Sitting in the front row of the glitzy Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden in the heart of New York City on this splendid day in June 1986, Len Bias is impeccably dressed in a slick white suit with light gray pinstripes.
The 6-foot-8 star from the University of Maryland is about to be selected as the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics. Only seven days ago, the Celtics captured yet another NBA championship with a dynamic team comprised of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge, and now here they are, seconds away from adding a sensational young player to take the sacred Celtics torch from Bird and carry it on through the '90s and deliver additional NBA titles to the city that has more championship banners than any other.
"Are you packed for Boston?" Bias is asked by the player sitting next to him, North Carolina State forward Chris Washburn, moments after the Cleveland Cavaliers nab 7-foot center Brad Daugherty of the North Carolina with the first selection. "Better get ready because you're going next," Washburn tells Bias.
NBA commissioner David Stern is handed a piece of paper and walks to the podium. He unfolds the paper. "With the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft," he says, "the Boston Celtics select Len Bias, University of Maryland."
Bias, the ACC Player of the Year who averaged a league-leading 23 points and seven rebounds during his senior season, grins shyly as he rises from his seat and walks proudly across the Forum and onto the stage. He is cool and confident, not displaying his excitement outwardly. For he knew he was going to Boston, that he was going to be a Celtic. He had become close to Celtics president Red Auerbach, a friend of Bias' coach at Maryland, Lefty Driesell. Bias had even spent a week the previous summer at Auerbach's New England basketball camp, working with young players.
He had also visited the Celtics when they opened the championship series against the Houston Rockets in Boston Garden, just a few weeks before the draft. He sat behind the Celtics' bench. He watched Bird and McHale and the rest of the Celtics warm up and play. Later, when Bias bumped into Celtics GM Jan Volk, he reiterated what he had told Volk once before, "Please draft me."
When his dream becomes reality, Bias is walking on air on The Forum. He is, after all, joining a team that has won three NBA titles in the '80s, and is braced to win more.
Auerbach, Volk, Bird and everyone else in the Celtics' organization realize that this is the type of opportunity quality teams rarely get, to make the transition from one era of greatness to the next without missing a beat. They feel confident about extending their title run well into the next decade.
Everywhere Bias turns at the Felt Forum, somebody thrusts something green in his face -- a Celtics jacket, a Celtics nylon bag, a Celtics jersey and cap. Auerbach says that Bias, the man with the great leaping ability and soft shooting touch, is instantly going to be plugged in as the Celtics' sixth man, the first player off the bench, the spark.
"Len Bias is the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in a long time," Celtics scout Ed Badger tells the press. "He's an explosive and exciting kind of player like that."
As Bias walks out of Madison Square Garden, the glare of bright sun forcing him to squint, he heads toward a taxi on 33rd Street and 8th Avenue with his father, James, his agent, Bill Shelton, and Steve Riley from the Celtics' front office. Children on the sidewalk ask Bias for his autograph. "The Celtics still aren't going to beat the Knicks," one of the children says with a smile. Bias is amused. "We'll see," he says, smiling.
He gets into a taxi and heads off to La Guardia Airport and an Eastern Shuttle flight to Boston to meet the media and visit Reebok's corporate offices, where he is discussing a five-year endorsement package worth $1.6 million.
Later in the day, tired, weary and excited to return home, Bias and his father board an evening flight and land at Washington's National Airport at 10 p.m. They drive to the family home in Landover. At 11:30 p.m., Bias leaves and heads to his dorm suite in College Park on the University of Maryland campus dorm room that he shares with teammates Jeff Baxter, Keith Gatlin, David Gregg, Phil Nevin and Terry Long, a friend and former Maryland basketball player.
It's midnight, June 19, 1986. Bias arrives at his dorm room in Washington Hall. He is met by various teammates and friends, including basketball players Gatlin, Gregg, Long, Baxter and Keeta Covington, a defensive back on the Maryland football team. They laugh, talk, and munch on crabs in the dormitory suite until 2 a.m. They talk about Bias' future as a Celtic, the spectacular opportunity to play with the greatest and winningest organization in the NBA, the incredible break to play with a legend like Bird, and a championship core of players in McHale, Parish, Ainge and DJ.
But Bias is edgy, frustrated. He becomes sick of talking about himself, his newfound wealth, his fame and the expectations with the great Celtics. He suddenly feels a mountain of pressure. He decides to escape. "I'm getting away from here," he says to the gang. He abruptly leaves the dorm and takes off in his new Nissan 300ZX. "I figured he was going to see a lady," Covington would later say.
Bias speeds toward Cherry Hill, just off the Maryland campus. He stops by a small party and talks to David Driggers, a friend with whom Bias has often played pickup basketball games. Soon, Bias departs. It is 2:30 a.m. At 3 a.m., Bias returns to his campus dorm room. Suddenly, reports will later reveal, cocaine is being passed around the room on a small mirror. For the next three hours, the small group of friends and teammates snort cocaine.
At 6 a.m., while sitting in a chair talking to Long, Bias closes his eyes and begins breathing heavily. His body begins to quiver and shudder. Shockingly, a series of seizures wreak havoc on his 6-foot-8, 210-pound body. "Lenny! Lenny!" Long screams. He doesn't get a response. Bias passes out and slumps back in the chair. Long and Tribble begin screaming.
At 6:32 a.m., a hysterical Tribble dials 911 as Long and Gregg try to revive Bias. The dispatcher answers the 911 call and Tribble screams, "It's Len Bias. He passed out. His body his shaking. You have to get here fast. You have to save him."
The commotion awakens Baxter and Gatlin, who see Bias on the floor, his body convulsing. "I was in a state of shock," Gatlin would say later. "I was so scared."
Long begins to administer CPR. The ambulance arrives at 6:36 a.m. Paramedics find Bias, in a blue Reebok shirt, jeans and sneakers, collapsed in a chair. They try, desperately, to restart his heart, to no avail. As paramedics quickly wheel Bias out of the dorm, roommates and other teammates and friends in the dorm follow. The ambulance speeds off to Leland Memorial Hospital, just a few miles away.
At 6:45, Gatlin calls the Bias home in Landover. Bias' mother answers. "Len had a seizure and they're taking him to the hospital," he says. She drops the phone, races out of the house and heads toward College Hill.
Dr. Edward Wilson, chief emergency room physician at Leland Memorial, injects Bias with drugs designed to help his heart recover from cardiac arrest. Five drugs are administered: sodium epinephrine (a form of adrenaline), sodium bicarbonate (to normalize the acidity in the bloodstream), lidocaine (to control hyperactivity and an irregular heartbeat), calcium (to stimulate the heart muscle) and bretyline (a secondary drug to control irregularity of the heart). It doesn't help. Bias is still unconscious. Electric-shock treatment is then administered. Still no heart beat. A pacemaker is implanted after Bias' heart registers a flat line on the monitor. There's no heart beat. He never begins breathing on his own. He is pronounced dead at 8:50 a.m., due to cardio-respiratory arrest.
There is shock and utter dismay all around. Everyone is dumbfounded. Bias' family, friends and teammates are all assembled at the hospital, and stunned. Even hospital administrators take it hard. Bias is an icon in the community.
Bias' mother calls Auerbach, informing him that the newest Celtic, the future of the organization, has shockingly and stunningly passed away. Auerbach is speechless. He initially thinks it's some kind of insensitive prank. He quickly learns, by turning on the TV, that it is not a prank, that it is true, that the Celtics' organization and the New England fans have been dealt a sick and unfortunate blow to their present and future.
Dr. Wilson says the hospital did not and cannot determine the actual cause of death. But police officials reveal to the media that Bias was using cocaine in the dormitory in the hours preceding his death. "Traces of cocaine were found in Len Bias's urine by doctors during treatment," blares a Washington TV station.
There is shock everywhere, from Boston to California. The news of Bias' death rocks the NBA offices in New York and in every NBA city. Sadness and shock hit the league and its cities, knowing it has lost a future star. There is anger too. Celtic fans are enraged. How could this happen? How could a player selected No. 2 in the NBA Draft be so irresponsible? How could Auerbach not know Bias was a drug user? Moreover, how could a well-built, healthy, 210-pound athlete of rock and muscle collapse and die in this manner?
Dr. Edward Feldmann, assistant professor of neurology at Brown University in Rhode Island, tells the media that the cocaine probably caused Bias' brain and heart to undergo "major alterations and changes in function." That would explain Bias' seizures and cardiac arrest, he says.
The shock of the day's events do not subside. Not in that moment. Not for years.