Archive for April, 2021

Stories of Len Bias during 1986 Barnstorming Tour Paint a Complex Portrait of the Young Star

April 30, 2021

By Georgia Braun

It’s been over three decades since University of Maryland basketball legend Len Bias died from a cocaine induced heart attack the night after being drafted by No. 2 overallby the Boston Celtics. The future Hall of Famer’s story has been told time and time again as a cautionary tale at school assemblies, by anti-drug champions, and to the children of parents who lived through the event. 

A story that hasn’t been told very often, if at all, was about one of Bias’ last public appearances on a basketball court. It came during the ACC Barnstorming Tour before his death.

The ACC Barnstorming tour, which goes back more than 40 years, is a series of casual games and contests of the league’s departing stars – many of them future NBA players – against top high school players or local talent throughout the state of North Carolina, where the league office and three of its founding member schools are located.

It was always a great event…it was a fun, fun time,” recalled former Duke star Johnny Dawkins, who was part of that 1986 tour. “It’s kind of a celebration of all ACC players. And so yeah, when he decided to come down and play, it just made it that much more special, to be able to reunite with him in that type of environment and not just be competing against them, which we had done for four straight years.”

Dawkins said it was just part of the leadup to the 1986 NBA Draft in New York City on June 17.  

“You get a chance to celebrate each other, celebrate the moment, you know, college is winding down for us,” said Dawkins, now the head coach at Central Florida. “A new chapter is about to begin and we’re kind of having fun, you know, kind of that in between college and NBA.”

The atmosphere of the Barnstorming Tour has been compared to a Harlem Globetrotters game, complete with loose rules, showboating and non-competitive play.  To this day, barnstorming is a charitable event, and in ‘86, portions of the proceeds went to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. 

And as he did during his four years at Maryland, Bias made an impression on fans, peers and even the tour’s founder.  

Mike Sumner, who’s been organizing the event since it first started, looks back on the time he spent with Bias fondly. The young star stayed at Sumner’s home in North Carolina, where the games took place, and as a thank you, Bias gifted his host one of his practice jerseys. Sumner asked a Bias fan, former Duke star Nolan Smith, to wear the Bias jersey during a Barnstorming game in Northern Virginia in 2011. In a bold move for a Duke player wearing any Maryland jersey, Smith complied.

“He would sit and talk with the kids with muscular dystrophy. He went to schools and talked to kids about life as a prominent basketball player,” says Sumner of Bias. “He was a prince of a fellow, a wonderful individual.” 

He also recalls Bias happily staying late to sign autographs and talk to fans. During one game, he wheeled a boy with muscular dystrophy onto the court, passed him the ball, and dunked from the return pass. 

Though that is not the only life Bias impacted on the tour. 

Chris Washburn, a first round draft pick in 1986, was a long time admirer of Bias, and the two became friends before a matchup between The Terrapins and the Wolfpack. While in town for Barnstorming, Bias made a point of visiting his fellow ACC athlete. 

Washburn was a sophomore at N.C. State when he heard a knock on his door late one night. Standing there was his idol, Len Bias. “I had a 7:50 class that morning…let’s just say I never made it to that class,” Washburn recently said in an interview. According to the former NBA player, that was the night Bias introduced him to cocaine, a drug that destroyed his promising career. 

After being drafted third overall by the Golden State Warriors, Washburn played all of 72 games, eventually being banned by the league after failing three drug tests. He often tops the list for biggest draft busts in NBA history. 

His struggles with addiction led to jail sentences, homeless shelters and 14 stints in rehab. Washburn eventually got clean, a job coaching youth leagues and opened up a restaurant in his hometown, but he’s no stranger to rock bottom. 

Washburn says his decision to experiment with cocaine for the first time was largely due to the fact that it was Len Bias suggesting he try it, dismantling the myth that the night Bias died was the only time he’d used the drug. 

Bias’ death two days after the 1986 NBA Draft – when he was picked second overall by the Boston Celtics, one spot behind Brad Daugherty of North Carolina, one ahead of Washburn and eight in front of Dawkins – caused a restructuring of Maryland’s athletic department, turned the lives of his teammates upside down and even helped pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

Though Bias is most commonly remembered simply as an otherworldly talent who made a fatal misstep – the main character in an epic tragedy. The first round draft pick’s place as a superstar on Red Auerbach’s dream team was never a reality, and instead, Bias became a kind of mythic figure.  

It’s hard not to sensationalize the untimely death of a talented young man, and it’s true that his story is a powerful one that illustrates the dangers of drug use and the importance of smart decision making. Like his mother, Lonise Bias, who’s now a motivational speaker has said, “[Len] was able to do more in death than he was in life.” 

Though in the attempts to paint Bias as nothing more than a tragic figure, we lose sight of the fact that he was a college aged man in his twenties who displayed humanity as he fumbled his way into adulthood. The stories told by those whose lives he impacted during the Barnstorming Tour of 1986 reveal the complexities of someone who’s too often remembered solely for his spectacular talent and fatal mistake.

The legacy of Bias is a complicated one, and the ACC Barnstorming Tour of 1986 is a perfect example of this.