When does a person become a martyr?
Is it before he dies, or is it the moment his life leaves him?
Or, is it somewhere in between? Are there some who are born to be martyrs, predestined, by a plan of God? Chosen ones. Except we just don't know it until they're gone.
It's akin to sainthood, this martyrdom. Membership has no privileges. Instead, it has anointment.
In the game of basketball there aren't many of these martyrs. There are Maurice Stokes, Ben Wilson, Hank Gathers. There are others, maybe. Very few.
Yet there is one who -- if this can be said without sacrilege -- is above the others.
I think Len Bias attained martyr status before he died on June 19, 1986. I think he became one even before he was drafted by the Boston Celtics with the second pick in the '86 NBA draft, something that in my mind almost guaranteed the Celts an 80-2 record during the '86-87 season -- and maybe one loss in the playoffs -- which would have made them the greatest team the world of sports -- not just basketball -- had ever seen.
Len's moment came while in a University of Maryland uniform, his senior season, inside the Dean Dome at the University of North Carolina.
When he transformed from ballplayer into something greater than Jordan.
|Bomani Jones says Len Bias just might be the most influential athlete of the 20th century -- and he never even played in the NBA.|
Bias had already torched the entire Tar Heel squad for about 30, but he still needed to make a statement.
The game was close. UNC still had a chance.
After making the net swallow another one of his jump shots, instead of running downcourt to play D, LB U-turned and stole the inbound pass. You could hear Dean Smith's heart break.
Len went up in the lane to seal Carolina's fate, but it was what he did after the dunk that transformed everything.
|Remembering Len Bias: 20 Years Later|
It was called "the Jesus dunk." And beyond being a religious experience, it was a biblical re-enactment with the beauty that Mel Gibson missed.
The dunk was a reverse, you see. And as Bias released his hands from the rim, he extended his arms out while still in the air as if he were on a cross as if he were Christ.
While 10 feet above the ground he seemed to float back down to the court, arms still out, palms still open. It was like he descended down to earth from heaven, from above the rim. The second it took for his feet to touch the court seemed more than one second in time. It seemed slower than slow motion, it seemed as if he was letting the world know his destiny, who he was destined to be.
After that game Bias' coach, Lefty Driesell, said, "If Lenny Bias isn't the player of the world, I don't know who is." High praise, all praises due. Because this was the moment when, regardless of what would happen the rest of Len Bias' career -- and life -- he reached the plateau of being remembered for life, remembered as one of the greatest players ever to bless basketball.
Then, like a rose that grew from concrete, two days after he was picked by the Celtics, his life was over.
I remember, days later, the Sports Illustrated cover. Framed in blue, him standing at the free-throw line. His look was that of a ghetto Mona Lisa. There was a slight smile, slight game face, slight we'll never know.
And that's where we sit today, in a "we'll never know" existence. A martyr's paradise.
What we do know, though, is that for a short period of time Len Bias showed us not just how well he could play the game, but how the game was going to be played if he were allowed to live.
To be real, he was simply LeBron James before LeBron James was born. The same way we are comparing Dwyane Wade to Jordan now, putting him at times on that level, if LB had lived, LBJ would be the chosen one who followed his legacy. Only we'd be wondering if LeBron were as good.
And yet -- as with all who receive this, inherit it through death -- all martyrs aren't saints. Just as everyone from MLK to Tupac Shakur has been immortalized post-life, it is often their lives outside of their work that we must try to forget. So when you discover, find out, realize that the death of one said martyr was of his own demise, you try to push it back into the context of what he meant to you, to the rest of the world.
You go into denial. Even after 20 years.
But there was no denying the impact Len Bias had on basketball, and the promise he took with him when he held up the peace sign for the last time. His legend had surpassed urban -- it had crossed over. Which is a beautiful thing for a brotha to experience, even if he isn't here to experience it.
It validates all that he did while he was here, validates all the work he put in, all the passion he had, and -- regardless of how his life ended -- that he didn't take God's gift of basketball to him for granted.
Because if Len Bias did, God would not have allowed him to impersonate his Son in a basketball game. Which may be the reason He has not allowed anyone to do it since.
Scoop Jackson is a national columnist for Page 2 and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine. He has a weekly segment on "Cold Pizza" and is a regular forum guest on "Rome Is Burning." He resides in Chicago. Sound off to Scoop and Page 2 here.