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Len Bias and the war on drugs

Len BiasNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Len Bias as the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft. His death changed Colombian history.

Jeff and Michael Zimbalist's "The Two Escobars" -- an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that first aired June 21, 2010 -- is a shockingly well-told tale of how the life stories of Andrés Escobar (a role model of a young man and soccer player) and Pablo Escobar (a notorious drug lord) intertwined from childhood, all the way through both men's violent ends.

We talk sometimes about fantasy sports, but consider what was happening in Colombia in the heyday of "narcosoccer": Drug lords like Escobar and "El Mexicano" would assemble their own fantasy teams, and then fly the real players into their real private soccer fields and actually play those fantasy games.

Watch the documentary, if you haven't already, and you'll be inundated with complex thoughts about the ways the U.S. and Colombia interact through all of this.

(An overarching reaction for me: To treasure the peace, law and order that features in most daily life in the U.S. Not to be naive about the American places where it's not so, but the simple fact is that Colombia, for a while there, was off-the-charts dangerous. Scary. I'm blessed simply not to live with that fear.)

One of the movie's many complexities is in showing clearly how the thing that really led to broad violence and instability was not the rise of the uber-powerful Pablo Escobar, but his fall. He established a world where drug money -- backed up by violence -- ruled just about everything. Then he got himself killed, and all those narcotraffickers who had been under his thumb jockeyed to fill the power vacuum.

That's when all hell really broke loose, engulfing innocents like the entirely admirable Andrés.

And what brought about? Well, the U.S. got serious about the war on drugs in the mid-80s, which changed everything for Escobar and Colombia.

"The Two Escobars" is an unbelievably insightful tale of soccer. But deep in the story, basketball makes a surprising and important appearance. DEA agent Tom Cash tells the story:

They started writing folk songs aboutu how wonderful Pablo Escobar was. Never mind that all of his money was earned from cocaine. We don't want to talk about that. It was speak no evil, see no evil, completely. The rich and powerful gain wide acceptance. This flamboyant lifestyle of having helicopters, fincas [ranches], soccer teams. It was the economy, and everybody was happy, because the restaurants were full. The bars were full.

With Pablo, there was no recession.

And of course, it was the United States' demand for that perfect high that drove Colombia's white powder foreign aid. It was society and the media of the time saying you play golf, he plays tennis and I snort cocaine, but it's all recreational.

Until a very famous basketball player died. Len Bias. From cocaine.

I was in Washington as the director of global operations at that particular time. And the picture turned 360 degrees.