NBA's drug-riddled draft in 1986 serves as cautionary tale

Jun 20 2011 - 4:21pm

DETROIT -- Twenty-five years ago Sunday, Len Bias died -- and with him, the false serenity that star athletes who lived right were somehow immune from the frailties and temptations that could doom a less disciplined person.

It's still a story that leaves you shaking your head. One mistake, one moment of reckless experimentation brought down a life thought indestructible during four glorious basketball years at Maryland.

Just two days earlier, Bias was the second overall selection in the NBA draft, going to the newly crowned NBA champion Boston Celtics.

How perfect for him and the NBA. Bias would become that transitional star as Larry Bird's back started showing cracks, keeping the Celtics among the elite.

After his introductory news conference, Bias returned to his campus dormitory for a private celebration with friends. By all accounts, Bias was a good kid who generally did all the right things. Someone suggested he try a hit of cocaine. Never did it. But how could one time hurt, they reasoned? Losing his drug virginity might even help him better acclimate to an NBA still deeply entrenched in a drug culture in 1986.

Bias collapsed in his dorm room from cardiac arrest.

He was dead at 22.

Bias' tragedy remains the indelible mark of the 1986 draft, but his wasn't the only tale of drug-related woe among those high draft picks. It's important that the league not forget the star-crossed stories, if only as a reminder to those selected in the lottery in this week's draft that common sense can never take even one night off. The consequences could be devastating.

Chris Washburn was the third overall pick, going to Golden State. But he played only two seasons before he failed a drug test for the third time and was permanently banned.

Phoenix took William Bedford with the sixth overall pick. The Pistons later traded a first-round draft pick for Bedford, believing that within the proper team environment, he could control the compulsive behavior that led to his persistent problems with cocaine. It didn't work. Bedford was kicked out of the NBA after six unimpressive seasons. He's currently serving a 10-year prison term at a federal corrections facility in Texas for transporting 25 pounds of marijuana.

Dallas tabbed former Detroit Cooley and Michigan star Roy Tarpley immediately after Bedford. He lasted six seasons as well before drug abuse got him banned for life. Tarpley eventually won a lawsuit settlement against the Mavericks and the NBA.

The 1986 draft further embedded the public sentiment that the NBA was nothing more than a bunch of drug-addled thugs. Twenty five years later, it's hard for the NBA to completely shake that negative reputation.

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