How the 1980s crack epidemic changed the course of League History


Crack has destroyed entire NBA Franchises, turning once potential Dynasties into struggling organizations. It’s ability to turn once great athletes into shells of their former selves is unchallenged in the world of opioids. There is no doubt that this highly addictive substance has had a hand in changing the flow of NBA History but no era was more affected than the 80s.

As adolescents, I’m sure we’ve all been told to stay away from drugs. All drugs have different purposes and affect people in different ways. The common street drugs, Weed, meth and heroin all vary in their ability to destroy lives. But one drug not previously listed has destroyed countless sports careers. Yes, I’m talking about Cocaine.

Notable athletes that have succumbed to this notoriously lethal opioid include Ralph Sampson, John Lucas, and the infamous Len Bias. Players saw their primes cut in half and some even lost their lives in this epidemic. In this series, we will backtrack through time and revisit this dark time in league history. This is all in an attempt to repaint NBA history as it could have been without this dark shadow cast upon the league.


Len Bias is one of the biggest what-if stories in NBA history. Bias the standout forward at Maryland was everything you could want in a star player.

Bias was one of the premier talents in college basketball. Standing at 6 foot 8 Bias was a very skilled yet physically imposing specimen. During his collegiate career, he and North Carolina Tarheel Michael Jordan were often compared to each other. Jordan after his junior year declared for the historic 84 NBA Draft.

Bias who was one year younger than Jordan stayed all 4 years in college. Throughout his collegiate career, he averaged 16.4 points 5.7 rebounds and 1.3 assists. Those stats are deflated due to a somewhat subpar freshman year. His senior year would serve as the cherry on top as he averaged 23.2 Points 1 Assist and 7 rebounds all while shooting an efficient 54 percent from the field. During his tenure in the NCAA, he was a 2-time consensus All American, 2 Time ACC player of the year, and an ACC Tournament MVP.

After his senior year, Bias entered the 86 NBA Draft. On June 17th, 1986 in Madison Square Garden Len Bias was taken 2nd overall by the Boston Celtics. That same Boston Celtics team had just defeated the Houston Rockets in the 1986 NBA Finals and is considered one of the greatest rosters top to bottom in league history. After the draft, Bias went back home to the University of Maryland to celebrate. 2 days later on June 19th, 1986 Len Bias was pronounced dead at the Leland Memorial Hospital. There were traces of pure cocaine in his system. In tragic fashion, his brother Jay Bias was murdered 4 years later.

The death of Len Bias sent a shockwave throughout the Basketball community. Not one player went unaffected emotionally by his death. But the biggest impact was what happened on the court. The Celtics the next year faced a tough road back to the finals, just squeezing past the Bad Boys pistons to win the East. In the Finals, they fell to their sworn rival the Los Angeles Lakers in 6 games. While it would be wrong to assume that Bias would have been as good or better than MJ it’s certainly possible. But for the purpose of not being extreme let’s just say that Len Bias has production similar to Dominique Wilkins.

While he wouldn’t have started over the big 3 he most likely would have still received significant minutes and therefore would be the favorite for the sixth man of the year award. With a player with his scoring prowess an extra 20 points, night would have tipped the balance back towards the Celtics and they would have won their 17th championship. Instead, they lost and never made the finals again until 2008.

The presence of a talent like Bias could have been the difference between the Celtics defeating the Bad Boy Pistons 88. The landscape of the NBA would be changed forever. Larry Bird and the rest of the big 3 could have taken a step back as Bias emerged as one of the premier talents in the NBA. Taking into account that Larry legend played his last seasons in constant pain with extremely serious back problems having a talent like Bias would have extended his career. There’s a chance that if Bias had survived Michael Jordan wouldn’t have 6 rings. Larry Bird already has 3 rings and 3 MVPs. With those extra rings and an extended prime, we could be talking about Larry Bird as the greatest player to ever live right now.

There’s no way we can ever know for sure, but it’s certain that the Death of Len Bias due to a cocaine overdose changed the landscape of the league as we know it.


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