An Honor Aims to Heal a Painful Past
By Liam Farrell
He looked invincible that night. The skinny high school kid plucked from the basketball courts of Prince George’s County had grown into a hometown hero with super strength and the power of flight. He held Maryland records in 15 categories, led the Terps to the 1984 ACC Tournament title, earned two ACC Player of the Year honors and had been named the 1986 ACC Athlete of the Year.
It was June 17, 1986, and Leonard K. Bias was sublime as always, dressed in a sharp white and gray striped suit, a green Boston Celtics cap askew, as he addressed reporters after the defending NBA champions drafted him second overall.
Leonard, Lenny, Len, the Human Eraser: No matter what he was called, he was on his way to fulfilling the rarest of destinies. He was a Maryland kid, a Terp, the heartbeat of Cole Field House, and he had made it.
“My dream has come true,” he said.
But it ended less than two days later on the floor of his suite in Washington Hall, where Bias died of complications from cocaine intoxication.
The entire Maryland community and basketball fans across the country were whiplashed from celebration to mourning as their man of the hour turned into a cautionary tale for a generation. The natural impulse following tragedy—to assign blame, to do something about a seemingly indestructible life ended in an instant—brought a storm to College Park that lasted for years.
The administration launched investigations into Maryland’s academics and drug use. A grand jury was convened to see if anyone was culpable. Congress, beating the drums for the War on Drugs, passed harsh new sentences for offenders. University leaders received death threats and spent their days dodging the reporters camped out at their cars. Admission counselors had to constantly assuage the safety fears of parents, and coaches struggled to balance the need to win with tighter recruiting standards.
Within five months, the athletic director and basketball coach had resigned from their roles. Within two years, Maryland’s chancellor, the equivalent to today’s president, stepped down as well.
And most importantly, there was a family mourning the worst fact of all: the death of a loving son.
Yet tragedy can eventually turn into memory, and stark lines of black and white often blur into shades of gray. Nearly three decades since Bias died, he is talked about with more sympathy than scrutiny. And on Oct. 3, Len Bias was one of eight athletes inducted into the University of Maryland Athletics Hall of Fame.
“Hopefully it’s an opportunity to heal, hopefully it’s an opportunity to forgive for those that want to blame a young man for a lot of things he wasn’t in control of,” says Kevin Glover ’88, a former Maryland and NFL football player who knew Bias and is president of the M Club, which selects Hall of Fame inductees. “The part that has been overlooked for many years is celebrating the person that Len Bias was.
“I guess because of the way things happened, it was difficult for all of us to have these conversations with anybody that didn’t know him,” Glover says. “Because that’s how much respect and love we had for him. And for each other, really.”
AN ASTONISHING ASCENT
Bias was a beautiful basketball player.
In a sport that rewards rare combinations of grace and power, he could one minute go up for a picture-perfect jump shot—body and arms held straight, seemingly floating, his fingers releasing the ball at his apex with a silky backspin—and in the next, stretch his 6-foot-8-inch frame toward the roof of the gym to deliver a rattling slam dunk.
On Feb. 20, 1986, Bias almost singlehandedly willed the Terps to a landmark upset of top-ranked North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Down by nine with about three minutes left, Bias hit a long jumper, then stole the ensuing in-bounds pass and scored again with a backwards jam. With 15 seconds left in overtime, he flew across the lane to block a potentially game-winning shot by future NBA champion Kenny Smith and help seal a victory.
“He could do so many things. He could jump. He could run with the best of them,” says longtime Terps sports announcer Johnny Holliday. “The sky was basically the limit.”
Bias was ferocious and unrelenting at his sport, lifting weights with the football team, calling his point guard the night before games to ask for the ball and sometimes dominating practice to the point that he had to be benched. In the estimation of his coach, Charles “Lefty” Driesell, Bias was “one of the finest young men I’ve ever coached.” Whenever he asked Bias if he was ready to play, Bias would respond: “Coach, I was born ready.”
“He wasn’t good. He was great,” Driesell says. “I loved him. And I think he loved me.”
Long before he started dunking a basketball, though, Bias was an active and imaginative kid growing up outside Landover, says his mother, Lonise. When he played outside and saw something he liked—maybe an unusual rock—he would take it back and say, “Mom, isn’t this stone pretty?”
“He was bringing me diamonds then,” she says.
At first, Lonise didn’t see his interest in basketball as anything approaching a possible career. That dawned slowly, as Bias had a junior high growth spurt—“it was like a surge”—and began to draw interest from colleges while playing in high school. The fact that he could get a scholarship to play basketball was “just mindblowing,” she says.
Even as his fame increased and the accolades poured in at Maryland, Lonise says her son honored the humble lessons she and his father, James, taught him and his three siblings, like always using good manners and respectfully speaking to others. Many people describe how Bias remained a quiet and sensitive soul, someone who enjoyed dressing to the nines but also drawing pictures, someone who would shake a rim but also stop to talk to tour groups and skip part of an awards banquet to welcome a visiting poet to campus with flowers.
“I can go anywhere in the country and people will say, ‘I love your son,’” she says. “People still talk about him as if he was still alive.”
A TRAGEDY UNFOLDS
Jeff Baxter was awakened by teammate David Gregg on the morning of June 19 and told that Bias was unconscious in their dorm suite.
It had been just few hours earlier that Baxter had returned from his girlfriend’s place to catch some sleep before an exam. He had knocked on one of the doors, where Bias was celebrating his new career with Gregg, teammate Terry Long and friend Brian Tribble. Baxter did his “usual—go jump on him, he holds me like I’m 2 years old.”
Now, just a few hours after Baxter had left the group and gone to sleep, his friend wouldn’t move.
By the time he arrived on campus on the day of Bias’ death, Chancellor John Slaughter saw a community already under siege. He quickly convened a crisis team and for the next six months dealt with little else.
Not only had Bias, the picture of heroic invulnerability, died, but he was a casualty of the foremost public fear of his era: drugs. From the living rooms of fans to the newsrooms of The Baltimore Sun and Washington Post, from the offices of lawyers to the halls of Congress, people demanded answers. Staff members anxiously waited for the sound of the newspaper slapping to the ground outside the front door. Every day was a new opportunity for headlines to bring fresh pain to a hurting campus.
Although the entire athletic community was affected by the attention, Bias’ teammates in particular struggled with the combination of sympathy and what they saw as suspicion of drug use. One day, a stranger approached Baxter in Georgetown, asked if he was a Maryland player, and then started crying in his arms. On another, his brothers took him to get a urinalysis just in case he was accused.
“The perception was everyone at Maryland was bad kids. It was like all of us were put in a category,” says Keith Gatlin ’07, a Bias friend and teammate. “The kids are left back with nothing, and their names are crushed.”
A pallor had descended on College Park.
Two committees convened by Slaughter—one on drug polices, enforcement and education, and the other on the academics of student athletes—revealed the problems at Maryland and their utter ordinariness in the 1980s.
The drug task force surveyed 1,518 undergraduate Terps in the fall of 1986 and found that 20.1 percent had used cocaine in the past year. Similar results were found at colleges throughout the United States, and the media and lawmakers tagged the drug as the scourge of American society.
In response to the work of the education committee, which found athletes needed better academic support and counseling, the university instituted more difficult grade and admission requirements and brought a new focus to retention. Slaughter says they were the highest standards at the time in the ACC.
Those sorts of issues were hardly limited to College Park, though. Many peer programs had—and still have—to deal with academic scandals in a continuing era of exploding popularity for televised NCAA competition.
Maryland was making hard decisions. In one of the most difficult, Slaughter decided to replace Driesell, who was moved to an assistant athletic director position in October 1986, only a few weeks after athletic director Dick Dull resigned.
“I had and still have a tremendous admiration for Coach Driesell,” Slaughter says. “It was clear to me there had to be a change in the way that we were dealing with basketball and the players.”
Driesell, who went on to coach at James Madison and Georgia State, remains diligent in defending his players. He says Bias, who was 21 credits short of graduating in August, fell behind only because of the numerous meetings and workouts associated with preparing for the NBA draft, and that he never otherwise posed an academic problem.
He remembers how great it was to receive a call from Bias on the night of the draft, thanking him for all his coaching.
“I wish I would have said, ‘Lenny, come over to my house and let’s celebrate,’” Driesell says.
No one was found legally responsible for Bias’ death. Prosecutors eventually dismissed misdemeanor charges of cocaine possession and obstruction of justice against Gregg and Long. A jury found Tribble not guilty of drug charges in June 1987, and an obstruction of justice charge was also dropped.
By then, the federal government had already made its own judgments. As recounted by journalist Dan Baum in his 1997 book “Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure,” the atmosphere in Washington the day of Bias’ death “was like Pearl Harbor had just been bombed.” House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D–Massachusetts), whose home state was rocked as much as Maryland by losing the Celtics’ future star, demanded legislation. Within four months, Congress passed 26 drug-related mandatory minimum prison sentences. Now a first offense of dealing small amounts of drugs could net 10 years without parole.
“In life, Len Bias was a terrific basketball player,” Baum writes. “In death, he would become the Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs.”
ELATION & CLOSURE
A university community is virtually reinvented every four years, and the people who played the largest roles in the aftermath of Bias’ death are no longer in College Park. Eventually, he turned into a tragic part of the past, unfailingly woven into the stories explaining the Boston Celtics’ 22-year title drought and the Terrapins’ woes until the 2002 national championship.
He had become only a symbol, and he wasn’t there to throw down a powerful dunk, swat away an opponent’s shot, jokingly tackle a friend in the aisle of a department store, or do anything else to regain his humanity.
“People failed to realize that he was, in fact, a very fine young man,” Slaughter says. “The only thing they think of is that he overdosed on cocaine.”
Now, for the first time in decades, his name is once again attached to something celebratory. Hall of Fame inductions are held every two years, and an athlete is primarily judged on his or her “superior athletic achievements as a student, which brought considerable fame to the university and the individual.”
Photo courtesy of Paul Souders
The criteria also say, however, that “nominees must have good character and reputation, and not have been a source of embarrassment in any way to the university.” Hall of Fame voters long wrestled with that provision and its implication for Bias’ on-court achievements and the aftermath of his death.
“The fact is, he’s deserving and he was elected,” Glover says.
Lonise Bias has spent decades as a public speaker, addressing the loss of not only Len but also one of her other sons, Jay, who was shot to death in 1990. In her speeches at schools and conferences, she emphasizes the importance of making good decisions, taking responsibility and respecting authority. She has been heartened over the years by the number of people who say they never touched drugs because of what happened to her son.
“He was a precious seed that went down into the ground to bring life. I believe that with my heart,” she says. “He was really, really special, and it can only take the hand of God to bring a message to people and not be so caught up in the tragedy my family experienced.”
Her faith extends to Bias’ induction into the Hall of Fame.
“Things happen in God’s own timing,” she says. “We’re not long-faced. We are very grateful and excited.”
Baxter, who still wonders what would have happened if he had returned to his dorm earlier that night, wasn’t merely happy when he got the news of Bias’ induction—his first reaction was “just elation.”
“I think it’s just kind of closure,” he says.
For Gatlin, losing Bias was like losing a brother. Now a high school coach in North Carolina, he reminds his players that everything they have can vanish in the wake of a single poor decision. When they break a huddle, Gatlin has them say, “Family.”
Just after Bias’ death, one of the few places that Gatlin could find solace was on the basketball court. While dribbling, shooting and passing, Bias’ friends could imagine that he was nearby, waiting for the right moment to jump to the rafters and slam the ball home.
“That was the only place you felt peace and comfort,” Gatlin says, “that you found a connection to Lenny.”
The most visible memorial to Bias on campus today is above the court of the Xfinity Center, a red banner with white lettering and black numbers that hangs in front of thousands of spectators every year and above the players on the court below.
The plain “Bias 34” gives no indication of a legacy any more fraught than “Elmore 41” or “B. Williams 52.” With just a name and a number, in Maryland colors, he is once again just a player who had enough on-court accomplishments—who did enough good things—to deserve remembrance. TERP
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