Remembering Len Bias

Twenty years after the death of the dream

Thursday, June 15, 2006

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Photo courtesy university of maryland
Next week marks 20 years since the death of Len Bias, who starred on the basketball court at Northwestern High and the University of Maryland.

It seems like only yesterday. The electrifying dunks. The chiseled body and the soft shooting touch. He seemingly had it all. Then it was gone.

On June 19, 1986, Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication. Less than 48 hours earlier, the Boston Celtics had selected the former Northwestern High star and University of Maryland All-American as the second pick in the National Basketball Association draft.

‘‘He’s probably the best athlete and basketball player to come out of this county at the college level,” said County Schools Athletic Supervisor Earl Hawkins, who was the boys’ basketball coach at Crossland High in 1986. ‘‘He had potential for greatness at the pro level. It was just a total tragedy.”

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of Bias’ death. It’s one of the greatest tragedies in American sports history. Around Prince George’s County, the loss of a favorite son remains fresh.

‘‘The thing about Lenny, was he was very good. He went to a local university and was very, very good there,” said Fairmont Heights coach George Wake. ‘‘To never see him to step on the floor and see if he could be the next [Michael] Jordan or partner to Larry Bird or match up against Magic Johnson, and see how good he is ... his life was cut short.”

Len Bias was just 22 years old.

‘Air’ apparent?

Like most stars, Bias’ ascent began modestly. He played at the Columbia Park Recreation Center in Landover, a few blocks from his family’s Columbia Road house in Landover Hills.

‘‘He was a big kid,” said Leon Rivers, who played with Bias at Columbia Park when they were pre-teens. ‘‘You never thought he would develop into the player that he was, I can tell you that.”

Bias went to Northwestern and played under Bob Wagner. Hawkins, who coached another former Maryland standout and NBA player, Walt Williams, said the Wildcats played a team system, but Bias’ talents were evident.

‘‘I remember Bob [Wagner] would go to camp, learn a move, come back and the first thing he’d do is teach Lenny,” said Wake, who coached Bias on the AAU circuit. ‘‘Teach Lenny today and Lenny would use it tomorrow. He was that quick of a learner and good of an athlete.”

Bias chose to stay close to home at Maryland, less than a 10-minute walk from his high school in Hyattsville. After winning player of the year honors in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1984-85, following in the footsteps of North Carolina’s Michael Jordan, Bias’ legend began to grow.

‘‘I just remember him being the king on campus,” said Laurel coach Keith Coutreyer, who was then a freshman at Columbia Union College in nearby Takoma Park. ‘‘I remember him being in the dorm room that looked out over the court, looking to see if the run was good, then coming out and just taking over the court. He was so good, guys would go up there in the event that he would come out on the court that day. He may not show up, but it would be 50 guys out there playing hard to get [Maryland’s players] to come out and play. On the day they came out, you remembered that if you lost, you weren’t getting back on the court.”

Bias won his second straight ACC player of the year honors in his senior season and finished with a then school-record 2,149 points. His signature performance may have come in the Terps’ victory at North Carolina, which was the Tar Heels’ first loss at the new Dean Smith Center. Bias scored 35 points, including a steal and reverse dunk off an inbound pass.

At 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds, Bias was built like a Greek statue with a blend of grace, power and athleticism. He was seemingly on his way to joining another local kid, Palmer Park’s Sugar Ray Leonard, in athletic stardom.

‘‘In passing, you would hear about Len Bias and his incredible leaping ability, then you would hear he’s 6-8 but he has a silky smooth jumper,” said former Largo and current Riverdale Baptist coach Lou Wilson. ‘‘You may hear someone else talk about his timing and the way he can go block shots and retrieve the ball.”

Jordan and Nike were in the early years of a relationship that arguably opened new marketing doors for professional athletes. Reebok believed Bias could become a name to raise its image, inking him to a $325,000 endorsement deal before he’d even played a pro game.

With a rookie contract that was expected to be in the $700,000 range, the kid from Columbia Road was on the verge of becoming a millionaire. He already knew the first purchase he was going to make.

‘‘A car,” he told a reporter at the NBA Draft in New York on June 17, 1986. ‘‘A Mercedes.”

‘The cruelest thingI’ve ever heard’

On the morning of June 19, 1986, Coutreyer was working at a shoe store in Langley Park next to Langley Hairstylists where Bias would get his hair cut.

‘‘I just remember the guys running out of the barber shop, driving up on campus trying to get whatever information they could get,” said Coutreyer.

‘‘I was outside fixing my car, and my wife came to the door and told me, ‘you better come look at this,’” said Wake.

The last time many people saw Bias he was wearing a white suit with a black tie, holding a Boston Celtics jersey alongside NBA Commissioner David Stern. Now, Bias was completely wrapped in a white sheet and being rolled out of Leland Memorial Hospital into a medical examiner’s truck.

‘‘We couldn’t believe it. When I got home, my mom had run over to the Bias’ house,” said Clinton Venable, who was best friends and a former Northwestern teammate of Len’s brother Jay. ‘‘We were trying to calm Jay down. It was like a bad dream.”

Bias’ last hours have been recounted many times over the years. After meeting with Celtics officials and the local media in Boston June 18, Bias and his father flew back to Maryland and went to their Landover home. Late that evening, Bias returned to the University of Maryland campus.

In the early hours of June 19, Bias had a celebration with friend Brian Tribble and teammates David Gregg and Terry Long in his dorm room at Washington Hall. Cocaine was present. Several hours later, Bias collapsed.

At 8:55 a.m., Leonard Kevin Bias was pronounced dead.

‘‘It’s the cruelest thing I’ve ever heard,” Celtics star Larry Bird told the Boston media that day.

‘‘He was perfect for us,” said Boston Celtics President Danny Ainge, who was the team’s starter at shooting guard in 1986 and had played in pickup games with Bias in the summer of 1985. ‘‘I was never so excited. With Kevin [McHale], Robert [Parrish] and Larry, he would give us the perfect rotation. I looked at it as a great fit for him and the franchise.”

Earlier that June, Boston had won the NBA title. But the Celtics were an aging team, desperate for the infusion of youth and athleticism Bias was to have brought. The Celtics lost in the NBA Finals in 1987 and have only made it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals twice since then.

In the span of two days, Len Bias went from being the next face of a storied NBA franchise to the center of the nation’s drug problem.

‘‘His death woke the nation up,” said Lonise Bias, Len’s mother. ‘‘If Len would have lived, he would have entertained you. But in death, he brought life.”

Lessons learned?

One son died of a drug overdose. Four years later, her other son was killed in a random act of violence. The unimaginable pain has been a source of strength for Lonise Bias. Since Len’s death, Lonise has spoken across the country about drug abuse among the nation’s youth.

‘‘Life is a bowl with lemon and honey, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter,” said Bias, whose other son, Jay, was shot and killed in the parking lot at Prince George’s Mall in 1990 after an argument. ‘‘One’s character is defined through hardship.”

Lonise Bias didn’t know Len used cocaine. Tribble stood trial in 1987 for providing the drugs that killed the basketball star, but was acquitted. Long testified Bias had taken cocaine on several occasions.

In the aftermath of Bias’ death, Maryland revamped its athletic department policy including random drug testing, a stricter admission process and expanded academic support.

Though Len Bias became the face of the nation’s cocaine problem 20 years ago, recent statistics from the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed an increase in first-time usage over the last decade. Len Elmore, a former Maryland All-American, said the Bias tragedy is still relevant.

‘‘When you talk to kids about it, they’ll understand and make the connection,” said Elmore, a college basketball analyst for ESPN and CBS. ‘‘And I imagine their response will be, ‘Well, it won’t happen to me.’”

Rivers said he thinks about Bias when he sees children wearing his No. 34 throwback jersey. He shakes his head because they don’t know about Bias’ rise and sudden tragic fall.

‘‘They know he was a great player, but don’t realize how good he was, how significant he was and how he impacted the whole community,” said Coutreyer while his watching his team play a summer league game at High Point.

In a couple of weeks, the 2006 NBA Draft will take place in New York City. Young men will realize their dreams, just as Len Bias did 20 years ago.

‘‘I grew up in Landover, and to see someone to make good, that was probably the biggest thing I’ve ever wanted to see,” said Rivers. ‘‘Then to see it happen the way it did, it was a sad day.”

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