Remembering Maryland Basketball Star Len Bias

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Remembering Maryland Basketball Star Len Bias
Len Bias' grave in Suitland, Maryland. Photo by Mike Frandsen.

The poster is old and wrinkled, gathering dust. Len Bias is slamming home one of his ferocious dunks. The caption reads, “I’m Bias. Maryland is number one.” 

It has been 26 years since Maryland basketball superstar Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose in a dorm room. Bias’ sudden death became the biggest story in the history of Washington, D.C. area sports, and one of the biggest news stories in the city’s history. How could such a seemingly invincible player be gone all of a sudden, just two days after being drafted second overall in the 1986 draft by the Boston Celtics? 

I was about to return home from Ocean City, Maryland after graduating high school. I stopped in a store to pick up a newspaper. The headline said Len Bias died, and the paper had a photo of the body being taken away from a hospital on a stretcher, covered in a sheet. I said to myself, “Len Bias’ father died? Okay, but why is it front page news?” I then asked the cashier if this was real. It took a while to register that this was Len Bias himself.

Stunned on the ride home, I was glued to the TV set for the next two weeks, watching coverage of the story on the local sports, local news, and national news shows. Bias’ death was pages deep in the newspapers for weeks.

People say that sports are bigger now, with the proliferation of ESPN, blogs, sports radio and twitter, but that’s not true. It’s just more watered down. Back then, all eyes were on the games, the local TV sportscasts, and the newspaper. There were just a few major sources of news. Games were bigger, and ratings were higher for local sportscasts.

Think of the championship teams in the 1980s in both college and the pros. Basketball was better back then too.

Bias was not only the best player ever at Maryland, he was probably the greatest player in the history of the ACC—right up there with Michael Jordan and David Thompson. He could do it all: shoot the jump shot, drive to the hoop, throw down thunderous dunks, block shots and play great defense. He could jump higher and shoot better than Michael Jordan. That’s not to say he would have necessarily been a better pro than Jordan, but Bias was probably the better player in college.

Bias was a tall, skinny player with a decent jump shot who led Northwestern High of Prince George’s County to the state championship game, where they lost to High Point. I attended the game in 1982 at Cole Field House, because a relative of mine taught Bias in high school. There was some buzz about this player headed to Maryland, but no one thought he would eventually become the best college player in the country.

He was drafted behind Brad Daugherty of North Carolina, but this was when centers like Sam Bowie were drafted ahead of wing players like Michael Jordan. Daugherty was a solid player; Bias was transcendent.

Bias became a two-time ACC Player of the Year and was named ACC tournament MVP in ’84 when Maryland won the tourney for the first time since 1958.

Maryland fans have an inferiority complex because of Duke and North Carolina. You appreciate it more when Charlie Brown finally gets the little red-haired girl. It’s boring when the Yankees win the World Series. You always felt you had a chance to win with Len Bias.

There’s a mythical and powerful quality about the name Len Bias, and it’s not just because he’s dead. It was that way when he played. His name was unique, just like his game. Len. Lenny. Leonard. Bias.  It wasn't a boring name like Michael, Larry, or Johnson.

Bias got better each of his four years. His scoring, rebounding and free throw percentage improved each season from his freshman year, when he scored 7.2 points a game; to his senior year, when he averaged 23.2. But stats don’t even begin to tell the story, and neither do the highlights on YouTube. Bias was so good that coach Lefty Driesell had to take him out of practices because he was dominating so much.

One of Bias’ most iconic plays came in a game against North Carolina his senior season, when he scored 35 points in a 77-72 overtime win over the Tar Heels. Bias hit a long jumper from the left side, stole the inbounds pass, and rose up for a reverse slam. Then in the extra period, Bias blocked Kenny Smith’s attempt to win the game with :15 remaining. The unranked Terps had defeated the number one Tar Heels, for North Carolina’s first loss ever in the Dean Dome.

He was called “Frosty” off the court, but the nice guy became possessed on the hardwood, single-handedly taking over games. His shot was impossible to block because he jumped so high straight up. His dunks were something to behold.

Since Bias’ death, Maryland has had a top overall NBA draft pick in Joe Smith in 1995, a second overall pick in Steve Francis in 1999, and a consensus player of the year in Juan Dixon for the national champion Terps in 2002. Maryland also had the top pick in the draft in 1976 in John Lucas, and All-Americans Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, Albert King, and Buck Williams.

With all due respect, Bias was in a class above all of them. Rarely has a player been so much better than everyone else on the court.

It’s next to impossible to find a player from any era who compares with Bias. He was much stronger than Julius Erving, Kevin Garnett, and Kevin Durant; a much better shooter than Karl Malone and Dwight Howard, a much better defender than Dominique Wilkins, and though he wasn’t as good of a ball handler as Michael Jordan, in college, Bias was the better player in most other areas.

We’ll never know, but Magic, Michael, and Larry may have had a fourth added to that list. There probably wasn’t any player who could do everything that Bias could. LeBron James certainly doesn’t shoot like Bias did.

The night of his death, Bias was drinking alcohol and snorting cocaine with teammates David Gregg and Terry Long and friend Brian Tribble. Tribble made the 911 call in a hoarse, shaky voice:

“This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die. Seriously, sir. Please come quick.” (via The Bryan Times)

The 911 dispatcher asked if it was a joke, and said he didn't care what the victim's name was. It came off as arrogant and cold. 

Later that morning, friends and family gathered at Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale, Maryland where Bias was pronounced dead at 8:55 a.m. after efforts to revive his heart failed.

After the funeral, Jesse Jackson and Red Auerbach spoke at Bias’ memorial service in front of more than 11,000 fans at Cole Field House.

After Bias’ death, Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell was forced to resign, and Maryland’s program took several years to recover.

Within months, Congress had passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which set mandatory minimum prison sentences for crack cocaine, though Bias died of the powdered form. The law affected black users disproportionately because crack was used more often in the inner city, while powdered cocaine was found more in the more affluent suburbs. Only in 2010 did President Barack Obama sign the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in sentencing between cases involving crack and powdered cocaine.

After Bias died, Larry Bird said, “It was the cruelest thing I ever heard.” In fact, that may have come years later. Bias’ brother Jay was shot dead at the age of 20 after an argument at a jewelry store in Prince George’s Plaza. How much can one family endure?

Bias’ mother Lonise has spent the ensuing years talking to youth, warning them of the dangers of drugs.

Tribble ultimately spent time in jail for cocaine distribution unrelated to the Bias case. He is now a personal trainer in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, blending in with the other trainers, occasionally talking about basketball and other sports.

Untold numbers of people may have avoided cocaine because of the death of Bias.

As time goes on, fewer fans remember Len Bias. Sportswriters, broadcasters and fans now based in D.C. who weren’t here back then will never understand. But fans who watched Maryland and ACC basketball in the 1980s will never forget number 34. May he rest in peace.

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