Len Bias Still Makes Everyone Crazy

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Twenty-seven years later, we're still losing our shit over Len Bias.

A controversial request for state money to erect a statue of former basketball star Leonard "Len" Bias at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville will be withdrawn due to concerns about the message the honor would send to students.


Mount Rainier Mayor Malinda Miles said she was opposed to the statue because she thought it would send the wrong message and felt there were greater needs to be addressed at the school with the bond money.

"To have died of an overdose of drugs, regardless of the reason or circumstances, is not something I would want my grandchildren to model," Miles said.

That's from last week's Washington Post, though the quote at the end seems to have beamed in from the year 1986. There are lots of good reasons for not wanting to spend $50,000 of public money on statuary. That a statue of Len Bias in his athletic prime might encourage high school kids to stuff the northern coast of Colombia up their nose is not one of them.

But then, it's always 1986 again whenever we start talking about Len Bias. You know the story by now. He died of heart failure brought on by a cocaine overdose two days after getting drafted out of Maryland by the Boston Celtics, whereupon the country went and got hugely stupid in his name, and stupid have we remained ever since. The ur-text here is Dan Baum's terrific Smoke and Mirrors (Michael Weinreb's great ESPN feature from a few years back is required reading, too).


Immediately upon returning from the July 4 recess, Tip O'Neill called an emergency meeting of the crime-relate committee chairmen. Write me some goddamn legislation, he thundered. All anybody up in Boston is talking about is Len Bias. The papers are screaming for blood. We need to get out front on this now. This week. Today. The Republicans beat us to it in 1984 and I don't want that to happen again. I want dramatic new initiatives for dealing with crack and other drugs. If we can do this fast enough, he said to the Democratic leadership arrayed around him, we can take the issue away from the White House.


"In life," Baum writes, "Len Bias was a terrific basketball player. In death, he would become the Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs."

Bias's death loosed all kinds of terrible ideas on the nation, foremost among them our famously destructive mandatory-minimum sentencing regime, which was enshrined into law in October 1986. It began the process of militarizing the sports world according to the hysterical exigencies of an unwinnable drug war, a process that accelerated when Ben Johnson tested positive for stanozolol at the 1988 summer Olympics in Seoul and turned performance-enhancing drugs into the war's newest rhetorical front.


Len Bias's legacy is all around us even still. It's the cup you have to pee in before starting a new job. It's the demographic nightmare of crack sentencing. It's the monthly freakout over recreational drug use among athletes. It's Barry Bonds on the federal docket, being prosecuted by morons. It's the ongoing attenuation of our Fourth Amendment rights, helped along by the work of sports league- and media-enabled drug warriors like Jeff Novitzky.


The Maryland state senator who submitted the statue bond bill, Victor Ramirez, told the Washington Post he'd grown up with a Len Bias poster in his room. "He represented someone who could make it," he said. "He was one of us.

"I think it was a tragedy, but you can't allow that one night to take away from who he was, what he stood for. …"


But "concerns were raised about hailing the athlete as a positive role model," as the Post put it, and Ramirez said he'd decided to pull the bill until he could "bring everyone to the table to make sure everyone is comfortable."

Forget the statue. Here's the tribute we've already paid to Len Bias's memory: He has been so thoroughly subsumed into our anti-drug frenzy that his name is now synonymous with the stuff that killed him. Len Bias is drugs, and drugs are bad. Just say no to Len Bias, kids.