Archive for July, 2021

Reflections on Kobe Bryant’s Death and Len Bias’s Legacy

July 27, 2021

By Kevin F. McNulty

GoGrady Media Correspondent

Len Bias at Maryland // The Washington Post via Getty Images

I remember exactly where I was when I learned that Kobe Bryant died on January 26, 2020. I was waiting for a flight at Chicago’s O’hare Airport, and I saw a man sitting near me turn toward his friend. 

“Dude, Kobe Bryant died,” he said. 

Of course, I didn’t believe him. There’s no way, I thought. How could that be? But I opened my phone to check Twitter, and it was true. Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash along with eight others. 

I was 18 at the time, and the news came as an unbelievable shock. One of the greatest athletes from my childhood, although retired, was dead. 

It’s remarkable that the death of someone whom I never met, and someone whom I wasn’t a particularly big fan of, could shake me to the core. But that’s exactly what happened on that cold January day. 

At that moment, I felt too stunned to even think about what Bryant meant to me, our country or the basketball world, and I can only imagine how that feeling was accentuated for Bryant’s biggest fans. 

As a lifelong basketball fan, that day tops my list of “Where were you?” moments (I was only an infant at the time of the September 11th attacks). But for millions of basketball fans from a different generation, their top “Where were you?” moment came on the morning of June 19, 1986 — the day Len Bias died. 

Bryant’s death differed from Bias’s in one key way: his professional basketball career was over, while Bias’s was just beginning. Bryant had a whole lot more life to live, but his legacy as a hall of fame basketball player was cemented. 

Bias was preparing to shape his own legacy, then, after he died of a cocaine overdose at age 22, it was shaped for him. 

That’s exactly what punched Bias’s fans directly in the gut. When he was drafted 2nd overall by the NBA champion Boston Celtics on June 17, everything was in front of him. When he was pronounced dead less than 48 hours later, everything was gone. 

Last month marked the 35th anniversary of Bias’s untimely death. While working as an intern for GoGrady Media on a podcast series about his legacy this summer, I was assigned to comb through the comment section of a Washington Post article about how Bias’s story still resonates, searching for comments that shared both good and bad memories of Bias. 

I was blown away by what I read. 

There were more than 100 comments on the article, and nearly a third of them provided personal reflections on Bias’s playing days at Maryland and the aftermath of his death. 

Some Post subscribers simply shared their reaction to learning what happened, demonstrating that the news affected everyone differently. 

“[I] still remember where I was when I heard the news,” one commenter wrote. “I was a Maryland alum going to graduate school at UNC. Heard it on the radio and had to pull over.” 

The comments showed that it didn’t matter if people knew Len personally, because they thought they knew how his story would play out. They thought he would become a star for one of the greatest franchises in professional sports. 

When that was no longer possible, confusion and disbelief hit hard. And those feelings didn’t go away overnight. 

“I remember being shocked at the news as I sat at my parents’ kitchen table shortly after graduating from HS,” another one wrote. “I started at UMCP 2 months later and still remember how much it dominated campus life for a good while.”

I imagine this commenter sitting at his parents’ kitchen table similarly to how I sat in the airport in January 2020 — with his jaw as low as it could go and his body unwilling to move. 

And as a current University of Maryland student, I can attest that reminders of Bias and the tragedy persist all over campus. 

It’s impossible to attend a Maryland basketball game without seeing hundreds of Bias jerseys scattered among the Xfinity Center crowd. It’s impossible to walk past Cole Field House and not think of its best days — when Bias played there. And it’s impossible to walk past Washington Hall and not think of June 19, 1986. 

For fans both new and old, his story resonates.

“It still strikes viscerally with me as I remember the entire episode,” commenter ‘jbull’ wrote. “For those of us who are hard-core Terps fans dating back to the late 60s it still resonates and it is actually uplifting to know that perhaps there are positive lessons that can come out of it.”

Some subscribers wrote about those lessons in their comments. Bias’s death served as a warning to some, especially those who looked up to him. 

“I was an aspiring high school basketball player in the 80’s and Len Bias was one of my idols,” someone wrote. “After learning of death by cocaine, I swore to myself right then and there in my parents house that I would never ever touch cocaine. And I never have.”

The lessons aren’t limited to people who grew up in the 1980s, however. As long as someone wants to tell his story, young people can continue to learn from what happened. 

It’s difficult to think of a tragedy that has helped more people, and that’s part of the reason why his story is still being told in 2021. We all want to shape our own legacy, so we keep Bias’s legacy alive. 

Len Bias gave a lot during his 22 years of life, but he’s given more, to more people, in his 35 years of death.