A controversial request for state money to erect a statue of former basketball star Leonard “Len” Bias at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville will be withdrawn due to concerns about the message the honor would send to students.
Bias was a popular University of Maryland basketball player who died 27 years ago from a cocaine overdose.
State Sen. Victor Ramirez (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly said he decided to pull a $50,000 bond bill he submitted that would cover the costs of creating the statue after concerns were raised about hailing the athlete as a positive role model. Ramirez said he will try to bring the measure back next year.
“I am going to pull it and bring everyone to the table to make sure everyone is comfortable,” said Ramirez, who proposed the statue. “That is sometimes reality for issues such as this.”
Both Ramirez and Bias attended the Hyattsville school.
Mount Rainier Mayor Malinda Miles said she was opposed to the statue because she thought it would send the wrong message and felt there were greater needs to be addressed at the school with the bond money.
“To have died of an overdose of drugs, regardless of the reason or circumstances, is not something I would want my grandchildren to model,” Miles said.
Bias was the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year in 1985 and 1986 as a member of the University of Maryland, College Park, men’s basketball team. He was picked second in the June 1986 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics.
Days after being drafted, he died at age 22 in his campus dorm room after ingesting cocaine, which caused heart failure, according to reports.
Ramirez said he put forth the bond measure because he feels Bias still is a positive role model, particularly to minority students, who developed a connection to UM through him.
“I grew up with a Len Bias poster in my room,” Ramirez said. “He represented someone who could make it. He was one of us.
“I think it was a tragedy, but you can’t allow that one night to take away from who he was, what he stood for. I think he stood for giving people hope and giving kids who grew up in the neighborhood just like his hope that education, the University of Maryland — that college was possible.”
Ramirez, who graduated from Frostburg State University in 1996 with a degree in international relations, said Bias inspired him and his brothers to go to college.
Lonise Bias, Bias’ mother, stressed that the statue was Ramirez’s idea. But she said she supported a tribute that would put a positive light on Bias’ journey as a man coming through Northwestern and the lives affected by his death.
“If it comes to fruition, that is fine,” she said. “If not, we have made it 27 years without a statue. It would be a wonderful thing if it happens. If not, we understand about life.”
She said in her role as a motivational speaker, she has received numerous emails and letters from people who say Bias’ death changed how they view drugs and how to make good decisions.
Lonise Bias operates the Len and Jay Bias Foundation, which seeks to encourage youth to be positive examples in their community.
Students and teachers at the school mostly supported the idea of the statue, despite the circumstances surrounding Bias’ death.
Northwestern senior Iman Abdulrahiman, 17, said she supported the statue because it would highlight Bias’ positive attributes.
“Just because one part of his life was a little messed up, that doesn’t mean us putting up a statute is a promotion of that,” she said. “It is displaying the good part of his legacy, so I would not have an issue with that.”
John Johnson, 17, a senior at the school who plays point guard for the basketball team, said the statue would help to showcase Northwestern’s athletic programs.
“You got to set that aside,” Johnson said of Bias’ cause of death. “He was still great nonetheless.”
Northwestern government teacher Kevin Burke said other controversial sports figures have been honored in the past, noting that Baltimore Ravens officials have discussed erecting a Ray Lewis statue outside M&T Bank Stadium.
When two men were killed in Atlanta in 2000, Lewis initially was accused of murder. But, through a plea bargain, he was convicted of obstruction of justice and was placed on probation.
“Time heals all wounds, doesn’t it?” Burke said. “I think it could be a good thing to have the connection between Northwestern and the University of Maryland, which is good when it’s strong.”
Principal Edgar Batenga declined to give his opinion on the statue, but noted that other graduates of the school have been honored. In 2002, the arts wing of the school was named after Jim Henson, a 1954 Northwestern graduate and the creator of The Muppets.
“I think if it is something the community would support and the school system supports; I don’t think my opinion should stop that,” Batenga said.