This story at ESPN.com by Michael Weinreb is a bit lengthy but very rewarding. It discusses the events swirling around Len Bias and how his improbable death changed the way fans look at athletes, universities cover up dirt, and how crack, not cocaine, mistakenly became the scourge of the mid 80s.
In highsight, we were truly naive as a country on the effects of drugs before Len Bias did some lines in a University of Maryland dorm room the day after he was drafted #2 overall by the World Champion Boston Celtics. His death scared everyone straight, from politicians to kids. However, people in power used his death to pass ridiculously heightened anti-drug laws that now correlate to prisons being overpopulated, primarily with minorities.
The naiveity of Americans during the Reagan administration, combined with the new fear of mislabeled drugs (Len Bias died from cocaine, yet news reports began sayin crack) that tied into the black community, help steamroll this ill-advised War on Drugs into dangerous and misappropriated directions. It’s shocking to know that 1986, the year Bias died, marked the first time African American prisoners outnumbered whites ever.
After reading this article, I thought back to the documentary Cocaine Cowboys which detailed the cocaine trade in South Florida from the mid 70s to the late 80s. The US economy was so poor and disgraced nationwide yet the city of Miami was in a surplus–new banks were opening weekly, Mercedes dealerships were selling out of cars, and the night life industry soared. The number of homicides became astronomical year after year, the police department was undermanned and overworked, yet federal punishment was seldomly pointed in Miami’s direction.
Cocaine has always been about power and wealth, and during the Cowboys era, cocaine money founds its way into the pockets of real estate developers, financial advisers, and of course politicians. Len Bias was a powerful college athlete who was on his way to becoming wealthy–according to the article, he was taking out loans to get a new necklace and lease a sports car while still in college. He was drafted by the premiere franchise in the NBA. There was no way Len Bias was about to celebrate by hitting the crack pipe.
Conveniently, crack became the cause of death for Len in subsequent news reports, testimonies, and “expert” opinions. The “Just Say No” campagain was in full swing. Politicians were hungry for votes. Laws were hurried into approval. And then just like that *snap* crack offenders faced longer sentences than cocaine offenders. Crack became the national epdemic. Crack became the new commander of the Drugs that we are always Warring On. If crack could kill a physical speciman like Len Bias (6’7” 220lbs) on his first experience with it, imagine what it could do to you!
Len Bias has been dead for 22 years now. He died before he could sign his endorsement deal with Reebok, died before he could lace ’em up and play with Bird, McHale, and Parrish, died before he could permanently change the forward position in basketball. In his wake,rappers grew up around a drug trade that became more scrutinized, prosecuted, and glorified in the aftermath of Bias’ overdose. The entire catalogue of The Clipse, Rick Ross, Young Jeezy, and the Diplomats correlates to a college kid who once partied too hard 22 years ago.
The effect Len Bias has had on hip hop is right up with there with Grand Wizard Theodore’s mother telling him to turn down the stereo, Grandmaster Caz’s rhyme book landing in the hands of Big Bank Hank, and a young Ad-Rock thumbing through demo tapes in Rick Rubin’s dorm before he threw on a cassette from a kid in Queens named James Todd Smith.
Basketball and hip hop have the tightest association between sport and musical style. But how come no one acknowledges Len Bias’ influence not only on hip hop culture, but the drug/prison/political culture of the 80s? This goes beyond Michael Jordan turning athletes into millionaire lifestyle corporations–this was turning an athlete into an systemic buffet. People of power took as much as they needed from this tragedy and came back for seconds while destroying families, packing jails, and wasting millions of dollars fighting low-end narcotics.
Len’s mother believes that her son was put here to be a martyr, that he wasn’t meant to be an NBA superstar, that his life was supposed to serve as a lesson to others. Sadly, his life has meant time served for a whole lot of people who didn’t get that fat necklace and sprots car beforehand.