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The Death of Len Bias and the Rise of Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentences

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On Thursday, May 19th, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan quietly signed legislation that (among other provisions) completely eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession crimes. Maryland is now one of nearly two dozen states to do away with a policy that has been blamed for today’s mass incarceration crisis, flooding America’s prisons with tens of thousands of nonviolent, low-level offenders over the past three decades.

But as Maryland emerges at the forefront of sentencing reform, it’s worth revisiting the origins of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which require lengthy automatic prison terms for small-time crimes. As it happens that story is also set in Maryland and stars one of its former favorite sons: Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball star who some called the next Michael Jordan. Bias was selected number two overall in the 1986 NBA draft — thirty years ago this month — by the reigning champion Boston Celtics. Sadly, he would never play in the NBA. His untimely death from a cocaine-induced heart attack just two days after the draft rattled the nation, prompting Congress to push through a rash of anti-drug legislation that hugely escalated the nation’s War On Drugs.

On June 17th, 1986 — draft day — Len Bias couldn’t stop smiling. He must have felt deeply how far he had come — a ropey-limbed late bloomer once cut from his junior high basketball team, the 6’8’’ power forward seemed set for NBA stardom, and, unlike most first round draft picks, would be contending for a championship his rookie season, playing alongside aging superstars Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. Seen as Bird’s heir apparent, Bias was expected to become a franchise player. “My first dream was to play in the NBA, but getting drafted by the world champions is an extra one,” he told reporters, grinning and cramming a Celtics cap onto his head during a post-draft press conference in Madison Square Garden.

Bias was a versatile player, closer to the modern point forwards that dominate today’s game than to his bigger, slower contemporaries, and he was coming off a season that saw him go from a second-team All-American to arguably the best college player in the country, averaging 23.2 points and 7 rebounds per game. During his time at Maryland he traded baskets with future Hall of Famers David Robinson and Michael Jordan (in his second year in the NBA during Bias’ senior year). An inside-outside threat with an absurd jumping ability, at times Bias seemed to literally rise over his opponents. Once, after going in for a dunk, he jumped so high that he scraped his head on the bottom of the backboard. In overtime of a memorable game against UNC earlier that year — in a sequence that’s often cited as confirmation of his future greatness — Bias hit a long jumper, then, sprinting back to the baseline, seemingly in one motion intercepted the inbounds pass — and soared into a reverse dunk. Maryland took over the game, handing the Tar Heels a rare home loss. Bias, who finished the game with 35 points, had basically beaten them single-handedly.

“He’s maybe the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in a long time,” said Celtics scout Ed Badger following the draft. “I’m not saying he’s as good as Michael Jordan, but he’s an explosive and exciting kind of player like that.”

Two days later, Bias was dead.

In his college days, Bias’ Maryland teammates nicknamed him “horse” for his long stride and his ability to carry his team. This was also his last word, uttered as he sat up in bed in an on-campus Maryland apartment, a moment before he bent over a mirror and snorted one last line of cocaine after a night of post-draft partying (“I can handle it. I’m a horse”).

Bias’ aura of invincibility, his utter physical domination on the court, heightens arguably the saddest image of the Bias saga, an image etched (for most of us) not in memory but in imagination, a continual replay: in a haze of pre-seizure confusion, Bias stumbles from the bed toward the bathroom before collapsing. The droopy-eyed kid with the ridiculous hang-time was gone almost as quickly as he had arrived.

I say arguably because a few years later Bias’ little brother Jay, one of the nation’s top basketball recruits, was shot to death after an altercation in a shopping mall. In a TV interview following his youngest son’s death James Bias accidentally referred to Jay as Lenny, realized his mistake, then walked away, fighting back tears.

Today Bias represents a colossal what-if in sports history. He’s remembered as one of the best players never to play in the NBA. Mike Krzyzewski would later refer to him as one of the two most dominant players in ACC history, the other being Jordan. We’ll never know how Bias’ Celtics would have matched up with Jordan’s Bulls. The aging and injury-prone Celtics managed to make the 1987 NBA finals, but they wouldn’t play in another final until 1998. Yet it’s Bias’ concrete, lesser-known legacy that is infinitely more maddening, that extends beyond a family and a franchise’s devastation.

At the time of Bias’ death cocaine was thought of as a relatively harmless party drug. His death stripped us of this particular illusion. Almost overnight, drug abuse became the seminal issue in Washington. If Bias, invincible on the court, could die of cocaine use, so could anyone. “Members of Congress were setting up hearings about the drug problem and every subcommittee chairman was looking to get in on the action,” recalled Eric Sterling, counsel to the House Judiciary Committee at the time. “People were talking about Len Bias at every press conference and it was all tied together — the Len Bias tragedy, the potency of drugs and how it was killing America’s youth.”

Amid the ensuing political hysteria President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 into law, one of the first significant legislative moves in the nation’s drug war. (Bias has been called the “Archduke Franz Ferdinand” in the War On Drugs). Often referred to as the Len Bias law, the bill created mandatory minimum prison sentences for anyone caught with even small amounts of cocaine. It also set mandatory sentences for crack cocaine possession at 1/100th the amount of powder cocaine (5 grams to 500 grams) — a sentencing disparity that unfairly targets poor, black communities. Nevermind that Bias’ didn’t die freebasing crack cocaine. Enough media outlets had gotten it wrong. It was part of the narrative now. The most dangerous drug in America. The issue of the year.

None of this is to trivialize the damage done by crack cocaine, particularly in the DC area, where, 30 years ago, crack was so commonplace that dealers sold the cheap, potent drug at open-air markets in poor, black communities without fear of police. But ultimately the law has done little to protect young men and women like Bias. Instead of neutralizing high-level traffickers, the act has put thousands of nonviolent offenders, most of whom are black or Hispanic, in jail. In some cases they serve more time for possession than convicted murderers.

Consider the case of Derrick Curry. In 1990 Curry, a friend and former teammate of Jay Bias, was sentenced to 19 years in jail after he was caught in possession of a one pound rock of crack. Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 possession of five grams of crack results in a mandatory five year sentence, longer for greater amounts. At Curry’s sentencing even the judge expressed remorse at handing down such a disproportionate prison term. It made no difference that Curry, just shy of his 20th birthday, was a first-time offender. The judge’s hands were tied. At the time of his arrest Curry was being recruited by Division I basketball programs. And though he ended up serving eight-and-a-half years of his original sentence, by the time he got out in 2001 his basketball days were behind him.

Some of the cases are even more egregious. Timothy Tyler has been in jail since 1994 for selling 5.2 grams of LSD (10 grams counting the blotter paper), an amount that triggers a life sentence on a third felony drug offense. In 2012 Ronald Hammond was sentenced to 20 years in prison over 5.9 grams of pot. Last week Weldon Angelos was released after serving 12 years of a controversial 55-year sentence for selling marijuana three times while possessing a firearm. The list goes on.

In early May President Obama commuted the sentences of 58 inmates serving mandatory sentences in federal prisons for drug-related crimes. Angelos, Tyler, and Hammond were not among them. Still, Obama has now commuted the sentences of 306 people, more than the previous six presidents combined. Meanwhile the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — a bill which would reduce mandatory sentences for certain crimes –is currently making its way through Congress, though it has yet to be voted on. And, while this is progress, many nonviolent offenders are still serving excessively long sentences and could spend the rest of their lives in prison.

It’s difficult, given what we know, to watch footage of Bias’ triumphs without some degree of hindsight. It’s fun for instance to rewatch his 35-point outing against a Jordan-less UNC. But because narrative is impossible to resist, it’s an earlier match-up, two years previous, also against UNC, that seems more resonant.

In 1984 Michael Jordan was already a star. Bias was Maryland’s rising sophomore and hoping to do his part to keep the regular season game close. There’s a memorable possession at the beginning of the second half in which Bias elevates, hanging in midair while also somehow moving forward, propelling himself over two defenders, who shrink and step aside. The shot lands and so does he, prompting the announcer to declare him one of the best basketball players in the country.

Bias finished that game with 24 points, Jordan with 21, but his team was still two years away from being good enough to beat UNC. Jordan delivered in crunch time, coming up with his biggest shots, rebounds, and steals at the end of the game, as UNC put Maryland away. The game’s final moments seem retroactively tragic. You can catch the sequence on YouTube, the footage blurry but serviceable:

With less than a minute in regulation UNC’s Matt Doherty misses a free throw. Bias leaps, tilting backward to grab the rebound, then lands, elbows out, his back to the hoop. His eyes are already scanning down court. But Jordan is there too and from behind he pokes the ball out of Bias’ grip. The angle of the camera obscures Jordan and to the viewer the ball shoots out of Bias’ hands as if it had a will of its own. For a split second Bias stands open-palmed, wondering what hit him, confused and grasping for something that was so formerly there.

Len Bias’ loss continues to pain NBA fans, and will no doubt be discussed as the NBA draft and the anniversary of his death looms. But, in the wake of unprecedented bipartisan support for sentencing reform, it’s imperative that the legal ramifications of his death also work their way into the national consciousness.

In 1986, the federal prison population was 21,000. Today, it’s 214,000.

More than half of federal prisoners are brought in on drug charges.

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