Death, drugs and the draft: ‘30 for 30’ volume 1, episode 5 recap

30 for 30 Len Bias's tragic death
ESPN Films/Courtesy

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Content warning: drug misuse

I could call this the great end to a week living in the time of the coronavirus. 

Only a few days ago, I learned how to correctly swing a golf club, something that seems to be taking Charles Barkley his whole life to figure out. 

Could it be my ridiculous hand-eye coordination or confident stature? Maybe even my egotistical attitude? All correct answers. 

If I could break it down simply for you, my swing looked like Tiger Woods’, if every time he wound up, Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” started playing faintly in the background. 

Yeah, that good. So far, nothing really could ruin this week. The NBA has gone into the bubble, and I’m finally looking at never-before-seen media instead of the recycled stuff every sports outlet is posting. 

I also get to write this blog for the fifth week in a row. Really wholesome stuff going on.

The only thing putting a damper on things? The content of this week’s episode.

Let’s get after it.


Volume 1, Episode 5: “Without Bias”

This episode features the truly tragic story of the passing of what might have been an extraordinary basketball player.

Len Bias — the basketball star who checked all the right boxes, whose work ethic exceeded many others’ and whose demeanor was respected by everyone — was headline news days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics, and not for being the second overall pick in 1986.

The film definitely presents itself as a memorial documentary, focusing primarily on the nights leading up to and the days after the death of Bias.

I think the story of Bias is inspiring, but the film felt a lot like a “Dateline” episode, which I don’t think properly conveyed what a force Bias could have been on the court.

There is a lot of detail on the actual incident — the documentary discloses that Bias was a casual user of cocaine, which many of his friends and family members didn’t know.

Bias, who got the drug from his friend Brian Tribble, apparently had ingested pure cocaine (in the 98% ballpark), which can be incredibly detrimental, if not lethal, if ingested in the amount Bias took.

After Bias took the drug, he had a seizure, which impeded the brain function that controlled his heartbeat, causing him to stop breathing. He was later pronounced dead at Leland Memorial Hospital on June 19, 1986, just two days after being drafted.

An immense amount of mourning and support poured in from all over the country, including from sports legends Larry Bird, Michael Jordan — who Bias was impressively compared to in college — and Red Auerbach, then-president of the Celtics.

Bias’ University of Maryland teammates and coach Lefty Driesell were publicly castigated for not knowing about Bias’ drug use.

The media unfairly painted Tribble as a villain who killed the “next big thing,” but he was eventually acquitted of charges brought against him related to Bias’ death. He later served 10 years in prison for drug dealing based on findings from a two-year undercover sting operation.

This situation, as lawmaker Eric Sterling pointed out, was the beginning of an era in the late ’80s that saw the incarceration of an insurmountable number of people of color for petty drug crimes.

On Dec. 5, 1990, Bias’ younger brother Jay Bias was murdered near his car outside of a mall.

The timing is just unbelievable.

I couldn’t pick anything positive out of this incredibly sad story, really, but something did run through my ears that I thought I misheard, and I had to rewind.

In what was literally a shot into left field, and what my television subtitles described as “brassy funk music,” the heartbreaking documentary goes on a three-minute, strangely movielike montage about how cocaine was the “elite” drug in the ’80s.

This quote from Curt Savage, a former nightclub promoter, is just mind-blowing.

“The superstars were using it. You know, you had a lot of ballplayers, football players, boxers. You had everybody doing a little bit of something.”

Woah, woah, woah. Timeout. Stop the presses. Hold the line. Put a cork in it. Rewind that.

What did you just say, Curt?

Did you just blatantly and casually throw out that “back in the day,” when some of the *yawn* best moments in sports took place, some of our favorite Hall of Famers — dare I say — used drugs such as cocaine regularly?

How can this film air and nobody discuss that knockout punch Curt Savage just threw at our jaws?

I have so many questions. Who? Where? Prove it, Curt, I dare you.

Jordan said this exact same thing in his own documentary, “The Last Dance” — when he first arrived in the NBA as a rookie, how some of his very own teammates regularly did cocaine around him.

And you know what, after hearing both of these testimonies from people in completely different but well-known crafts, I’m convinced that the NBA and NFL were littered with drug misuse all throughout the ’80s, and most likely the ’90s, too.

Jan Volk, former general manager of the Celtics, admitted that even if Bias’ drug test was positive for cocaine, they likely would have drafted him anyway.

Excuse me?

I didn’t want to make this blog with my tinfoil hat on, but I’d be somewhat of a fool not to call out these monstrous leagues — I’ll need a legal team, though.

There is just no way you can justify multiple star athletes’ alleged recreational abuse of narcotics and hate on Barry Bonds for using performance enhancers. That is the definition of hypocritical.

Something was awry in the sports world’s “heyday,” and the fact that it took Len Bias, a player I hadn’t heard of before watching the documentary, to reveal it to me is a mystery that I plan on digging into.

Bias’ story is a horrible tragedy, but the thought that certain individuals in his close circle, and possibly his future teammates, were also consuming hard drugs is the real shroud of secrecy I’m imploring to find out about.

These are the kinds of circumstances I think I’ll need a lawyer for.

Lucas Perkins-Brown covers lacrosse. Contact him at [email protected].