What if I told you that Len Bias never really died? What if I told you that the greatest player the Boston Celtics never had was alive and well, and living among us right now? What if I told you that God works in mysterious ways, and that Bias would get a second chance to fulfill his destiny? Welcome to the new novel by Michael D. McClellan, Editor-in-Chief of Celtic Nation.
June 19, 1986.
Yes, I remember that day – I remember it well. The day that the massive amounts of cocaine surging through my body interrupted the signals from my brain to my left ventricle, triggering a lethal combination of atrial fibrillation and atrial tachycardia; the day that I convulsed on the bed in my dorm room to the shock and horror of my teammates; the day that my twenty-two year-old heart stopped beating; the day that I swallowed my tongue and dropped dead from cocaine intoxication.
I remember that day like it was yesterday, because that day – forty-eight hours after the biggest moment in my life – replays itself over and over in my mind like a broken record and never goes away. And yet it’s all distorted somehow, facts mixed with fiction in a way that turns everything upside down and inside out. But then I think it’s always like that when you dream. The funny thing about dreams is that they’re real and surreal at the same time, completely familiar yet totally different – you know, the people and the places are the same but everything has the feel of an old Hitchcock movie, all of it distorted in some strange way that makes you uneasy, even when you’re six-eight and can jump to the moon.
My dream? My dream is always the same – I swear on a stack of Nikes it never varies, which explains why I remember it so well. It starts with me stealing that inbounds pass against North Carolina, one of the greatest college basketball programs in the country, and continues with me elevating to dunk the basketball backwards – backwards! – through the hoop. I go up, and that’s when I hear the crowd for the first time. It’s not a roar – not yet anyway. At this moment it’s more of a collective goose job, a gotcha, ten thousand people’s sudden realization of what’s coming next. I can also hear my defender, the tall, lanky Tar Heel with the big afro who just threw his inbounds pass where he shouldn’t have, and he’s grunted out something that doesn’t make much sense but it’s something we both understand just the same. He knows he’s gotten careless, sloppy, lazy, and he’s just put the ball where I can get my hands on it.
And he knows I’m going to make him pay.
Head turned, the North Carolina point guard on the other end of that pass doesn’t see me coming. A second earlier I’d launched a deep ball from the wing and it’s all net, my 28th and 29th points of the game, and now he’s waiting for the lanky Tar Heel with the big afro to get him the basketball so he can push it up court. The ball is inbounded. It seems to hang in the air forever. I step in and strip the pass, knocking the ball loose and snagging it with both hands on the bounce. The point guard reaches back instinctively.
It all happens in the blink of an eye. The lanky Tar Heel with the big afro does the only thing he can do, which is to step inbounds and try to defend. I can feel him move toward me, even though my back is turned to the basket, even though I’ve already exploded from the floor. He’s reaching, trying to play defense with his arms. I can feel the contact, but it just brushes off of me like I’m made of steel. I’m in the air. I feel like I’m being pulled up to the basket by the gasp of the crowd. My defender is in the air too, but it feels like he’s miles below me, about to become immortalized in a SportsCenter highlight, about to become part of a story that he can tell his grandchildren years from now, when he’s sitting in his rocking chair and going on about playing against Len Bias, one of the greatest basketball players that ever lived.
~ ~ ~
I jam the basketball through the hoop and land in a tangle of limbs on the floor. The crowd – their crowd – finally erupts. They don’t seem to care that I’m the enemy on this night, or that I’ve just delivered a facial to one of their own. Right now none of that matters because they’ve just witnessed one of the greatest dunks ever.
One of the greatest dunks of all-time.
A rush of excitement goes through me and now I’m feeding off of their energy, bounding up and down on the baseline, trying like mad to get lucky and pick off another inbounds pass. No question what will happen if I do – I’ll tomahawk the ball through the rim and land with both arms extended above my head, a signature pose that comes naturally and one that will soon be my calling card in the NBA.
Only it doesn’t go down that way.
For the first time something truly surreal happens to me, and I have my first legit clue that this is all a dream. The ball reaches the point guard safely, and now Tar Heels and Terrapins are racing back up the court, the pace of the game amped up by my backwards dunk. Except that there are nine players doing the sprinting, and I’m not one of them. I stand motionless and watch them race away, paralyzed from the waist down, my brain unable to fire the muscles in my body as the game goes on without me. The ball moves crisply around the perimeter at the other end of the court. Maryland defenders move their feet and dig in on defense, trying to make up for being short a man. Except that they don’t seem concerned that I’m not down there with them – they just keep playing, their basketball shoes squeaking above the roar of the crowd. I look over at the bench. There’s Lefty. He’s standing on the sidelines, ramrod straight, his face beet red, the veins in his neck ready to burst. I’ve seen that expression a thousand times. If looks could kill. He yells on obscenity at one of the officials. I wait for the technical to be called but it never comes. He unleashes another stream of obscenities. The ref ignores him and keeps working the game. No T. No ejection. Nothing but deaf ears to Lefty’s flurry of four-letter words.
I scream out but no one hears me. I try to run but my legs feel like they’re a thousand pounds each, like they’ve been glued to the court. I feel myself begin to panic. A midrange shot goes up on the other end. It’s a fifteen footer from the wing that draws iron, bouncing off the rim and into the hands of a Maryland player. Why don’t I know him? He’s my teammate, one of the guys that I’ve spent hundreds of practice hours with and one of my suitemates in the dorm, and while I immediately recognize his face I don’t know his name. He kicks the ball out to the point guard, another familiar face with no name, and suddenly all nine guys are racing back towards me. They’re looking in my direction but not really looking at me, and suddenly that lanky Tar Heel with the big afro is running hard to my spot, the spot where I’d just delivered the facial and where I now stand, anchored to the floor. I reach out to protect myself but he runs through me, as if I’m not there. He stops and cuts back. I reach out to grab hold of him, but it’s like trying to grab hold of smoke.
That dream. Again.
The Maryland point guard sets up the play. Players cut, move, screen, pick. They run around me. They run through me. I scream for help. I wave my arms madly.
Lefty doesn’t hear me but just then the basketball court releases its death grip on my feet. Freedom. I sprint over to the visitor’s bench, eyes as big as saucers, heart pounding hard inside my chest, but Lefty continues to work the game as if I don’t exist. I reach for his arm but my hand swipes through it like a phantom. I try to shake his shoulders. I fall through him and to the floor instead.
This can’t be happening. I glance at the corner tunnel, the one that leads to the visitor’s locker room. A stadium security guard is there, leaning against the metal railing. He’s standing beside a heavyset man with a bushy mustache and a powder blue UNC logo pinned to his sport coat. There’s an usher standing beside them. A photographer is down on one knee, taking pictures. I run off of the court and hurdle a cheerleader sitting on the floor behind the basket. She continues talking to the cheerleader sitting beside her. I sprint past the security guard but he pays me no attention. Because I’m not there. Because I’m a ghost. A ghost in a dream. A dream that plays over and over again, like a broken record.
~ ~ ~
This tunnel is the darkest place I’ve ever been, so dark that I can’t see my hands, not even when I hold them right out in front of me. I turn back instinctively but everything is gone – the court, the players, the fans, the refs, the coaches. All light and sound, gone. Only blackness. I scream. Nothing comes out. I’ve been scared before, but never like this. I want to run but I’m afraid to move, and for the first time in as long as I can remember – since I was that little boy my pastor nicknamed Frosty – I find myself ready to cry. Only this is not like all those times when the class bullies beat you up and take your lunch money. Those things are wrong but at least you can see them coming, and you know that the worst part will be when they knock you down and run away, laughing. But this…
Yes, but this…
At least I can breathe, that much I’ve figured out, so I focus on that and try to stay calm. What else? I can feel the floor beneath me, so I bend down and touch it with my hands. Smooth, cold, clean. I imagine myself in prison, in the hole, segregated from the rest of the prison population with no one to rely on but myself. But this blackness is nothing like that. Even in the hole your eyes eventually adjust. A sliver of light beneath the door. The faint outline of a toilet. Even there you can hear something – the hum of a generator, a door slamming, an inmate screaming – anything.
This dream. Again.
I slap the floor with the palm of my hand. The stinging pain is real but the impact doesn’t make a sound. Sweat drips off my chin. I stand up and wipe my face with my jersey. The blackness feels heavy, claustrophobic. I’ve always feared drowning, feared it because I never learned to swim, but a close second on my personal list of phobias is being buried alive. I think about that now. Waking up to find myself lying prone in a coffin, trapped and suffocating, everything cramped and black as pitch, tons of earth crushing down from above…
I take a step forward and I hear something ahead of me in the distance. Muted laughter, then applause. A voice over a loudspeaker. More applause. The low rumble of hundreds of voices. Adrenalin kicks in. My feet move instinctively toward the muffled voices as instinctively as they’d launched me toward the rim for that reverse dunk. I shuffle through the blackness with my hands and arms extended, feeling my way, taking the careful steps of a blind man, screaming out but unable to make a sound, trying to keep it together even though my courage has all but drained away.
Someone…anyone…help me, please…
The distant voices go silent. What I feel now is beyond panic – it’s outright terror. My heart slams hard against my chest and a terrible shame grips me, because the biggest, baddest basketball player this side of Michael Jordan is about to lose it – correction, has already lost it – and he suddenly feels like that frightened twelve year old all over again, the one the brittle ice swallowed up at Hunting Creek Lake.
This dream. Again.
I come into contact with a wall, unseen and directly in front of me. Applause from the other side, barely audible. My hands rub the smooth surface in nervous, concentric circles. A doorknob. I grip it and turn, shaking all over, convinced that the door won’t open, that I’ll yank my arm out its socket trying. A loud click follows, followed by a flood of bright light and the dull drone of at least a hundred voices. I have no idea what’s on the other side but I don’t care. I can see and I can hear, that’s all that matters, and my fear propels me through the doorway blindly and without hesitation.
~ ~ ~
I’m sitting in a crowd with no clue as to how I got from there to here. More familiar faces with no names. There’s a nervous energy in the room, me included; the panic that I felt just a second ago has been replaced with butterflies, my stomach in knots and both hands as cold as ice. My right foot pats the floor like one of those needles churning up-and-down on my mom’s old sewing machine. My basketball uniform has been replaced by a white and cream pinstriped suit, white dress shirt, a narrow blue tie and matching handkerchief. A credential of some kind is pinned to my lapel. I glance to my left and then to my right, and the guys sitting around me are all decked out with suits and ties and credentials of their own. There are hundreds of fans in the stands, cameramen positioned all around, and tables set up on the floor level where I’m seated.
I know this place…
The World’s Most Famous Arena…
Madison Square Garden…
My eyes dart across the floor, to the large stage that dominates the room. There’s a podium in the center and behind it a giant board with the words 1986 NBA DRAFT at the top; these words are followed by a series of four columns, each with a number, team logo and blank space out to the right. Cleveland is first team on the list. The name Brad Daugherty fills the space beside the team logo, and I suddenly remember who Brad is and what he’s doing here – and, by extension, what I’m doing here. It’s June 17. New York City. Brad is a North Carolina Tar Heel, an All-American, and the player the Cleveland Cavaliers have just selected and hope to build their future around. I know Brad – not in a buddy-buddy way, but we’re friendly enough. He’s pure country. Loves NASCAR and fishing. We’ve had our battles in the ACC, the toughest basketball conference in the country. I respect his game and the dirty work he does in the low post; he was somewhere on the court when I jammed the ball backwards and posterized his teammate. He called it the filthiest dunk he’s ever seen. Now he’s a Cleveland Cavalier. And me? My foot is still going a mile a minute because my favorite NBA team is on the clock. I’ve wanted to play for them from the beginning, or at least since I knew I could play professional basketball, and now the moment of truth is here.
Tick, tick, tick…
I remember being unable to sleep the night before, and how afraid I was that I would oversleep and miss the draft completely.
I remember putting on this tailored suit, the most expensive set of clothes I’ve ever owned, and tying my tie at least a dozen times to get it just right.
My eyes go to the stage. A sheet of paper is exchanged between two white men in business suits. The more important-looking of the two takes the hand-off and heads for the podium. I’ve seen his face countless times, but now I can’t remember his name. He places the paper in front of him. His suit is gray, his tie blue with a yellow-dotted pattern. He’s wearing an earpiece for communication with the TV people putting on the telecast, and his face is framed by a pair of big, wire-rimmed glasses. He looks like a lawyer, or an accountant, or maybe an insurance salesman. Someone absolutely boring, I’m convinced, except that this dude’s not boring at all. He’s a powerful man with one of the coolest jobs you could imagine – Commissioner of the NBA – and the sheet of paper on the podium has the potential to change my life forever.
“With the second pick in the 1986 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics select Len Bias, of the University of Maryland.”
The words tumble from the commissioner’s mouth to a wave of cheers and applause that swallows me whole. I spring to my feet, my dream realized, my heart pounding hard inside my chest. I’m smiling but embarrassed all at the same time. Inside, I’m overcome with joy. I lean over and briefly grasp the woman’s hand beside me, grateful to have someone to share this moment with, and in that instant I know that this is not just any woman – this is my mother. I know what comes next and my heart breaks. This is the point in the dream where I feel myself detach from the moment and I become a ghost again, a third-person witness to events that I’m unable to change or control. Still, I try. Every time, I try. I want to pull her from her chair and hug her and not let go. I try to cry out for help.
I’m sobbing now, except that I’m sobbing here, wherever here is. It’s like I’m sitting in front of a TV watching a video replay of myself. I make my way down the isle, shaking hands with other young athletes dreaming of fame and fortune before I turn away and head for the podium. Suddenly a pudgy man with a thick mustache intercepts me. He’s talking into my ear, giving me instructions on what to do next, and I lean over to make sure I hear everything he has to say. He hands me a green cap – BOSTON CELTICS it reads, with Boston in small block letters and Celtics in large cursive letters stitched across the front – and then he peels away, leaving me alone to make the long walk to the stage.
I love you mom…
The cheers continue to wash over me. Loud clapping with each step. Whistling. It’s a celebration. The culmination of a lifelong dream. There are cameramen positioned everywhere to capture the moment – my moment – some of them close, some shooting in the distance, some following my path to the podium. I look both happy and proud, but I can also tell how nervous I am by the way I fiddle with that Celtics hat as I make my way through the crowd.
Flash bulbs go off all over the Garden. The light only intensifies as I finally reach the stage and shake the commissioner’s hand. It’s a long handshake, during which he congratulates me on being selected by the Celtics. He wishes me the best during what he’s certain will be a long and successful NBA career. I thank him. We look out at the crowd and smile, still shaking hands, and then move to the other side of the podium and repeat. It’s a photo op that has been rehearsed and re-rehearsed in the days leading up to the draft, and I know the routine by heart.
I’m sorry Mom…Mom I didn’t mean to…
The Len Bias standing onstage continues to shake hands with the commissioner and pose for pictures. On top of the world. But the other Len Bias – this Len Bias, the ghost watching all of this unfold from a distance – knows how hollow and temporary and fleeting all of this really is, and how screwed up everything is about to become. My eyes go out to that empty seat, and then to my mother sitting beside it. She’s smiling, clapping proudly, accepting congratulations from the people around her. Her son has made good on the promise of his talent. So proud of her son. The fact that she can soon retire from her bank job and do what she’s always wanted to do doesn’t mean a thing to her. We’ve had our arguments about this, and she insists she’ll keep right on doing what she’s doing. I tell her she’ll have a new house soon and a new car in the driveway to match.
You’ll do no such thing, Leonard.
Her voice startles me – it’s in my head, of course, somewhere in this ghost-world, but the words are as clear as if she had spoken them from a few feet away. I desperately want to say all of the things I regretted not saying during my life, to ask her to hold me and tell me that everything is going to be alright, even if only for this one moment. But I don’t. Not this time, because I know that anything else I do or say beyond this point doesn’t matter, because her voice will disappear as it always does, after leaving me with this:
You’ve been given a very special gift, Leonard. Do God’s work with it, and always remember that God has a plan for you.
~ ~ ~
Three million dollars. More money than I can fathom – and that’s just from the shoe company. My father is with me now, and we’re no longer at the NBA Draft in New York. This is Boston, my new home, the future site of my soon-to-be epic playoff battles with Michael Jordan, the launching pad for my hall of fame career. Three million, just for wearing shoes! We reach a handshake agreement on a contract and I tell my father that I won’t let it change me – I hug him and remind him that I was raised better than that – and then we step outside where we’re whisked by limo to Logan International. The irony is lost on the Len Bias that I watch drive away; right now he’s happier than he could have ever imagined, and tonight, when he gets back to D.C., he’s going to hook up with his homeboys and celebrate the biggest day of his life.
~ ~ ~
Autopsy No. 86-999
Prince George’s County
Leonard K. Bias June 19, 1986
DIAGNOSIS: 1. Cocaine Intoxication
~ ~ ~
I see these words flash through my mind’s eye and then the beautiful part of my dream keeps right on rolling. Why should an autopsy report wake me, especially when things are going this good? Why should the sight of my name in the coldest of black-and-white shock me back to the real world, especially when I’m the center of the universe right here where I am? Best to go with the flow, I decide quickly, dismissing this grim reminder, because I’m on my way to becoming a very rich man – and I love that about me.
My immediate spending plan includes two cars – a Mercedes for myself and a Mercedes for my mother – but until then I’m satisfied with the car I’ve leased from my agent, a steel-gray Datsun 300ZX. That will do just fine for now. It’s the 300ZX that I’ve garaged at the airport, and as the plane descends I can’t wait to hop in it. It’s shiny, sleek, an extension of Len Bias and his new superstar persona. Sliding behind the wheel it dawns on me that I may have changed after all. How could I not? My basketball exploits – including that sick dunk against North Carolina – are showing up all over the TV. The Washington Post writes about me daily and anoints me The Next Great Thing. USA Today stops by to do a feature. Agents won’t leave me alone. I like girls and now they pay more attention than ever, gold diggers trying to get rich by sleeping with the hottest pro prospect in the world. Yes, maybe I have changed – I now own an ankle-length fur coat and gold bracelet with diamonds spelling “L-E-N” – but really, is all of this my fault? Is any of it?
And from here on out it only gets worse, Len; fans everywhere you go, friends at every turn, family members you didn’t know you had…
But it’s all good. There are plenty of athletes who would die to be in my position.
That’s why the dream keeps rolling.
And that’s why I won’t let one horrible mistake distract me, even when that one mistake ends my life and changes everyone else’s forever.
~ ~ ~
Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
I won’t call my preoccupation with His Airness an obsession, but I’m dialed in more than most. We’re both extremely competitive. Alpha Males. I can tell he’s going to be great and I want to be better than that. Better than him. Anything he does I want to top, including the 63 points he hung on Larry Bird and the Celtics in the playoffs this spring. We were both the ACC Basketball Player of the Year, we were both named as Consensus All-Americans, and we were both selected at the top of our NBA draft class – Jordan at number three in 1984, and me at number two in 1986. Watching Jordan become a brand name in just two years as a pro player excites and motivates me, because I’ve battled him on the court and I know I can hold my own. I’m two inches taller and my frame is packed with more muscle. Jordan has hops, I have hops. Plus, I’m the better shooter – Michael Wilbon of The Washington Post is The Man when it comes to reporting college and professional basketball right now, and he told me that himself. Said I had one of the sweetest, purest jump shots he’d ever seen in his life. Perfect form. But I know this even without him saying so. I worked hard to get that kind of release, but at the same time I know that my shooting touch is so rare that it has to come from someplace else. It’s a gift. A blessing. God-given.
There’s another thing that Michael Jordan and I have in common – both of our fathers have the same first name. James Bias is an electrical handyman, a fixer of dishwashers, dryers, washing machines, generators, snow blowers. He’s a good man, a family man, and he’s a very well-respected figure in our community. He was strict when I was growing up, quick with a belt if any of us got out of line, and God help us if we came home with bad grades or got into trouble with the law. Because of him we were also a church-going family, putting on our best clothes every Sunday for Sunday School and church, and we always had dinner together afterwards, without fail. No TV, no radio – just the Bias family in the kitchen, around the dinner table, passing ball in the backyard, sharing time with each other before going our separate ways for the week.
It was easy to understand, then, my father’s disappointment in some of the things that come along with me being a famous college athlete on the verge of turning pro. He doesn’t like the fact that I’ve changed majors, veering away from interior design and taking only the minimum number of classes – and easy classes at that – to maintain my college eligibility. He says that I’m “dumbing down” my education, selling myself short – and he says it so often it sounds like a broken record.
Take pride in your academics, Frosty. Make the most of your college education. Don’t major in dribbling a basketball.
Blah, blah, blah…semester after semester, a continuous stream of noise for me to tune out.
I start my final semester at Maryland by taking 15 credit hours; by February I’ve dropped two of those classes, and by March I’ve stopped going to the other three altogether. Three classes, three F’s. Nowhere close to graduating. More static from my father. I promise to go back at some point and make it right. To make him proud. The look in his eyes says everything. He knows I won’t be going back to college. Four years down the drain.
My father also doesn’t like me spending money I don’t have, and I give him every reason to complain during my senior season. When I want a new stereo system I go out and buy one with nothing more than my signature on a stack of forms. When I want some nice jewelry to show off at the draft I walk into the Capital Centre Mall and charge an expensive necklace and matching bracelet, 24% interest and zero down. When I can’t wait to have a hot set of wheels, I call my agent and let him work out the lease for the 300ZX – an advance against my signing with him. No problem, Lenny, A. Lee Fentress of Advantage International had said that afternoon in late May. Got you covered. Anything you want, call me. I like that. James Bias doesn’t.
On and on it goes between us, the endless head-butting with my father. We’re both cut from the same cloth, both of us as stubborn as mules. But as my senior year progresses he lightens up on the criticism and is on my back less. I guess he can finally see what’s in front of me – the multimillion dollar contract to play basketball in the NBA, the sweet shoe deal, the ton of other marketing opportunities sure to come my way. Or maybe he’s gotten tired of griping at me because it hasn’t made a difference.
Or maybe he just has a feeling that none of this is meant to be.
~ ~ ~
The drive from the airport to our home in Landover is uneventful – my father rides shotgun in the 300ZX but doesn’t say much. He complains about the traffic. Changes the radio to his favorite station. He’s tired. He’s worn down from the draft, the meetings, the interviews, the autographs, the hotel rooms. Not me – but I have used all of this as an excuse to get back home. I’ve soaked up New York City, taken an afternoon shuttle to Boston, met with Celtics President Red Auerbach, given sound-bites to the three local stations, schmoozed with Reebok executives and worked the room at their reception welcoming me to the family…and I’m still wired and ready for more. Except that I don’t want to waste my time hanging with another suit. I want to party. My boys are all waiting for me back on campus, ready to celebrate with the NBA’s next great superstar.
~ ~ ~
I drop off my father at our house and visit for a few minutes. My little brother Jay is there. We slap skin and hug. He’s a star on his high school team, and he’s going to be a great college player. Not as good as me, I kid him, but good. He doesn’t have my height, but he’s quick and athletic. He can shoot and dribble. He defends. I can’t wait to watch him play college ball. He can’t wait to see me go up against Jordan. He reminds me that he has a summer league game tomorrow evening. He begs me to be there, to come watch him play.
Don’t worry, Li’l Bro. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
We hug again and say goodbye.
~ ~ ~
I’m almost out the door when I hear my father’s voice behind me. It’s eleven o’clock on this Wednesday night, June 18. It feels like the start of the weekend. He tells me to be careful on the road and to stay out of trouble. He tells me to call soon. There’s something in his eyes, something in the way that he looks at me that catches me off guard. Maybe it’s just the past couple of weeks catching up with him, but he looks like someone with the weight of the world on his shoulders. I tell him I’ll be safe, and I ask him if he’s okay.
I’m fine, he says. Just be careful. Promise?
~ ~ ~
It’s midnight when I arrive at my dormitory suite on the Maryland campus, and all of my boys are there waiting for me. There’s Bryan “Keeta” Covington, an All-ACC defensive back on the football team – big and strong, Covington led his high school to the state championship in 1982. We’re weight room junkies through and through. My Washington Hall suitemates are all there – Terry Long, Phil Nevin, Jeff Baxter, David Gregg, Keith Gatlin. We’re brothers first and University of Maryland basketball teammates second because we survived Lefty’s practices and battled some of the best teams in the country. We look out for each other. Home boys for life.
We decide to keep the party off the radar, low-key, just between us. Someone has picked up crab and beer, and we sit around doing what guys do – eating, drinking, watching TV, listening to the stereo. It’s not loud, and not out of hand. The questions come at me by the dozens – questions about money, playing time, rookie camp, Larry Bird. Questions about Michael Jordan. Always Jordan. The comparisons popped up continuously during all of those interviews leading up to the draft: Are you looking forward to playing against Jordan in the pros? Who’s going to win a championship first? Will you go up against each other in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest? On and on, always Jordan, even though we didn’t play the same position in college, and even though Bird-Magic is the biggest rivalry in the league right now. Tonight is no different. My boys pepper me with the same questions, just like the media, except that they won’t stop riding me. They want to know what I’m thinking, what I’m going through, what it’s like to be the next great player for the Boston Celtics. I do my best to play along but I’m tired – wait, scratch that – I’m exhausted, and right now I need something to pick me up.
And that’s when I decide it’s time to leave.
I’ll be back, I promise my boys. I need to go out for some air. I need to clear my head.
I’m instantly hit with static. They don’t want me to leave. The party is just getting started, they argue, and besides, it’s too late to go running around. They want to know if I’m headed to another party, another dorm, or maybe blowing them off to have a good time with some girl instead. Yeah, right; using my celebrity to get laid. I laugh and tell them it’s all cool, that I’ll be right back after I pick up some beer, and that I’ll gladly answer all of their questions until the sun comes up.
~ ~ ~
This is the point in the dream where I detach from myself once again, going from first person to third, and my ghost self watches helplessly as that alternate version of me slides into the 300ZX and heads off into the night. There are other parties on campus and I’d be the main attraction at any of them. Just by being Len Bias. The football players want me to hang with them at Allegheny Hall, and I consider it briefly – I’ve built up my body in the weight room, working out side-by-side with these guys, and they all feel they’ve played a part in my success. They know I’m back in town and they know I’ll add star power to their keg party. I feel the tug of their peer pressure. I’ve always had a hard time saying no. Part of me feels that I owe them an appearance and my guilty conscience tries like hell to talk me into it. Nah, I decide at the last possible moment. Not tonight. Maybe some other time. I don’t want to stand around and answer more of the same. Not the way I feel right now. Instead I take a short drive off campus, to Brian Tribble’s apartment. We’re friends. It’s late but he knows I’m coming.
We’re going out, I’d demanded earlier from my dorm room, which is part of Suite 1103 inside of Washington Hall. Get ready.
Man, my lady is here with me, Trib replies. Let’s do this tomorrow night.
Ten minutes, Trib. I’ll be there in ten minutes. You can hang with that ho anytime. Tonight you’re going to hang with me. Tonight we’re going to celebrate in style.
~ ~ ~
Brian Tribble is a former student at the University of Maryland. There was a time when Trib was a Terrapin like the rest of us, but now he just hangs close to the campus, picking up women and dealing drugs. He has a magnetic personality, a well-spoken black man with large, hypnotic eyes and the voice of a jazz man. He’s smooth, cool, sophisticated. Confident. I’m drawn to him instantly because he dresses and acts exactly the way I want to dress and act. I think it’s because I was shy and straight-laced growing up. Now I want to project the same coolness that he projects. The same edge. He likes the fact that I’m popular, the Big Man on Campus. A perfect match. For several months we work out in the weight room together – that’s where he first sought me out and introduced himself – and we become fast friends. I didn’t realize he was a big drug player, at least not from the start, and by the time I figured it out it was too late. We were tight by then, and from what I could tell he wasn’t a bad guy. A couple of months later he invites me over to his place, a small apartment on Marion Street, where he has two women waiting for me. We all sit around the living room, drinking Private Stock Malt Liquor, listening to Rick James on the stereo and talking hoops, when Trib casually reaches into the drawer of the end table and pulls out a bag of white powder and a small mirror. I’m scared to death but afraid to show it. I don’t want these women to know I’m scared, so I sip my drink and act like I’ve been around this stuff a thousand times. They seem to buy it, but not Trib. He knows the deal. My body is a drug-free zone at this point. He’s been trying to give me a bump for several weeks now, but I’ve always said no and figured out a way to change the subject or move on to something else. But not this time. He has me cornered. He knows I want to look cool in front of these women. So when he pours out a line and offers a bump, I close my eyes and do the only thing I can do at that moment – I lean over that dirty mirror and ingest cocaine for the first time in my life.
~ ~ ~
Trib and I do cocaine together on five other occasions before tonight, spaced out over a two year period, always being careful with the time and place. Too much at stake and far too dangerous. There are drug tests. I can’t risk having a test come back positive, so our private party sessions are always after the season, between April and September. Three of those sessions are back at his apartment, just the two of us and a couple of Trib’s hoochie mamas, no big party scene because we don’t want people talking. The other two times are back in my dorm room at Washington Hall, me and Trib with a couple of teammates who also experiment with cocaine socially. All five sessions are Trib’s idea, his way of smoothing things out and blowing off steam, with me as the willing-but-paranoid participant.
Tonight is different. Tonight I’m the one calling Brian Tribble and asking to get things going. We jump in the 300ZX and head into D.C., stopping at a liquor store first. I sign an autograph for the clerk, adding the #30 below my name – my new number with the Boston Celtics. Get used to the attention, Trib says with a laugh and a smile, suddenly wide awake and ready to party. You’re a celebrity now, and people know who you are. I cringe at the thought. I don’t think I’ll ever get used that part of my new life, the being stopped on the street by complete strangers or interrupted at dinner and asked to sign a napkin for Aunt Susie or little Bobby. That’s happened a lot over the past two weeks, and it’s going to happen a lot more once I start producing highlight reel dunks for the Celtics. And I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like in a few years, when Larry Bird finally retires and it’s my team and I’m battling Air Jordan every spring for the right to play in the NBA Finals…
~ ~ ~
We drive into the most dangerous neighborhood in Washington, D.C. the reigning Murder Capitol of the United States. Trib points and gives directions – a left here, a right there, until we’re cruising past crumbling buildings on the southeast side of town. The neighborhood is notorious for drugs and crime. Guys hang out in clusters, dealing and looking for trouble. Prostitutes work the street corners. Graffiti everywhere – on the trash cans, the sidewalk, the brick facings. I’m feeling tight right now, anxious, but not Trib. Trib feels right at home. He keeps talking about the NBA and telling me he’ll come up to Boston for some of the games, and how I’m going to help the Celtics repeat as world champions. It all goes in one ear and out the other. I feel like a cop magnet behind the wheel of my 300ZX, and as if on cue a cop car appears out of nowhere and follows me for several blocks. My heart races. I’m sweating. I can’t keep my eyes off the rear-view mirror. If I get pulled over and arrested and make the news two days after the draft…
The cop car turns at the next light and disappears. Trib points to a row house, its filthy stoop illuminated by the corner street light, and orders me to stop. I’ll be right back, he says. Lock the doors, keep the car running. This won’t take long. He hurries out of the 300ZX and then up the steps. He knocks on the door, his head on a swivel. A few seconds later the door opens. There’s a brief conversation. Trib nods in my direction and the brother at the door takes a good long look. I slide down low in my seat, not wanting to be recognized, convinced that this was a bad idea after all.
The deal takes less than five minutes from start to finish but it feels like an hour. Finally – mercifully – Trib emerges from the decaying row house and we’re driving again, each light taking us farther away from danger.
You’re gonna like this, he says at last, pulling a large bag from his jacket pocket. A friend of mine wants to make sure you celebrate in style. Only the best for the best, m’man. Purest on the street.
How much? I ask, angry that Trib has used my name to score drugs in this ghetto.
On the house, Trib says. Consider it an advance. Right now it’s time to party.
~ ~ ~
It’s 3:00 a.m. when we return. Jeff Baxter and Keith Gatlin are asleep, done for the night, and that’s fine with me. Both guys are as close to me as brothers, but neither of them do drugs and neither of them know that I’ve used cocaine. Terry Long and David Gregg are still up, waiting. These guys, they know. They’ve both bought from Brian Tribble, and along with me have become part of Trib’s growing drug enterprise. We go straight to my room, pulling in three chairs and a folding table. Long brings the beer and liquor and a six-pack of Pepsi. Gregg turns on the TV. Trib reaches into the brown paper bag and pulls out a mountain of white powder. He laughs at the surprised looks on our faces and passes the Ziploc bag around the table. Its weight is both impressive and intimidating, all at the same time. It feels like a sandbag. Soon the powder is being poured into the beer and the Pepsi, and also distributed into neat, evenly spaced rows on the mirror. I snort a line and sit on the edge of my bed, watching the other guys take their turns. Trib chases his line with a spiked Pepsi. Gregg does the same. Long matches them both, drink and line.
We play the stereo low enough to hear anyone on the other side of the door. The suite’s main living area provides a natural sound barrier against the other rooms, but we don’t want to take any chances. If we hear a door open, we immediately hide the drugs and try to play straight. At least that’s the plan. Hopefully we don’t forget our predetermined roles when the high kicks in.
Fifteen minutes after our first hit we feel that initial jolt of energy. Now we’re talking about the Celtics again, about my future, about competing against Michael Jordan. Always Jordan.
There are bags of chips and pretzels on the table but I’m not hungry. Cocaine does that to you. You have no appetite but you feel like you can bench press the world. Your mind is alert and seems to race a million miles an hour, and yet everything seems to run in slow motion. The room feels hot. I strip down to my shorts and undershirt, and the guys all make comments about my physique. I’m ripped. I look like I could play tight-end for the Dallas Cowboys. I proclaim myself a horse, and I pour myself another line, twice as big as the last.
Shame, guilt and fear are nowhere to be found.
~ ~ ~
The questions don’t bother me now. I’m stoked up, bragging about how good I’m going to be, how I’m going to force the Celtics to play me major minutes as a rookie. I promise another reverse dunk, like the one against Carolina, and guarantee that it will happen before All-Star Weekend. I also promise to drain a three with my first NBA shot. The guys join in, agreeing with me one minute, telling me I’m full of crap the next. It’s all good fun. We give each other five between laughs, and we continue to work on the large white mound of powder in the center of the table.
~ ~ ~
Time gets away from us. It’s late – or early, depending on how you want to look at it. The clock reads 5:32 a.m., and even though I haven’t slept in twenty-four hours I feel more alive than at any other point in my life. And I feel strong. Invincible. I wish that training camp started this morning, because I would be out there with the best team in basketball, playing like a maniac, trying to impress my new coach. My mind races backwards through the ’86 playoffs, and there’s Jordan dropping 63 points on the Celtics. He’s leaping, flying, contorting. Basket after basket, with three Celtic players draped all over him. Air Jordan. And there is Bird afterward, a hundred microphones jammed in his face, proclaiming that it was actually God out there on the court disguised as Michael Jordan. I can’t wait for my shot at guarding MJ. I can’t wait for him to guard me. He can leap but so can I. And I’m bigger than he is, with a better shot and longer range. I’ll pull him away from the basket, launch a three, then smother him on defense. I’ll post him up on the block. The best going up against the best. God will finally meet his match.
The start of the NBA’s great new rivalry.
~ ~ ~
I go back to the mirror several more times over the next hour, bragging about how great I’m going to be and how lucky the Celtics were to draft me. I’m a horse, I proclaim yet again, and lean over the powder and snort another line. Only this time something happens. Something wrong. The air enters my lungs as the cocaine enters my system, and my heart begins to beat wildly out of rhythm. It feels like a train jumping the tracks. It beats hard, then shallow, then not at all. It jumps again. Three fast, heavy beats, and then eight weak beats spaced out at terrifyingly irregular intervals:
I imagine my heart trying to gulp in blood the way a freshly caught fish struggles to breathe. I drop the straw I’m holding. I shoot straight up and clutch my chest. My face feels numb. My hands tingle with needles, like they’re asleep. Trib looks at me and asks if I’m alright. I can’t catch my breath. I can’t speak. I stumble backward, knocking over a beer. I drop straight down on the bed, my heart still racing but completely out of time, a broken drum machine. Terry Long is standing beside me now. He tells me to lay back, that I’m messed up from all of the cocaine and that I need to take a few minutes and chill. I do as he says and fall back onto the bed. Everything gets worse. My heart is out of control, off the tracks, and I can’t do anything to bring it back.
~ ~ ~
The guys stand around the bed, leaning over to get a better look. They’re talking to me, to each other, to themselves. High as kites. I can see the fear on their faces. I’m holding my breath, trying for force my heart back into its normal rhythm, but that makes it more erratic. I sit up. I want to stand but can’t – my legs are all rubber, the same spring-loaded legs that turned me into a human dunking machine…
My right hand clutches my chest, my fingernails digging against flesh. I try to stay upright but fall back instead. My eyes roll up in my head, and I begin to convulse. My legs shoot straight out. My jaw locks. I can hear panic in the room now, noise to a dying man.
~ ~ ~
I detach again and watch it unfold.
This dream. Again.
Terry Long jams a pair of scissors into my mouth, handle first. David Gregg holds my legs down. Brian Tribble picks up the phone and calls his mother – Lenny’s having a seizure, he says. He’s slurs it. She tells him to call 911. He hangs up and does as she says.
The 911 operator answers on the first ring and speaks quickly. Brian Tribble tries to focus on the words, but the river of cocaine rushing through his system makes that impossible. He’s slurring in the direction of Terry Long and David Gregg, talking over them, trying to get the address straight. He stares at the limp body on the bed. He stares at the cocaine on the folding table. There are voices outside the door now, belonging to Keith Gatlin and Jeff Baxter. Tribble finally closes his eyes and tries to focus.
“…1103 Washington Hall…it’s an emergency…it’s Len Bias…he just went to Boston…and…he needs some assistance…”
“What are you talking about?”
“What are you talking about?”
The 911 operator’s voice is loaded with skepticism. He’s irritated. He clearly thinks that this is a prank, something worked up by a bunch of rowdy college kids with nothing better to do. Long and Gregg are pacing, talking, confused. There is pounding on the door, and then the sound of concern coming from the other side.
“I’m talking about…uh, someone needs…Len Bias needs help…”
“Well it doesn’t matter what his name is, what’s the problem?”
“He’s not breathing right.”
“What’s your name?”
“My name is Brian.”
The 911 operator begins pounding on his keyboard.
“It’s Len Bias…you have to get him…back to life…there’s no way he can die. Seriously, sir…please come quick… “
Boston, and all points beyond