Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Len Bias, our Own Mortality, and the Choices we Make

By Charlie Scaturro

With what would have been his 50th birthday yesterday, the shock of Len Bias’ tragic passing has abated quite a bit. Time can’t completely heal this wound, but at least we have some perspective on the death of Len Bias nearly 30 years later.

Having never seen him play, I can’t take a few grainy highlights and anecdotes about his awe-inspiring physical abilities and even attempt to extrapolate what it might have meant in the context of NBA history (besides, that’s been done by much better writers than me). And even though I wasn’t around to see Len Bias play, I think what we’re looking at when considering Bias’ death after stripping away the basketball side of the equation is valuable in many ways.

Ultimately, Bias’ untimely death combines the heartbreak of unrealized potential with a reminder of our own mortality (not to mention the feeling of being completely and utterly powerless to help a situation). A combination that’s enough to make most people stop and think for at least 15 minutes before they go back to occupying themselves with something a bit less depressing.

If you believe in this sort of thing, there’s little doubt that Len Bias was put on the earth to play basketball at an extremely high level. The idea of him potentially challenging Michael Jordan isn’t something that should be delved too far into as far as I’m concerned, because at the time, there was no “Michael Jordan” as we’ve come to know him today. Just a lanky 6’6’’ kid from North Carolina who had amazing potential, but one who wasn’t even the consensus first overall pick of the 1984 NBA Draft, and in fact, was not the first overall pick of the 1984 Draft. Sam Bowie jokes aside; we’ll never know how great Bias could have been, or whether he would’ve challenged Jordan, and that’s really not important nearly 30 years later.

Nor do I really think this is about cocaine anymore. At the time, Bias’ death was a wake up call for many about just how harmful drugs can be and he became the poster child for drug related tragedies, but if we haven’t learned from Bias’ death and other similar drug-related deaths during the past 30 years, odds are we never will.

At this point nearly 30 years later, he was a transcendent person taken way too early. And now, almost 30 years removed from the tragedy of his passing, it’s almost not even about basketball anymore. It’s more about a young man who seemingly had everything going for him in the prime of his life, in perfect human physical condition, who was suddenly gone. That a seemingly indestructible 6’8’’ 210-pound Bias, who was on the precipice of greatness, could suddenly drop dead is a sobering thought to all of us who are more or less regular people living regular lives. And it certainly serves as a reminder that when your time is up, your time is up, and not only is there no telling when that might be, there’s nothing that can be done about it.

The unrealized potential of the whole situation (and anyone’s life, more importantly) is one of the worst things to witness given how tantalizing and frustrating it can be to know that someone like Bias no doubt would have been able to combine his basketball skills and magnetic persona into something that would have been nearly limitless.

It’s even worse when the unrealized potential in a given situation is largely a product of your own doing. Of course in the case of Len Bias, there’s also something to be said for just plain old bad luck. How many people have used cocaine in the same manner Len Bias did on the night he died? Whatever that manner was, I would guess hundreds of thousands. Hell, the people Bias was with when his heart stopped were assumedly snorting cocaine from the same pile he was, and they walked away from that night just fine (at least physically).

But Bias didn’t. And with his passing, we were all reminded, perhaps only subconsciously, that a similar fate awaits everyone on this earth some day.

Taking away the unimaginable sadness of the life and death of Len Bias, it’s a good lesson for everyone. Sometimes, life doesn’t make sense, and there’s little we can do about it. And that’s okay.

Here’s the part where I should probably leave you with something inspirational like “make the most of today, because you never know what will happen” but we’ve all heard that before and nobody needs another lecture about making the most of what’s in front of them. What I will say however, is that making the most of whatever opportunities you may have is your choice. Just like it was Len Bias’ choice to celebrate the way he did on the night of June 18th, 1986. The fact that we have the ability to make these choices is an infinitely beautiful, though not unlimited, thing. Even when the outcome of these choices may not be.

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