Q. Tell me about your connection to basketball. You’re a fan, correct?
A. Basically, around seventh- or eighth-grade, I started playing ball and cluing into Dr. J and all the cool stuff that was going on. I’m a pretty below-average basketball player. I rode the bench in high school, played intramural in college, and played pick-up pretty much my whole life. I have an OK jump shot and I can pass pretty well. I have those occasional flashes — a good five minutes in a game — and it sustains me for months and months.
Q. You lived in Worcester for a few years, is that right?
A. I lived there until the fourth-grade. I was a crazy Red Sox fan, a crazy Celtics fan, and I was even into the Patriots in the Steve Grogan, Sam “Bam” Cunningham years. I was a full-on Boston sports fan, but then I moved to just outside Philly and that watered it down a little bit. But I was in college when Len Bias died.
Q. It’s interesting the way the podcast chronicles individual deaths to tell a larger story.
A. The idea came out of just talking hoops with my friends seven or eight years ago. We were talking about all the what-ifs: What if Len Bias lived? What if Drazen Petrovic had another 10 years in the league? What would Hank Gathers or Roy Tarpley have been like? It was a long list of names, and I started thinking, have we seen this many young guys die in another sport over a 10-year period? I thought about writing about it, but I never found the time. So when the quarantine hit and [my production company] set up this new podcast division, it was the perfect time. I said let’s do it.
Q. Why a podcast?
A. A lot of times, when you set something up, you already have the answer. We didn’t have the answer when we set this up. All we had was the question. We were able to treat it like a mystery.
Q. You make a compelling case that these deaths illuminate a larger truth about the excesses of the ’80s.
A. I remember very vividly when I went to college and all these kids in my dorm had giant posters of, like, Porsches on their wall. I remember being very confused. I was, like, why do you have a picture of an expensive car on your wall? There’d been a shift to “I’m going to make lots of money.” The movies started to change, too. We had tender, vulnerable movies in the ’70s and early ’80s, like “Breaking Away” and “My Bodyguard” and “Over the Edge,” and then it became all about these sociopathic success creatures, like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” It’s a wildly entertaining movie, but a shift happened. I also remember basketball and African-American culture exploding even as this jingoistic Reagan culture was exploding.
Q. In the Len Bias episode, you talk about how his death was used to influence public policy.
A. It’s an absolutely crazy story and, clearly, part of a larger effort. Who was the Nixon [aide] — was it [John] Ehrlichman? — who, on his deathbed, admitted that the whole war on drugs was designed to put people of color in jail? This agenda was already there.
But with Len Bias’s death, people were hurt and angry and scared. You had this racially charged atmosphere. Reagan had been using a lot of coded language, and Republicans were using dog-whistle language about race. It was a perfect storm that created that omnibus crime bill that ended up sending hundreds of thousands of African Americans to jail, destroying families and communities. Tragic. Once we dug into it with people who really know this stuff, it was even worse than I remembered.
Q. You also talk about the demonization of drug users.
A. Unlike a lot of other issues in America, we have learned some things about addiction. We’ve gotten a little better when it comes to drugs and addiction. And we’ve gotten a lot better when it comes to mental health. It doesn’t work to tell people they’re bad or just put them in jail. When an addiction forms, it’s like a disease. It doesn’t help to threaten someone with jail if they have heart blockage or kidney failure. I also don’t think the attempt was sincere. I honestly don’t think they were putting these people in jail to stop drug abuse. I think they were putting these people in jail to stop them from voting.
Q. Tell me about the NBA these days. Is it better?
A. The NBA is a remarkable story. There are so many other institutions in this country that have collapsed or become corrupted. Look at the NFL with Colin Kaepernick doing the most peaceful form of protest, and the whole league freaked out. The NFL is still stuck in 1963. It’s an abomination. The NBA made mistakes but they learned from their mistakes. The NBA used to play rock songs, white people music when they went to commercials. My friends and I would laugh, like, the league doesn’t know what it is.
The reason we love the NBA is because it’s a Black league. It is African-American culture. Toward the end of Allen Iverson’s career, the NBA finally got it and started embracing Black culture. It was the smartest thing they could have done. They let the music and the fashion filter in and the players had a voice.
What happened during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests was remarkable. The fact that the NBA had polling places in arenas. The fact that the players expressed themselves. I mean, the only two institutions in the USA that still work are Taco Bell and the NBA … and maybe “The Fast and the Furious” franchise.
“Death at the Wing” is available to stream on podcast platforms now.
Mark Shanahan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.
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