Len Bias RumorsAll NBA Players
About 9:30 on the morning of June 19, 1986, I got a call at home from John Papanek, an editor at Sports Illustrated. It was a Thursday, the beginning of SI’s workweek. “So, what about Len Bias?” he asked. I had just completed my first year on the NBA beat, so I started right in on my basketball knowledge. “Perfect draft pick for the Celtics,” I began. “He’s too big and strong for most of the small forwards who’ll guard him, and too quick for most of the power forwards …” “Jack,” John interrupted me. “Bias is dead.” This was before the age of ubiquitous bombarding of social media, so it was within the realm of possibility to have gone to bed the night before without hearing big news. “You’re kidding, right?” I said, echoing the response of a million others when they heard the news. “How? When? Why?” “Looks like drugs,” said Papanek. “You’re on the story.”
It was because of 1986 that NBA teams began putting a higher priority on pre-draft investigations of players and the league instituted programs to counsel rookies about life lessons. Those programs don’t have a 100 percent success rate, but we can’t say for sure that they haven’t saved someone from becoming another Bias. The saddest echo of the tragedy occurred right back in the Bias home. In December 1990, Jay Bias, the quiet kid I had interviewed about his big brother’s death, was shot and killed in the parking lot of a shopping center in Hyattsville, Md., apparently because another man thought he was flirting with his wife. Jay had been a terrific high school player but could never get his academics together to play at a big-time school. “If you had to pick one person who suffered the most,” Lonise Bias told The Washington Post after the death of her second son, “it has been Jay.”
My worst moment of the weekend occurred as I staked out the Bias home, feeling like a thief waiting to strike or a guy in a raincoat staring into a window. And that was before I spotted a National Enquirer reporter hiding in a tree with a long-lens camera. Covering sports has never been exactly like covering cotillions, but the guy in the tree made me nauseous about our information-gathering techniques. “That’s it,” I said to my photographer. “I don’t care if Bias’ parents do show. I gotta get outta here.” At one point we thought we had spotted Bias’ gray Datsun 300ZX being hitched up to be taken to police impoundment. It was in that vehicle that they eventually found, as the investigator put it, “white granules caked together in a chunk about the size of a bar of soap.” It was coke. But as we advanced warily upon the car, looking like two members of the bomb squad, it turned out not to be Bias’.
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.’’
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.’’
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.’’
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.’’