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The legend of Len Bias

The winner of Maryland men’s basketball bracket madness is one of the most complex figures in sports history. This is his story.

University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, at the Univ Photo by Joel Richardson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

There have been thousands and thousands of college basketball players. They’ve come in all shapes and sizes — you’ll find 5’2 point guards and 7’6 centers. Some have hailed from the same town as the school they played for, while some have hailed from across the world.

Plenty of these players have enjoyed dramatic or emotional moments that leave indelible marks years later. Some have become the stars of their team, or the top players in their conference. A select few have become household names but across the country. And in especially rare instances, a player has become appointment viewing every single time out, captivating communities along the way.

That was Len Bias.

They simply didn’t make human beings like him. Bias measured 6’8 and 220 pounds. He was an explosive athlete with a vertical leap well above 40 inches. He complemented his thunderous power with the finesse to score however he needed to. His jump shot — rising straight up, hovering above the outstretched hands of helpless defenders — belonged in the Louvre. And he had the range to back it up.

This spring, Testudo Times ran a 64-player bracket to determine the greatest Maryland men’s basketball player of all time. Bias stormed through the tournament, grabbing over 90 percent of the vote in each of his first five matchups before holding off Juan Dixon in the final. Thirty-four years after he took off the Terps jersey for the final time, the legend of Len Bias remains strong.

“When you play with a player for a long period of time, you become comfortable, maybe even oblivious to their ability to play. ... The awe goes out, you just lose it,” said Jeff Baxter, Bias’ teammate and close friend at Maryland from 1982-86. “But with Lenny, you never lost it because there was a different move that could come at any time.”

Bias scored 2,146 points in his college career, leaving as the program’s all-time leading scorer. He won ACC Player of the Year twice, still the only player in Terps history to accomplish that feat. He was drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics that summer, but a fatal cocaine overdose two nights later left him as one of the great tragic unknowns in sports history.

This is a story of belief and dedication. This is a story of beauty and brilliance. This is a story of tragedy and fallout. This is a story of faith and healing.

This is the story of Len Bias.

Young Len Bias Photo courtesy of Dr. Lonise Bias

Leonard Kevin Bias was raised in Prince George’s County, Maryland, as the oldest of four children. The Bias family was closely knit and centered on its Christian faith. The kids’ first exposure to sports came at Columbia Park Elementary School through the community center — among other youth activities, Len joined one of the community football teams.

Bias was in eighth grade at Greenbelt Middle School when he developed an interest in basketball. It became apparent by the ninth grade that he had some type of natural ability. He established himself as a star at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, becoming one of the best players in the region.

“I just thought it was an opportunity for him to be involved in some type of sports activity that would keep him occupied and just have something to look forward to. But it blossomed into something completely different,” said Len’s mother, Dr. Lonise Bias. “When we would attend the games from the 10th grade to the 12th grade, you could see the progression from this little lanky kid in middle school to an all-star athlete by the time he was in high school.”

Bias received attention from college programs across the country, but ACC foes Maryland and NC State emerged as the frontrunners in his recruitment, and he ultimately signed with the hometown Terps. While Bias was still raw as a prospect, there were plenty of flashes. He scored 18 points in the 1982 Capital Classic, pairing with All-American Johnny Dawkins to lead the local all-star team to victory against a national crop of prospects.

“Right after the Capital Classic game, you could tell he had just innate abilities and that the confidence level was there,” said Baxter, who was also on that Capital All-Star squad.

Bias started just 13 of 30 games his freshman season, averaging 7.1 points and 4.2 rebounds across 22 minutes per contest. He was still far from a finished product, but there were moments of brilliance. Baxter recalls a game at North Carolina where Bias seemed to wait for Tar Heels freshman center Brad Daugherty so he could dunk on him.

“You knew he was going to develop, it was just a matter of how long it was going to take him to get there,” said Johnny Holliday, who’s called Maryland football and basketball games since 1979. “I was more impressed with his rebounding than anything else, and how high this kid could get off his feet.”

The breakthrough came as a sophomore, as Bias’ production spiked to 15.3 points per game on 56.7 percent field-goal shooting. In a highly-anticipated January matchup against Michael Jordan and No. 1-ranked North Carolina that ESPN re-aired over the weekend, Bias was arguably the most electrifying star on the court even in defeat. He later won ACC tournament MVP as Maryland captured its first conference title under head coach Lefty Driesell.

Focus on Sport via Getty Images

As a junior, Bias notched 18.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists per contest, earning ACC Player of the Year honors. He and senior running mate Adrian Branch led the Terps to a 25-12 record, and Maryland reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

By this time, Bias had become a superstar in his community. Walt Williams, a fellow Prince George’s County native who became a Maryland fan after attending a game and seeing Bias, said the Terps star was the player every kid wanted to emulate on the playground — ahead of even NBA stars Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Julius Erving. And for Williams, who lived in a part of the county where there weren’t as many opportunities, Bias was an inspiration.

“When I watched NBA games, where people were from wasn’t publicized as much. So I didn’t know people from where I was from could be in the NBA, be on TV. I had no idea,” Williams said. “And so when I saw Len Bias … he made attaining being a pro athlete something that’s tangible, a goal that is possible to achieve.”

Ask Bias’ teammates about his personality off the floor and they’ll tell you about his lighter side.

Derrick Lewis, who joined the Terps in 1984 and remains the program’s all-time leading shot blocker, recalls rooming with Bias during Maryland’s season-opening road trip in Alaska over Thanksgiving weekend. With no sunlight and nothing to do in Anchorage, Bias put on a fashion show of sorts in the hotel room, slapping together the most ridiculous outfits he could with the clothes he brought.

Lewis doesn’t remember how they ended up taking pictures of this — there were no cell phones or digital cameras back then — but he still has a couple of them framed on his basement wall.

Photo courtesy of Derrick Lewis

When Bias stepped between the lines, though, he played like it was the Final Four. It didn’t matter whether it was October or March, a walk-through or a postseason game. He wanted to be first in every sit-up contest or conditioning drill. He wanted his teammates to make every basket tough on him in practice so he’d be ready to handle what opponents threw his way.

“Someone could’ve walked in that practice and saw us practicing and they’d ask, ‘Why does it look like Derrick and Lenny are gonna fight, and what’s wrong with them? They’re just practicing,’” Lewis said. “He practiced so hard because when he played, he was double- and triple-teamed, and he told me he wanted to be prepared for what was coming in the game. So if he didn’t practice hard now, there was no way he’d be ready for the game.

“He always practiced hard, he was there [doing] extra workouts with his shooting, ball-handling. … He was a gym rat, and he worked all the time on getting better.”

Even while facing those double- and triple-teams on a nightly basis, Bias averaged 23.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game as a senior in 1985-86. He repeated as ACC Player of the Year and was a consensus First Team All-American. Maryland had limited scoring depth with Branch graduated — point guard Keith Gatlin’s 10.2 points per game were second on the team — and the Terps started ACC play 0-6, but Bias lifted his team to a 19-14 record (6-8 ACC) and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

His signature games that season came in the most hostile environments. Bias scored a career-high 41 points at No. 2 Duke on Jan. 25, 1986, and even though Maryland lost, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski maintains that it was the greatest performance by a visiting player he’s ever witnessed. On Feb. 20, Bias dropped 35 points to spearhead an upset of No. 1 North Carolina on the road; it was the Tar Heels’ first loss inside the newly opened Dean Smith Center.

Every night was a show, and his teammates had a front-row seat.

“We were playing Pepperdine in the NCAAs, and he got a dunk on the baseline, and it sounded literally like it was construction. It sounded like a construction site,” Baxter said. “When he threw it down, the ref seemed like he danced from the top of the foul line down to the baseline to call an and-one.

“That’s what [Len] did. He made sure that if you were a player around him and you were trying to defend that, then you were not going to forget that he had dunked it. That’s the way he played.”

Bias had become one of the top commodities in the 1986 NBA Draft, and there were plenty of signs pointing to the Boston Celtics. Team president Red Auerbach had invited Bias to work at his basketball camp the summer before and attended Maryland games that winter. The Celtics had acquired Seattle’s 1986 first-round pick in a trade for Gerald Henderson two years earlier, and with the No. 2 overall pick, they selected Bias.

It was an unprecedented destination for such a coveted draft prospect, as Bias joined a team that had just won 67 games and an NBA title. It was a perfect storm on Boston’s side, too. The Celtics’ core stars — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish — were all entering the back half of their primes, and Bias figured to shoulder part of the load immediately and perhaps become the centerpiece eventually. He’d help keep Boston competitive with the Eastern Conference upstarts in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and even New York, not to mention the rival Lakers in the West.

The draft itself was in New York on the afternoon of June 17. Bias took the stage after he was selected, flashing a wide smile as he donned his new Celtics cap. After a long round of interviews, he and his father James flew to Boston to answer more questions from press. The next day, he visited Reebok’s Boston office as he prepared to sign a deal with the apparel company.

Bias flew home that night, drove back to campus, left to attend an off-campus gathering and returned to his suite well into the night. That’s when the celebrations took a tragic turn.

On the morning of June 19, 1986, Baxter was woken up at 6:30 a.m. as chaos washed over the suite. Bias had passed out and wasn’t breathing. His heart wasn’t beating. Bias’ friend Brian Tribble called 911, while Gatlin called Bias’ family. Teammate Terry Long tried to revive him before paramedics arrived and rushed Bias to the hospital. Family, friends and teammates gathered at the hospital throughout the morning. All they could do was pray for a miracle that didn’t come.

Bias was pronounced dead at 8:51 that morning at Leland Memorial Hospital. He was 22.

Those who were at the hospital remember the tears and the disbelief. Williams remembers waking up to the news and breaking down as he listened on the radio. Holliday, who was doing morning sports on WMAL radio, was on his way to the hospital but rerouted to Maryland when he got the call that Bias had passed. He walked into Cole Field House and saw Driesell, athletic director Dick Dull and chancellor John Slaughter in complete shock.

Details of Bias’ death slowly trickled out over the coming hours and days. Traces of cocaine were found in his system at the hospital, and investigators slowly pieced together the timeline of that night. Rumors traveled fast, but nobody knew what to believe. Nobody could believe any of it.

“You’re waiting to wake up from the dream and you shake yourself and shake yourself to try to wake yourself up, and you can’t wake yourself up,” Lonise Bias said. “And then all of a sudden you realize what what you thought was a nightmare was really true. ‘I don’t like this dream. I want to wake up. It’s not good. I’m going to wake up.’ But you shake yourself and you shake yourself and you find out, ‘No, this is real.’ This is real, and the hour that you understand that this is real, that is the most difficult time.”

To this day, Lonise Bias doesn’t remember the exact moment she came to that realization.

“It was within a week’s time, it wasn’t days or hours, it was sometime within a week or so that you realize this was real,” she said. “But then the dream portion of it is almost like a process, because when you do have an opportunity to lay down and you rest — I was blessed to be able to rest that night — and when you would get up in the morning, you would be thinking, ‘Oh, this is a wonderful day,’ and then it hits you, ‘No, this is not a wonderful day. … You have a new reality. Your new reality is a bitter cup has been set before you and you’ve had to drink from it: the death of your baby, Len Bias.”

Bias’ wake at his family’s church had lines stretching two blocks and mourners waiting for hours. State troopers stopped Beltway traffic for his funeral at Maryland’s Memorial Chapel. Holliday, who did musical theatre in the summer, sang the Lord’s Prayer at that funeral and held his emotions together until Lonise Bias looked up toward the loft and blew him a kiss — “Then I just went to pieces,” he said.

The memorial service at Cole Field House drew 11,000, a crowd comparable to many Maryland games. Bias had become not just the biggest rock star on campus, but the biggest hero in the area. His death rocked the entire community unlike anything before or since.

“It was just devastating to us as a whole,” Williams said. “He was us. To see him get interviewed and things like that, he was [one of] us. So it felt like a family member was taken from us.”

All of this — the media gathered outside the family’s house, the outpouring of grief on a national level — took Lonise Bias by surprise. She knew Len as her son who played basketball at Maryland, but didn’t realize how big a deal he had become. The family received handwritten letters from the families of President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George Bush and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. The first flowers they received were from Michael Jordan; the next flowers came from Bird.

“I didn’t know who he was in terms of how he influenced the world and the sports world until he until he passed. I didn’t know,” she said. “I really did not know, and when we began to receive cards and flowers and the cards from the White House, written in the pen of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, these were cards that were handwritten.

“I found out at that time you had three types of sports fans — Celtic fans, Laker fans and Michael Jordan fans — and so many people that were Boston fans and people that didn’t even like Boston said they were going to become Boston fans because Len was going to play for Boston. So this was way above my head. I had no idea until he died, and the aftermath, the tidal wave of empathy and condolences.”

Lonise Bias Holding Celtics Jersey
Lonise Bias holds up a Celtics jersey presented by Red Auerbach at Len Bias’ memorial service on June 24, 1986.
Getty Images

The aftermath grew ugly in short order. Bias’ cause of death was revealed to be cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose. A university investigation revealed Bias had failed or dropped every class that spring and was 21 credits short of graduation. Rumors and accusations about drug use on the team — and negligence by the university — started flying. Dull resigned in early October and Driesell did the same three weeks later (Slaughter had resigned in July). Congress’ Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 — the “Len Bias law” — established mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes, which led to prisons overcrowded with low-level offenders.

The healing process took time; some might argue the dark cloud of Bias’ death will never disappear. Maryland didn’t formally acknowledge Bias’ achievements for decades and didn’t induct him into its athletic Hall of Fame until 2014. Driesell was in his eighties before Maryland put his name in the rafters in 2017, and he was finally inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.

Most people who knew Bias say he was not a regular drug user — many believe his first experience with cocaine was that fatal night. All it took was one mistake for everything to come crashing down. That notion remains so difficult to grasp even now.

Nobody believed Superman could be mortal until it was too late.

Thirty-four years after his death, Len Bias lives on in the memories of those who witnessed his brilliance. His gold No. 34 Terps jersey lives on seemingly anywhere you find Maryland fans, from frat basements to College GameDay. His game lives on in YouTube highlight reels, although those don’t quite do justice to how electric Bias was.

“I feel kind of bad for the younger people because all they’re seeing is highlights of Lenny,” Lewis said. “They see him catching the lobs and dunking on people, they see the picture-perfect jump shot. But there are highlights that you can pull from anyone’s career and say, ‘Wow, this guy could play.’

“But this was Lenny every game, every minute, every practice. You could have just had a game, and the whole game was a highlight film. This wasn’t something that he did sporadically or just enough times to make a highlight film.”

Bias lives on as the missing piece of a defining era in NBA history. After the Lakers and Celtics owned the 1980s, Chicago won six titles in the 1990s as Jordan became arguably the greatest player of all-time. The Bulls took shots from the Pistons and Knicks and Magic and Pacers, but perhaps the Celtics would have remained at or near top with Bias in the mix.

“The people they would put on Jordan to try and be more physical with him — when the [Pistons] played the Bulls, [Dennis] Rodman was the guy,” said Don Markus, the longtime Baltimore Sun Maryland beat writer. “Lenny might have been the guy the Celtics put on him, because they probably didn’t have anybody who could match up with him. In [the 1986 playoffs], was too big for Dennis Johnson, too fast for Bird. Going forward, who’s to say that that matchup wouldn’t have been a favorable one or a more even one for the Celtics if Bias were there?”

Those close to Bias remember him as a kind and caring person. Even as basketball propelled him to stardom, he remained close to his family and longtime friends. “To do all of that [on the court] and then be a good person off the court is amazing,” Baxter said, “because a lot of times they don’t intertwine.”

Just as college sports can function as the “front porch” of a university, sports at large can function as a gateway to broader aspects of life. Bias’ death was earth-shattering because of who he was and how he died. It brought the issue of drug use further into the national spotlight, for better and worse. To this day, it’s a reminder that nobody is invincible.

“I believe that Len was a seed that went down into the ground to bring forth life. That’s what I believe,” Lonise Bias said. “And as a result of his death, a heightened awareness came about substance abuse. … When this thing happens to such an athlete that’s on top of the world, and it’s snatched away by something that is ravishing our country, then people remember it because it was a shock.”

Lonise Bias’ powerful speech at her son’s funeral inadvertently launched her career as a motivational speaker. Her desire to impact future generations only strengthened when Jay Bias, Len’s younger brother, was murdered in 1990 — Len and Jay’s graves are literally side-by-side at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Dr. Bias has spread her messages of hope and inspiration to youth, workplaces and communities across the country.

Three Decades Later, Len Biass Grieving Mother Still Tells Her Sons Story
Lonise Bias speaks to students during a substance-abuse program at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston on May 17, 2018.
Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Thirty-four years after Len’s death, those who hear Lonise Bias speak don’t always know her story, or her son. But she finds a way to relate to them, and to whatever hardships they might be encountering. She’s working on a book entitled Lemons to Lemonade that was initially slated for publish later this year.

At a time like this, it’s easy to dwell on what we’ve lost and ponder what could have been. It’s easy to get caught up in what we didn’t see rather than appreciate the good we witnessed. But maybe there’s purpose to be found in all of it. Maybe even in the face of global uncertainty or harsh personal tragedy, there are lessons to learn and share with those around you. That’s what Len Bias’ mother has done since his death. Her words were powerful then, and they’re powerful now.

“The situation in your life is the lemon. The sugar in the lemonade is the sweet spot that is still in your life — even when you’re going through your struggle, identifying the sweet spots,” she says. “So you have the lemon, which is the hardship, you have sweet spots that are still there and your tears are the water to make the lemonade. It’s called life.

“No one can get past it — life is hard. And we have to manage it as best we can. And that’s the way we are today, trying to manage life.”

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