I also remember how I felt when I learned Len Bias died. In his case, it was a cocaine overdose after celebrating being picked third by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft. In retrospect, it seems pretty easy to recall performance on the part of Bias and other Maryland players that suggests that cocaine use was a major problem. But Bias was still beautiful to watch. No one has ever dunked with more fervor. His reverse slams were unparalleled. And his turn-around jump shot from the baseline was even more remarkable, though I didn't recognize it at the time. Anyway, I really projected onto Len. He was featured in our local Prince George's County paper, because not only was he playing college ball in the county, he had also gone to high school there, I think in Hyattsville. The story talked about his artistic talent and his desire to become an interior architect. Since I was thinking along similar lines for myself, the fact that he wasn't just one of those players who has no interest in school really registered for me.
We were on vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains, our last family trip before I was to go to Germany as an exchange student. The night of the draft, I watched the sports news in our motel room and was happy for Len. The next morning, we walked across a dewy field to get breakfast and I let visions of Bias in a Celtics uniform flit through my brain. And then we went inside. There were newspapers on display with the news. And I was just so stunned. It was really hard to take, what with my post-graduation euphoria and visions of the future suddenly darkened by needless death.
I've returned to Len's death on numerous occasions, but three stand out:
1) After my year in Germany, I was in New York with my host brothers Christian and Markus, who had come to the States for a vacation. Christian wanted to sleep, but Markus wanted to go back out and explore Times Square. He became fascinated by a thirteen or fourteen year old girl who was obviously a prostitute. He wanted to take her out for dinner to ask her about her life. I told him he would surely need to pay the going rate for the privilege -- where did I get that idea? -- and managed to dissuade him. At one point, a man approached us with an offer of cocaine. I said I wasn't interested because I still remembered Len Bias. The man then brightened and said to me, "Are you from P.G. County? I am too." He shook my hand and walked off. Afterwards, I felt both dirty and exhilarated. Markus was also fascinated by all the homeless -- 1987 was in the middle of the period of highly visible homelessness in cities like New York, San Francisco, and D.C. -- and struck up a conversation with a man who said he slept at his girlfriend's house during the day and walked around all night while she slept. He showed us a pair of very clean white socks as proof of his ability to keep order in an otherwise crazy life.
2) A few days after I arrived in Berkeley, my flatmate Roy Edelschein told me the story of Bias's death. Roy had been in Bias's dorm at the University of Maryland that night. Apparently, Bias ended up doing something like five grams of coke. According to Roy, Len kept saying, "I'm a horse, I'm a horse," as his intake increased. I don't think Roy was in the room, but much of his dorm stopped by. I don't know how much truth there is to this tale, but the "I'm a horse" part certainly rings true.
3) In my last undergraduate semester at UC Berkeley, I took a class on Renaissance poetry and read Milton's "Lycidas" for the first time. It inspired me, though I had largely abandoned my brief experiment in writing verse, to compose a poem about Len Bias in the role of Lycidas. I didn't get that far, but did manage to conjure a vision of myself striding across that dewy field plucking the "rude berry" prior to learning the news of his death.
The point of these lengthy ruminations is that I'm one of those people who REALLY project onto certain public figures, despite the fact that I understand what's going on from a theoretical perspective. Even as I worry about Barry Bonds -- how his heart is doing, how he's coping with his father's death, why he gets such bad press -- I have that argument by Slavoj Zizek in _The Sublime Object of Ideology_ -- cited in Joe Sartelle's piece on "cynical spectatorship" from the second issue of _Bad Subjects_ -- running through my head like a tickertape. Whereas Marx writes about how ideology makes people do things without realizing that they are doing them, Zizek argues that, today at least, we tend to do things even though we realize full well that we are doing them. That's how it is with me and the fetishization of someone like Barry Bonds.
Of course, that's consistent with my own argument in "Belief and the Left" We all have to believe in something!