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?