friends.  This would be the last time Bias ever communicated with his family.

Bias met up with his college friend, Brian Tribble, and two of his teammates and they decided to celebrate with some cocaine and alcohol at Tribble’s suite.  After several hours of on-and-off cocaine use, Bias got up to go to the bathroom, stumbled back to the bed, and started having a seizure.  Not knowing what to do, Tribble called his mother, who instructed him to call 911.  Paramedics showed up and were able to get Bias on life support, but he never recovered.  At 8:51 am, Bias was pronounced dead.

The news broke and shocked the world.  Larry Bird describe the news as “one of the cruelest things I’ve ever heard.”

The aftermath of Bias’ death was astronomical.   There was a media frenzy.  People wanted answers and someone to blame.  A grand jury was called to look into Bias’ death, and interviewed over 80 witnesses. Brian Tribble was charged with supplying the drugs that resulted in Bias’ death, but was later acquitted.

The University of Maryland was hit hard as well.  The Head Basketball coach, team academic counselor, and other faculty members were forced to resign.  Bias’ teammates were highly scrutinized.  The students of Maryland and fans of basketball across the nation who loved Bias were devastated.

Drugs immediately became the top issue in Congress.  When Cleveland Browns safety, Don Rogers, died eight days later of a cocaine overdose, Congress started to panic.  Congress established mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, also known as the “Len Bias Law.”  Due to a false belief that crack-cocaine may have been involved in Bias’ death, as well as Congress’ fear of the drug, which was relatively new and unknown, crack received extremely strict regulations.  While 500 grams of cocaine triggered the mandatory sentences, only 5 grams of crack (1/100th that of cocaine) triggered the mandatory sentences.

Julie Stewart, the President and Founder of “Families Against Mandatory Minimums” stated that Len Bias’ death coupled with it being an election year was a turning point in Congress’ war on drugs.   Eric E. Sterling, former member of the US Counsel of House Judiciary Committee stated that the five grams of crack was basically “nothing.”  He stated “We screwed up. We totally picked the wrong numbers.”  Stewart and Sterling agree that the laws enacted by Congress gave off the impression that Congress wanted to lock up inner-city African Americans.  Jeffrey Harding, former Assistant State Attorney said that there were stories of fourth or fifth time minor marijuana offenders getting life without parole.  Sterling says he has talked to families of people who are serving “unconscionably long periods of time” in jail because of these laws that he was a part of enacting, and he says “this weighs on me a great deal.”

The implementation of these strict regulations on crack-cocaine resulted in massive over-crowding in prisons, which were typically filled with low-level, African-American offenders.  People received sentences longer than murderers for charges of possession of a drug, which Congress and the courts did not understand.  Over the years, several bills have gone through the legislature to amend these laws.

While many people have described Len Bias as some kind of savior because of the millions of people who have heard his story and refrained from drug use, immeasurable heartache has come from his death as well.  Whether it was one of the people affected by Congress’ drug laws, one of the millions of people that never got to see Bias realize his potential, or Bias’ parents, who had to bury their other son, Jay, less than five years later after he was shot and killed leaving a mall, the world would have been better off had Len Bias not gone back to the University of Maryland to celebrate with his friends.

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