By Greg Abel
Twenty years have passed since that unbelievable, surreal and profoundly sad morning when Len Bias — Maryland’s own chiseled superhero in high tops — died from a cocaine overdose less than 48 hours after being drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics.
For Maryland students, fans and anyone connected to the university at that time, the moment remains burned in memory never to be erased, joining a list of horrendous but significant, “you remember exactly where you were” moments like the Kennedy assassination for members of an earlier generation, or the Challenger explosion.
“I used to have to pull him out of practice he would dominate so much.” – Lefty Driesell
Ask any Maryland fan. They can close their eyes and it is as vivid today as it was then.
“Greg, wake up,” Eric said, shaking my shoulders. My older brother, the basketball star in the family, was kneeling next to my bed. I opened my eyes, groggy from sleep. I was 16. It was summer break. 9 a.m. was early.
I can still remember that look on his face; it was a look I had not seen before.
“Len Bias is dead,” he said.
Eric may as well have said that Mom and Dad packed up and moved to the moon.
The previous summer at basketball camp, I watched Len and his younger brother Jay put on a dunking exhibition that left the campers speechless and in complete awe. I will never forget it.
Just two days earlier, Len put on that green Celtics cap and flashed that brilliant smile.
“What? What are you talking about? That can’t be true,” I said.
I just wanted to go back to sleep, but he persisted.
“It’s on the radio. Len Bias is dead.”
We turned on what was then B104 and I can remember the DJ playing “Missing You” by Diana Ross as a dedication to Lenny. For some reason that made it real to me. To this day I can’t think of anything but Len Bias when I hear that song.
We’re missing him still.
Much has changed in two decades, of course. Len Bias is no longer the all-time leading scorer in Maryland history; that honor belongs to Juan Dixon. Lefty Driesell is no longer the face of Maryland basketball; that distinction belongs to Gary Williams. Those facts, along with the 2002 National Championship and subsequent move to the Comcast Center have dimmed the extent to which Bias and his legacy define Maryland basketball.
But when we look up during a Maryland home game and see number 34 hanging in the rafters, we remember him like it was yesterday. We remember Len Bias as a person and as a player, and we remember how his game and sudden death affected all of us.
From players to coaches, from fans to members of the media, everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news and how it changed their lives.
Retired college basketball coach
When I think back about Leonard I have mixed emotions. I think about him as a person and what a great kid he was. He was just a super kid. I never had any problems with him.
He probably improved as much or more than any player I ever coached. He could take you inside and dunk on you, shoot a jump shot, a turn-around jumper, a hook shot, he could do anything. And he was an excellent defensive player. Leonard worked so hard. I used to have to pull him out of practice he would dominate so much. I’d say, ‘Leonard, get out. Let’s see how we can do without you in there.’
The way I found out [about his death] was that the hospital called me. His parents called me. As far as I know, someone brought some drugs in there. He didn’t know what he was doing. He tried it and it killed him.
I said to my son the other day, “Be honest with me, because people are going to ask me, ‘did you know Lenny to ever use drugs?'” And he said, “Dad, I’m telling you, we would sit around and drink beer and he wouldn’t even drink a beer with us.”
The reason that I was able to handle it then and I am able to handle it today is because he was a born-again Christian and there’s no doubt in my mind where he is — he’s in heaven.
Real estate investor, Roomed with Len Bias all four years at Maryland
The night that the whole event happened, I was at my girlfriend’s house and I had fallen asleep and I had her wake me up because I had an exam the next morning. She woke me up at about 12:30 and I went back to the room that Len and I shared. In our room he had the Celtics jersey, the new pair of green Reebok sneakers. I’m thinking to myself, “the guy is about to be a Boston Celtic.” I was in awe.
I went to the room on the other side of the suite, (teammate) Terry Long’s room. I went to the door and knocked and there was a minute or two before it was opened. I went in there, gave [Bias] a hug and he lifted me off the floor, which wasn’t unusual. I saw liquor and beer in the room but if there was anything else, they would not have pulled that out in front of me. I never knew Lenny to drink any liquor.
We talked for about 30 minutes and then I returned to my room and went to sleep. I was awakened three or four hours later at like 5 o’clock in the morning. David Gregg (another teammate) came in and said “Jeff, Jeff, wake up, Lenny is passed out.” I said “what?” So I walk out into the living room and Lenny is on the floor, passed out.
You see this specimen on the floor. He had a perfect build. Perfectly cut with a small waist and to see him lying on the floor with his eyes closed… I didn’t know what to think. He had a thick gold chain on his neck at the time. I’m so caught up in the moment, the paramedics are coming in the door, and I’m thinking the gold chain was choking him. I am trying to find out what happened, talking to Terry and David, and neither one responds to me.
I wasn’t aware at the time, but the last thing I would have thought was in his system was drugs. I would have bet my life on the fact that Lenny wouldn’t have used drugs, and also that it would have been the first time.
I choose to remember all the positive things. I smile daily thinking about different things we used to do. He was so much fun and so funny. Lenny had a warm heart, he was just a good person and that came from his family.
Mike Krzyzewski (via email)
Head Coach, Duke University
I have said many times that the two most difficult opposing players to prepare for in my time in the ACC were Michael Jordan and Len Bias. Len was a gifted player. He was special, and our league has had a lot of great players. The news of his death was tragic as he would have been an amazing professional player after his college career. It was a sad day for the entire sport of basketball as we lost one of the best players of that era. When I think about Len Bias now, I think of how hard he competed and how tremendously talented he was. Other than Michael Jordan, he is the player that no teams had the answer for. He was that good.
Sportscaster, Comcast SportsNet
I was an intern at WUSA Channel 9 for the late, great Glenn Brenner, and we had a weekend sports anchor named James Brown. I was supposed to go out on my first story, a story on Georgetown guard Michael Jackson being drafted. I got a call from my mom. She said “Lenny’s dead” and for about 30 seconds I’m thinking, “Who in my family is named Lenny?” And finally I said, “Lenny who, mom?”
She said Len Bias.
I turned the TV on and saw the news and couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t get my head around it. I was stunned.
I knew the players, I knew Lenny. I called the station and went right into work mode. They told me to get over to campus right now; JB is on his way there. When I got to Cole Field House all the TV trucks were there, they gave me a microphone and a camera crew and said talk to as many people as you can.
We had our satellite truck parked near Washington Hall and Keith Gatlin came to the truck and asked to speak to JB. He took JB and they walked away. It was at that point that Gatlin told JB that this involved drugs. And I’ll never forget JB, all 6-6 or 6-7 of him, he is a mountain of a man, I saw his body shrink. He came back to the truck and said, “We have to break this news.”
After we got done with the 6:30 news, it finally dawned on me what took place. I just started to cry like a baby. Glenn Brenner picked me up, put me in his office and I lay on his couch until I could gather myself.
Scott van Pelt
ESPN SportsCenter Anchor and University of Maryland graduate
I was a sophomore and I was up at my girlfriend’s house in Pennsylvania and I drove home because I had to get to my summer job, which was being the manager of the pool at Norbeck Country Club in Rockville.
I stopped at the 7-11 on Georgia Ave. in Olney to get a Big Gulp and I ran into my best friend’s little brother. He had this look on his face and he said to me, “Did you hear about Bias?” And I say, “Yeah, he was the second pick, he’s going to the Celtics,” I thought he was talking about the draft.
He said “Bias is dead.”
I said, “What are you talking about?”
And I am trying to process this information in my head. I’m 20 years old and not making sense of it. I’m pissed because I’m thinking he’s not telling the truth. I remember just wandering out to the parking lot there thinking, “There’s no way Len Bias is dead.” I called someone to try to get to Keith Gatlin, who was one of my friends. It was just this awful, awful day. I had to work. I started just listening to the radio and hearing the stories and just freaking out.
I just tried to find someone, anyone to talk to about it. No one knew where anyone was. I drove over to campus and cameras and police are everywhere, it’s just a freak show. I’m driving around thinking to myself, “This can’t possibly be real.”
Lenny was a god at Maryland. Absolutely a god. He was that good and he was larger than life in every sense of the word. That body, that booming voice, he was from outer space.
The thing that pissed me off more than anything and still to this day people will make an off-handed remark about it… yes, he lost his life to drugs. But I had fraternity brothers who did more drugs in a week than he did in his life. The fact that it implies he was some sort of drug fiend is a disrespectful way to view his life. As best I know, he was not into drugs.
I went to the memorial service for him at Cole. Jesse Jackson was there. Lefty spoke and Jesse spoke, Len’s mom spoke. Lefty said, “One more time, let’s give one more last standing O for Lenny.” The place is going crazy. And you are there in Cole Field House and cheering for a dead guy. It was so bizarre.
If you are a Maryland person you can never escape it.
High School basketball coach and owner of an athletic training company
The night he passed out it was in my dorm room. I was not involved in the actual party or whatever they where doing. I heard paramedics and woke up to that.
How often does it come up? Every day. I’m in ACC country. I’m from North Carolina. I can be on vacation with my wife. I can be anywhere in the world and people say, “Weren’t you the point guard when Len Bias passed away?” It’s never about what kind of player I was or what kind of person I am. That’s something that’s going to follow me to my grave. I don’t drink or smoke and never have, but Len’s death put a negative perception on all of us.
We all know that there were and are drugs and alcohol on every campus. But because it was an ACC school and because Len lost his life, it was blown way out of proportion.
I’m 41 now and looking back on it, the way it came out made it seem like the whole team was on drugs. And I say this with no disrespect to anyone; Len Bias is not the only player in college basketball that had an encounter with drugs. It is unfortunate that he paid the ultimate price.
I always tell kids, “Please be careful of what you do and who you hang out with because you can be guilty by association.” That’s the thing that changed my life forever.
Head coach, University of Maryland
I was in the office at Ohio State that morning and a good friend called and said you won’t believe this, but Len Bias died.
Your first inclination is to think it’s someone’s idea of a sick joke. He seemed invincible. If you ever saw him, he looked like Superman. I just couldn’t believe that it happened; it was a feeling of complete shock.
I think players today, the guys I am coaching were just born when he died. They know the history of it, and it’s probably a good thing that they are aware of it. The athletic department is still very cautious in a lot of the things that they do that relate to his name.
As a coach, it’s your greatest fear that one of your players dies a tragic death at an early age. Maryland became the whipping boy for what was wrong with college athletics. It wasn’t fair. People would point to Maryland and say, “This is what’s wrong with college athletics.” Who is to say that it couldn’t have been someone else?
In the 80s, cocaine was the problem. The drug testing wasn’t anywhere near what it is today. If [Bias’ death] had any positive effects, that was it. The death of Len Bias was a tough thing for the university. I am proud of the fact that we were able to recover.
When I first heard the news about Len’s death, I was at home in bed. I was asleep when we received the call and I remembered thinking it was a dream and that I would awaken soon. It was early in the morning when we got the call. I remember going to the hospital after that and just not believing it. It was only after all the outpouring of emotion from around the country that I remember grasping for the first time that my son was a star. Up to then, he was just my son.
Len was my pride and joy and losing him was one of the most difficult, challenging times of my life. I believe that Len died so that others might live. Twenty years later, my mission is still the same: to educate parents on the important role they play in their child’s decision about drug use. It’s important for parents to monitor their kids and keep them away from drugs. We need to work to save more than just one life and turn the youth in a positive direction–then Len’s death will have not been in vain.
Retired Head Coach, University of North Carolina
His senior year he was sensational. He improved each year and he almost single-handedly beat us here in Chapel Hill. I could see why Red Auerbach wanted him; he was very quick, a very good athlete and he got better and better every time we played.
The morning he died, our camp was in session and I was driving from one camp to the other, and I heard the news on the radio. I was in shock. The whole camp was in shock. It was amazing. It got so quiet everywhere. It was quiet at lunch, the whole camp, the kids; everyone in athletics that knew of him was in complete shock.
After I heard the news, I called Lee Fentress, his agent, who also represented Brad Daugherty and they were already working real hard to get things straight. It is a sad time and maybe the only good thing that could come from it is that others don’t celebrate that way.
Greg Abel is a freelance writer in Baltimore and can be reached at email@example.com.