The Day Innocence Died (June, 1986)

Len Bias and fifty years of the War on Drugs

This is Throwbacks, a weekly-ish newsletter by me, Michael Weinreb, about sports history, culture and politics. Welcome to all new readers/subscribers, and if you like what you’re reading, please subscribe and share, on social media or through e-mail or however you feel comfortable sharing. (It’s still free to subscribe: Just click “None” on the “subscribe now” page.) The best way you can help out is by spreading the word as much as possible. That said, I have set up payment tiers, if you wish to give something—I’ve made them as cheap as Substack will let me make them, which is $5 a month or $30 a year.

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I.

This week, two things happened: The United States marked the 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Drugs, and the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Terry versus United States, holding that low-level crack-cocaine dealers are not eligible for re-sentencing under the 2018 First Step Act. What does this have to do with the convergence of sports culture, history, and politics? Pretty much everything.

As SCOTUSBlog wrote, this case traces its origins back to the 1986 anti-drug abuse act, which occurred in the wake of the death of Maryland basketball player Len Bias, who overdosed on cocaine 35 years ago this week. All these years later, we are still unraveling the consequences of a law that was conceived almost entirely on the skewed—and race-driven—public perception of crack cocaine during that era.

With Len Bias back in the Zeitgeist, I figure it’s a good time to point you to this story on Bias’s death and its massive cultural and political impact, which I wrote over a decade ago, but still feels relevant today—and essentially served as a primal template for this newsletter. It’s long, but I hope you’ll follow the link and read of the story the rest whenever you can. If you want to go even deeper into the era, I wrote a book that expanded on many of these ideas.


II.

It's true, what she says about the graves. I went to see them not long after I heard Lonise Bias tell an incredible story to a group of South Carolina high school students: While witnessing the burial of her son Jay, she looked down and realized she was standing on the grave of her eldest son, Leonard. I had assumed it was a rhetorical flourish, a metaphor crafted for effect by a guest speaker who was getting paid to whack some sobriety into a room of spaced-out pubescents with self-image issues. But then I drove to the cemetery, in a Maryland suburb of Washington called Suitland, and I trudged up a hill, and I found the markers, a couple of rectangles blotched with age, stamped into the dirt and rocks and tufts of grass. And it is true -- there is perhaps a foot of space between her boys. They are, quite literally, resting side by side.

The graves, tucked together like this, are a stark testimony to the complexity of Lonise Bias' grief. It is impossible to comprehend the hellish depths she has plumbed, and it is equally difficult to see how she emerged with such palpable vigor, determination and self-assurance. This is what makes her come across as a bit strange, especially to a roomful of teenagers; instead of crushing her spirit, unspeakable family tragedy has stripped her of the angst and self-doubt that paralyzes much of her audience. She opens her speeches by telling people she does not particularly care what they think of her, which permits her to bellow phrases like, "I AM THE LEGACY THAT WAS LEFT BEHIND!" and "I CAME THROUGH TO SHOW YOU THE WAY!" and somehow make them sound authoritative rather than bombastic.

"I've been termed as being ABNORMALLY ENTHUSIASTIC," she is saying. "But I am full of passion BECAUSE I BELIEVE IN YOU. I am standing here to TELL YOU that you CAN MAKE IT."

It is a Monday morning, and Lonise Bias is sweating underneath the spotlights on the stage of a high school auditorium in a quiet corner of South Carolina. The assembly is mandatory. And it doesn't matter that no one in this room knows who she is anymore, or who her sons were, or where they came from, or why her story means anything at all. It doesn't matter that she was hired blind by a teacher who read her biography on the Web site of a speakers' bureau and thought, "Well, that sounds kind of appropriate for a schoolwide assembly," and it doesn't matter that she momentarily forgets where she is, and refers to the students of Greenwood High School as the students of Greenville. It doesn't matter, because it is hard not to listen when a woman with this kind of overbearing presence IS TALKING RIGHT AT YOU.

She has always possessed a robust set of vocal cords. When she was in elementary school, and the faculty needed a child to speak loudly enough for a large group to hear, they chose her. She grew up tall and imposing, with a natural-born gravity; after her speech at Greenwood, more than one student said Lonise Bias reminded them of their mothers. Perhaps, she always thought, she would teach someday, but she imagined it would be in Sunday school, not in a place like this, a public school several hundred miles from the suburban Maryland county where her life has played out like a soap opera.

She was working as a customer service manager at a bank back in June 1986 when her eldest son's death became a national headline. If you were alive then, and you cared at all about sports, or about drugs, you most likely remember it well. It was one of those moments -- like JFK, like Martin Luther King Jr., like the space shuttle Challenger earlier that same year -- when we, as a society, stopped and stared collectively into the void and declared that human existence was entirely unjust.

Here, though, is what's weirdest of all about Lonise Bias: She, of all people, does not believe the events of that day were unjust. In fact, she believes the events of that day were unavoidable. She has never allowed herself to project into the future, or to examine the possibilities, the endless permutations of what-ifs that guide the discussion of her son whenever his name arises. For her, there was only this future. For her, there was only this possibility. In the days after her son died, her public demeanor was so stoic and unflinching that she received letters from people declaring her a phony. And she admits that among the other emotions her son's death brought on, it brought relief.

Not long after Len Bias' death, she made a life-changing appearance on a Christian television program, "The 700 Club," in which she explained why. She described the premonitions she'd been having, and the dreams, and the inexplicable emotional breakdowns, and the visions she assumed were coming directly from above, all imbuing her with a heavy and inextricable feeling that her son was not meant to play professional basketball. Her son, who in his senior season at the University of Maryland was widely regarded as the best college basketball player in America, a can't-miss talent with absurd hang time. Her son, who had been drafted with the No. 2 pick by the NBA champion Boston Celtics on June 17, 1986. Her son, who would be described in an autopsy report two days later as a "well-developed young Black male," 6-foot-7, 221½ pounds, otherwise fit and healthy and clean, with the exception of the copious amount of cocaine in his system.

"I can remember speaking to this woman once before Len died, and she had said, 'Things are going to be so wonderful for you all,'" Lonise Bias says. "And I remember telling her this very clearly. I said, 'It looks like I can go over to that table and pick up whatever's on that table. It looks like I can do it, but there can be something that can stop me from doing it.' So I guess what I'm saying is, while everyone else was cheering, I was still waiting to see if it was going to happen, because ..."

For a moment, she is somewhere else, her gaze fixed on a table a few feet from where she sits in an office adorned with photographs of her posing next to presidents and congressmen as a well-compensated motivational speaker of some renown, as a proud foot soldier in the war on drugs. Twenty-two years have passed, and Len Bias has been dead as long as he was alive. And clouds of doubt and shame and confusion linger, and truthfully, no one wants to talk very much about the long-term meaning of Len Bias except Lonise Bias, who cannot stop talking about it. All because, several years before her sons would come to lie side by side in those two narrow burial plots and several months before her life became altered by grief, the mother had a vision of her eldest son as a martyr.

Read the rest of the story.


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