When Chris Washburn looks back now on the day Len Bias died, he realizes it could have been him.
On the morning of June 19, 1986, 25 years ago Sunday, Bias suffered heart failure brought on by the use of cocaine. Just two days earlier, Bias had been drafted with the No. 2 pick by Boston out of Maryland and stardom was projected.
One pick after Bias, Washburn had been selected by Golden State. Washburn had played for Atlantic Coast Conference rival North Carolina State but was friendly with Bias. On the afternoon of the June 17, 1986 draft in New York, Washburn vowed he would visit Bias in Maryland while driving his new Mercedes back to his native North Carolina.
But Washburn never would see Bias again. Tragedy struck when Bias, after returning from Boston, was celebrating his selection by the recently crowned NBA champions with friends and former teammates in a Maryland dorm room.
On the same night of June 18-19, Washburn said he also was doing cocaine. He had remained in New York, and was snorting it at an apartment in the Bronx. He said there were about 10 people with him, including three other NBA players he wouldn’t name.
“I was up the whole night doing drugs,’’ Washburn said in an interview with HoopsHype. “I look back now and that could have been me. I could easily have been in (Bias’) shoes back then.’’
Washburn remembers the next morning speaking at a Police Athletic League event at a New York park. He said it felt odd because “you don’t want to be around police when you’ve been doing drugs all night.’’
Soon, though, Washburn received news that really rattled him. He was walking up a New York street when stopped by a stranger.
“Someone recognized me and said, ‘Did you hear about Len?’’’ Washburn said. “He told me, and I said, ‘No. Stop lying.’ Then he went and bought a paper and showed it to me… It was on the back of the New York Post (that Bias had died)… I was extremely upset. I had never known anybody at that point in my life who had died so he was the first.’’
The death of Bias, an athletic forward, was the first and the most devastating blow to the star-crossed 1986 NBA draft. In the years that followed, three of the other top seven picks, including Washburn, had their careers derailed by drugs.
Washburn, a powerful and agile center, would play just two seasons with the Warriors and Atlanta, and was banned by the NBA for life in 1989 after failing a third drug test. William Bedford, a center taken No. 6 by Phoenix, played six uninspiring seasons while battling drug problems and has been in prison the past eight years due to a drug-related offense. Forward Roy Tarpley, selected No. 7 by Dallas, also lasted just six seasons before being banned from the NBA for life for drug use.
“It was an unlucky draft for a lot of teams,’’ said Ed Badger, Boston’s head scout when Bias was drafted.
Four other players taken in the first three rounds of that seven-round draft also are deceased. Third-round selection Drazen Petrovic, who didn’t enter the league until 1989, was in a fatal car crash in Germany in 1993 after blossoming into an NBA star. Second-round pick Kevin Duckworth died in 2008 of heart failure.
While neither of these third-round picks ever played an NBA game, Don Redden died of heart failure in 1994 and Baskerville Holmes shot himself in 1997 in a murder-suicide. Holmes, Bedford’s teammate at Memphis State, had killed his girlfriend.
The draft’s No. 1 pick, Brad Daugherty, appeared in five NBA All-Star Games with Cleveland but never played a game past the age of 28 due to back problems. While No. 4 pick Chuck Person and No. 8 Ron Harper had solid careers, the Top 10 in 1986 also included underachievers in No. 5 Kenny Walker, No. 9 Brad Sellers and No. 10 Johnny Dawkins.
It might be the only draft in history in which the second round was better than the first. While Daugherty was the only 1986 first-round selection from to ever make an All-Star Game, the second round produced eventual All-Stars Dennis Rodman, Mark Price, Duckworth and Jeff Hornacek in addition to long-time NBA veterans Johnny Newman, Nate McMillan and David Wingate.
Most of all, though, the draft will be remembered for the drug problems that toppled top prospects. But Washburn, 45, believes there is still something that can be done to turn some of that negativity into a positive.
Washburn, who been clean since July 2000, often has told his story of being homeless in the early 1990s in Houston and spending three years later in the 1990s in a Texas prison due to a drug conviction. Washburn, who has worked the past decade as a mortgage collection agent in Dallas, talks regularly at the Dallas Life Foundation, a non-profit agency for the homeless. He said he will speak to elite high school players this week at the National Basketball Players Association’s Top 100 Camp at the University of Virginia.
But Washburn doesn’t want to be the only troubled player from the 1986 draft trying to help others avoid a similar pitfalls. He visits Bedford about once a month at the Federal Correctional Institute in Seagoville, Texas, just outside Dallas. Bedford was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2003 for transporting 25 pounds of marijuana in Michigan, although he expects to be released later this year.
“I see what I went through and then I see William in the penitentiary,’’ Washburn said. “When I see him, I try to encourage him. He gets out in November… He wants me to help him set up some speeches where he can go around and talk to high school and college kids and help them.’’
Washburn would love to join Bedford for such endeavors. But Washburn is thinking even bigger.
Washburn said Tarpley lives in the Dallas suburb of Arlington. Although Washburn hasn’t had contact with Tarpley since the 1990s, he knows how to get in touch with him and plans to ask Tarpley to join the two on their crusade.
Unlike Washburn and Bedford, Tarpley, who was banned from the NBA initially in 1991 and later for life after returning for the 1994-95 season, at least had a strong pro career when in uniform. He won the NBA’s Sixth Man Award for Dallas in 1987-88.
Tarpley sued the NBA and the Mavericks in 2007, claiming it was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act that he was not reinstated as a recovering drug and alcohol abuser. The case was settled out of court in 2009 with terms not disclosed, but Washburn said Tarpley got about $5 million.
“The three of us could give speeches,’’ Washburn said. “That would be a good thing for the third, sixth and seventh picks in the 1986 draft (who had careers derailed by drugs)… Maybe talk to guys who think they have a chance to get to the next level and help them understand everything you got to do.’’
Washburn has plenty to say on the subject. He said in college he drank and smoked marijuana before games, which is why his play would fall off in second halves.
The 6-foot-11 Washburn, who left North Carolina State after his sophomore season, said he didn’t start doing cocaine until he arrived in New York in May 1986 to work out in preparation for the draft. He said other players had a role in hooking him up to where he could get the drugs.
“There were professionals there, guys in their 30s,’’ Washburn said. “Business guys who could afford (drugs). Us players, we didn’t have to pay for anything. Those professional guys were functioning addicts. They would get up and go to work (after a night of doing drugs) and go about their business.’’
But it wasn’t that easy for Washburn, who averaged just 3.8 points as a Warriors rookie and 3.1 for his career. He said his NBA play suffered after he got to Golden State because he “never slept.’’ Washburn said he would start doing drugs after practice in the afternoon and continue throughout the night, mainly at hotels or crack houses.
Al Attles, then the Warriors general manager, said the team knew nothing know about Washburn’s drug use when he was drafted. Attles said Warriors officials did begin to hear rumors about it later that summer after Bias had died and a lot of information was surfacing.
“It’s so unfortunate,’’ Attles said of what happened to Washburn, who was so far gone by December 1987 that the Warriors traded him to Atlanta for the rights to Ken Barlow, who never played an NBA game. “We were so impressed with his athletic ability. He was such an engaging guy with his big smile.’’
Washburn didn’t have much to smile about after he was booted out of the NBA. The early 1990s were hard after he had squandered much of the money he made as a pro.
“I was homeless,’’ Washburn said. “I was sleeping in crack houses and abandoned houses. I was going to grocery stores and I would go to the fruit section to eat things or go to the sandwich department and pull meat out because I hadn’t eaten in a few days. I would go out to eat somewhere and I’d sit near the back door and then make a run for it after I ate. I was eating out of trash cans.’’
After his prison stint and playing some ball overseas, Washburn eventually got clean. He met somebody who helped him make up a phony resume to get a job in the mortgage business.
Even though the company eventually figured out the resume wasn’t legitimate, Washburn said being a former NBA player helped him stay employed and establish a career. Being back on his feet has enabled Washburn to dispense more heeded advice to his two basketball-playing sons in Julian, set to play next season at Texas-El Paso, and Chris Jr., a high schooler also expected to play college ball.
Life is now much better for Washburn. Still, when asked his thoughts on it being 25 years since Bias’ death, Washburn said, “I tell people that he got off easy, that he died. I’ve had to live with it.’’
Washburn later clarified he’s happy to be alive. He’s referring to the burden he’s had to carry because of his drug problems.
“When I said (Bias) got the easy way out, I mean he didn’t have to deal with the humiliation,’’ Washburn said. “I’ve let a lot of folks down. I’m still around, and I feel fortunate for that. But I’ve burned a lot of bridges. A lot of folks are not in my corner… I’ve seen my name associated as a bust.’’
When visiting Bedford, whose 4.1 career scoring average also puts him in the bust category, Washburn, who believes he could have been a Hall of Famer had he kept “my nose clean,’’ said the two accentuate the positive. They talk about how they would have fared in their primes against today’s top players. They sure don’t think they would have been dunked on.
While the 6-8 Bias never got a chance to prove it, he was a guy a lot of folks really thought would end up in the Hall of Fame. Drafted two years after Chicago took Michael Jordan, Bias was considered to have some of the same qualities.
“He could have been a star,’’ said Badger, a former NBA coach and personnel man who was Boston’s head scout from 1983-88. “He could shoot. He could rebound. With Bias, I think we could have won a couple more (championship) rings. We could have started him along with (Larry) Bird (at forward) and (Robert) Parish (at center) and continued to bring (Kevin) McHale off the bench.’’
The Celtics already had won three championships in the 1980s when Bias was drafted. But they didn’t win another until 2008.
The death of Bias changed how the Celtics prepared for the draft. It became a more in-depth process.
“We started making more background checks,’’ Badger said. “You were more thorough, talking to everybody you could find. High school teachers. High school coaches. You’d talk to the biology teacher.’’
But the Celtics were hardly alone. Attles said the death of Bias and the drug problems encountered by the other top 1986 drafees was a “wake-up call’’ for all of the NBA.
“Maybe I was naïve, but the furthest thing from my mind then was that a player would do damage to his body,’’ Attles said of drug abuse. “I think before (the 1986 draft), if something happened, people thought it was an isolated incident or something with one team. Having so many, you’re thinking maybe there is a problem.
“When you have a tragedy with somebody as high profile as (Bias) passing, you think maybe there is something that needs to be done… That led to rules being put in the (NBA’s) collective bargaining agreement (to better curtail drug use).’’
To Washburn, though, Bias’ death wasn’t that much of a wake-up call. While he says now that “any time in the 15 years (as a drug addict), I could have gone just like him,’’ he didn’t believe that then to be the case.
“If you see that somebody is drinking and driving, people are going to still drink and drive,’’ Washburn said. “I didn’t think then it could happen to me. Len was really the first one ever related with crack to killing at that time. I was definitely not really affected by it. He was the only one who died that way… But when they started saying how much (cocaine) was found in his body, I made sure I didn’t use that much. If an ounce kills you, I don’t want to smoke an ounce.’’
Washburn did say he curtailed his drug use for a while after Bias’ death. But once he arrived in the San Francisco Bay area in the fall of 1986 to join the Warriors, he fell in with the wrong crowd and no real lessons had been learned from what happened to Bias.
At least Washburn is still around to talk about his pitfalls. And he’d eventually like to hook up with Bedford and Tarpley in an effort to at least somewhat make up for all the negativity surrounding the 1986 draft.
Picture: New York Daily News
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter @christomasson.