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The Wrong Comparison

I love the NBA draft. Most people are obsessive compulsive about the NFL draft, memorizing 40 times, shuttle run times, vertical leaps, etc. Not me, I live for the oversized posses, the suits covering all the colors in the rainbow, tremendous upside potential and bow ties. I love finding out who is going to be this year’s Latrell Spreewell, Kenny Anderson, or Chris Kaman (Gerald Henderson, Brandon Jennings, and BJ Mullins, respectively). The one comparison I have heard a few times has stopped me cold, Blake Griffin to Len Bias.

Most casual fans probably look at the second name and think, who is that? Len Bias is a name that is now synonymous with tragedy and unfulfilled potential and only brought up every five years on the anniversary of his death. The next time we’ll see stories about Bias airing on SportsCenter or Outside the Lines and online columns posted about him won’t be until 2011, probably in June, right before the NBA draft and right before the 25th anniversary of Len Bias’s death. I’m not waiting until then, because Len Bias’s story can not be brought up enough, even if it breaks my heart as a basketball fan and a person every time I hear it.

Len Bias’s life was cut short when he was about to fulfill his dream. He was about to lead a dynasty into its next generation and become the face of the Boston Celtics, the most successful franchise in NBA history. In 1986, the Celtics were coming off a championship season in which they were 67-15 and finished 50-1 at the Boston Garden. Only two of Boston’s 15 losses were handed to them by a team that won more than 50 games. Larry Bird had just won his third consecutive MVP award. Naturally, Red Auerbach had made a move with the Seattle Supersonics two years before that gave Boston the second pick in the NBA draft.

Bias was a 6’8” 210-pound small forward with explosive athleticism. He was far and away the most can’t miss selection of the 1986 draft. He had just been unanimously selected first team All-America and the ACC Athlete of the Year. Former Duke forward Mark Alarie called Bias “the best athlete I’ve ever seen, and that includes Michael Jordan.” That is high praise from someone who played against the GOAT and Bias at similar points in their careers. A top performer on the verge of seeing his dream and career take off, only to have it taken away by a cruel twist of fate – reminds me of another story I’ve heard in a different entertainment arena. It sounds like the story of the Notorious B.I.G.

Like Bias, the Notorious B.I.G. had more potential than just about anyone who ever practiced his craft. Bias could do things on the basketball court that just about no one else would even think possible. If you don’t believe me about Bias, check out this video and tell me who else would have the ability, awareness, athleticism and body control to pull that play off at Bias’s size, the list is no longer than maybe two or three. Listen to the song Ready to Die by Biggie, I can’t think of anyone else that could pull that song off. With Bird and Magic Johnson at the top of their games, the NBA had reached heights that seemed nearly impossible just six years prior when the Finals were broadcast on a tape delay. Bias and Jordan represented the rivalry that would continue to propel basketball’s astronomical popularity in the next generation of stars. Rap had reached new heights as well; Tupac Shakur had given the genre a star that masses of fans identified with. Def Jam was continuing its run at the top and

Biggie was about give New York its undisputed King.

Bad Boy, a label that already had Craig Mack as a star, had signed Biggie and was about to explode before a fateful night stopped everything suddenly. Just like Biggie said, they both had their tragic nights when they “dropped unexpectedly like bird s***.” The Ready to Die album was Biggie’s coming out party, when he announced his presence and made the leap from prospect to bonafide superstar. It was like Bias’s senior season at Maryland when he averaged 23.2 points and seven rebounds per game. At that point in their careers it wasn’t about whether they would take their place among the greats, but when. All they needed was time, a luxury that neither of them would be afforded.

Both Bias and the Notorious B.I.G. had challengers in their possible ascent to their throne. Tupac Shakur shared much in common with Big, both coming up in Brooklyn with lyrical gifts seen in few before them. Both raised in poor households and saw no way out of poverty until they were taken in by a mentor who gave them the opportunity to shine, Sean “Puffy” Combs for Biggie and Shock G from Digital Underground for Tupac. Shakur had been obsessed with bringing down Biggie in the year leading up to his death, was not going to let Bad Boy take over the rap world without a fight. He had done everything in his power – from releasing dis tracks to making claims about an affair with Biggie’s wife - to derail Big’s ascent. In the end, Tupac went on to release several posthumous albums that sold millions upon millions of copies. Shakur will go down as the best selling rap artist of all time. Shakur accomplished this with some stiff competition, Dr. Dre, Nas, The Wu-Tang Clan to name a few, but managed to do it without running into much resistance from his most talented challenger – the Notorious B.I.G.

Bias had Michael Jordan. MJ had been in the league for two years, and his Bulls gave the Celtics as many problems a team could have during a sweep. Jordan dropped 63 on the Celtics in the Boston Garden and pushed them to double overtime – no small feat against a team that had looked invincible in the building all year. Bias was the Celtics response to Jordan’s astronomical rise. Get a freakish athlete to stop a freakish athlete. Both had burst on to the national scene in the ACC under legendary coaches, Dean Smith for Jordan and Lefty Driesell for Bias. Each had won an ACC player of the year award and named 1st- team All-America, bit Bias was bigger. Bias had the same swagger and confidence that Jordan possessed and he may have been the only person that could match up with him not only athletically but ability-wise as well. Jordan faced plenty of legends, Barkley, Drexler, Johnson, Payton, Malone and Stockton, and was well noted for his obsession with trying to destroy anyone who thought they could compete with him. Bias was different, he was destined to be the Russell to his Chamberlain, the Bird to his Johnson, the Biggie to his Tupac. Brad Daugherty was even destined to be the Sam Bowie of the 1986 draft, he had the injuries and all.

Two nights after being drafted second by Boston, Bias was on the University of Maryland campus celebrating with friends. Some of details are still hazy, but one certainty is Bias made some bad decisions that cost him everything. The Fame, fortune, and tragically, his life were over. Someone had busted out some cocaine during the celebration, Bias did a line, maybe two, maybe ten, no one really knows. However many it was, it was one too many. He lapsed into cardiac arrest while his friends began to panic. They called 911, and told the operator someone had to come, someone had to save their friend. This was Len Bias, this can’t happen to him. Of all the truly haunting things I have heard or seen, this may be the one that sticks with me the most. Here was this man-child, still just 22 years old, dying right in front of them. How could this happen? Why couldn’t it be them? If it was his first time trying cocaine, as many have maintained, was this a fair punishment for some experimenting? I can’t imagine there is a more helpless and terrifying moment than seeing a friend shaking and foaming at the mouth with his life slipping away from him just a couple of days after seeing his dream realized. Someone so young, so strong, with such a bright future, this couldn’t possibly be justice. Unfortunately, justice isn’t always as fair as it seems, dreams and potential aren’t always realized. Bright futures don’t always lead to sunny days down the road, nor do they promise any future at all.

I imagine that helplessness Bias’s friends felt was similar to feeling that Combs felt as he heard gunshots fired into the car behind him. The same feeling he had after the doctors informed him and Big’s family that the bullets that shred through his oversized body shred up any plans and dreams B.I.G. had.

As a basketball fan and a hip-hop fan, I can’t help but think what would be had both individuals lived up to their endless potential. I can’t help but think what would be had a few unfortunate events had unfolding differently. But that’s not the way it is. People will always look for the next Jordan, the next Ludacris or the next Shaq. Many will be unfairly tagged with these titles only to fall short. But the comparisons that are truly not fair are the ones like Len Bias and The Notorious B.I.G. Anyone can be labeled the next Jamal Crawford – as Tyreke Evans has been by – and we can see how the comparisons play out over their career. Comparing someone to Len Bias is truly unfair, and not to be taken lightly, because no one can say what would have been. All that will ever be are dreams, what ifs and too many broken lives. Many say there will never be another Michael Jordan or another Larry Bird, the only player that we will never see again is Len Bias, at least I hope so.

- Patrick Bauch


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