30 Years in 30 Days: Day 4- The Grave

Len Bias is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, MD.  I've never been there personally (still on my bucket list of things to do) so I didn't know the specifics of the cemetery or plot, the layout or scenery.  Thankfully someone even more articulate than myself, Dr Emily Dufton, was able to share those details with us from her visit last year in September:

Len Bias is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, just over the border from the District of Columbia.  The cemetery is a large and sprawling place, green and verdant if we got any rain, but dry and brown from the end of summer drought that we’ve experienced for the past six weeks. The sun was so relentlessly bright that the grave – which is just a small bronze plaque – was almost too hot to touch. Nearby, where his brother is buried alongside countless other grandpas and aunts, there were decaying stuffed animals and sunbleached plastic flowers. It looked like no one had been there in weeks.
Bias is buried in the Frederick Douglass section of a cemetery filled with notable African Americans. There are doctors, scientists, playwrights and opera singers. Just up the road from his hard-to-find grave is a large memorial dedicated to bishops of the United House of Prayer. Entire families have purchased plots where ornate headstones with blank spaces wait for those who are still alive. There’s a small pond where a white heron was perched, and “Babyland,” a section just for the deceased young. Standing on the hill where Bias rests, you can look around and see nothing but trees. It feels miles away from Washington, D.C., miles away from Capitol Hill.

So how is it possible that Len's grave is so ordinary?  Take a look at the following two headstones for two other NBA players:

The first is for former Celtic Derek Smith.  The second is for Hall of Famer Drazen Petrovic.  Before seeing photos of Len's grave and taking into consideration all the people his death impacted, I certainly expected its appearance to be on par with Smith and Petrovic's.  I imagined Len would have something similar in extravagance, exemplifying his stylish tastes that everyone came to know him for.  I even recall reading somewhere that his parents James and Lonise were optimistic years ago to enhance the headstone's appearance, if the funds ever became available.

And yet as Emily describes it vividly, it's straight out of an old western movie: an old withering grave, being scorched by the sun in summer, disregarded by the cold in winter, and easily able to be overlooked.   An ordinary and forgotten grave instead of an impactful and memorable one.

But then that got me thinking more about this entire segment and how the fortunes of the Celtics' franchise have changed so dramatically in the 30 years since he died.  In addition to winning 16 titles in those 30 years prior to the incident, the club won 1,627 regular season games compared to just 782 losses.  That's a winning percentage of 67.6%.  That's extraordinary and noticeable.  And since then, just 1 title and 1,264 wins to go along with 1,147 losses.  That means the club has barely been above .500 (52.4%) for the past 30 regular seasons.  During that time they've even been passed in all-time winning percentage by the Lakers and Spurs.

The stark contrast of winning percentages is what separates the elite franchises from the mediocre ones.  As preeminent as the Celtics were during the 30 years preceding Len's death, they've been incredibly average since.  Sort of like Len's grave.

4 Seasons Before: 1982-83, Celtics lose in Eastern Conference Semifinals
4 Seasons After: 1989-90, Celtics lose in opening round of playoffs.

Emily Dufton received her PhD in American Studies from George Washington University in 2014, where she studied the history of the drug war. Her first book, Grassroots: How America’s Marijuana Activists Launched the Battle For Legalization and Shaped the Modern War on Drugs, will be released from Basic Books in fall 2017.

Index of 30 Years in 30 Days articles