For my generation of sports crazed folk, we all remember exactly where we were when we heard about the death of Len Bias.
It was late in the morning of June 19, 1986. I was in car with my buddies headed to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and we had the radio on back before Sirius and before you replaced all your records and cassettes with CDs. The news bulletin hit me and the other basketball fans in the car like a bolt of lightning, shocking us into disbelief. Worse, the one member of our quartet who was asleep was a diehard Celtics fans.
We had angst about waking him up to pass along the news but it was too important not to. When I — the Lakers Guy — told him, he didn’t believe me, but quickly sizing us up, realized how devastated we all were. It was true.
Four guys on the way to the beach and we stopped at the first sports-bar-looking place we could find to get them to put on ESPN so we could figure out what the hell had happened. Thirty-five years later I still can’t really tell you.
All I know is that we all were deprived of seeing one of the greatest basketball players I have ever seen take that ton of talent to the NBA and play alongside Larry Bird and all those other damn Celtics. It would have been great.
Maryland honored Bias at Xfinity Center Dec. 1, with his parents, James & Dr. Lonise Bias in attendance. It’s all part of the commemoration of their son’s enshrinement last month in the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mo.
That summer of 1986, I was working in athletics at Virginia Tech, ironically Maryland’s opponent in this week’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge. I never got to see Bias play live. But I had seen him on television, so I got it. To this day, I can’t get images of his game at North Carolina that winter out of my head. Bias had 35 points to hand the Tar Heels their first loss ever in the “Dean Dome,” their then-brand new building.
That classic reverse dunk he made look so easy and so casual. No one could stop Len Bias that night, and it wasn’t hard to imagine NBA defenders would have the same problem.
“Lenny could catch fire and just go off,” teammate Keith Gatlin told ESPN last year. “And that’s exactly what he did. He went off on North Carolina. You’d pretty much give it to him in his sweet spots and let him go to work.”
And Len Bias had a lot of sweet spots. He was so quick and so strong in the low post, but he had perimeter skills, too, back when that wasn’t as common for 6-foot-8 players. There was nothing common about Bias’ game. In any era.
“He was a willing passer and he’d give it back to you, but he elevated so high on his jump shot that a hand up to him was really not a contest to him,” Gatlin continued. “There was no defense for that.”
Gatlin had more on that magical night, a highlight reel that forcibly introduced much of the nation to Bias’ potential.
“Lenny was so great that night,” he said. “They’d just taken the 3-point shot back out, so he might’ve had 50. He just went on a tear. They tried size on him. They tried [6-foot-11] Warren Martin, [7-foot] Brad Daugherty. They went small with [6-foot-4] Steve Hale. They tried pretty much whoever they had but he was just focused that night.”
The tributes poured out of the huge video board above the Xfinity Center court Wednesday night. Jay Bilas called Bias a “transcendent player.” Walt Williams said Bias made him a Terps fan. Mike Wilbon simply said he was “the best player.”
We never got to see what Bias would have done in the NBA, and again, for basketball fans of a certain age, it’s like a hole we can never fill. I know what a silly and selfish way that is to think about the tragedy that was Bias’ too-brief career. I felt similarly stupid and silly and also old when I heard Bias would have turned 58 years old on Nov. 18.
I love basketball and I wanted to see what Bias would become. Would Bias and Michael Jordan have picked up the Bird-Magic rivalry mantle into the ’90s?
I was at Radford in 1989 when Lefty Driesell assistant Oliver Purnell came to be our coach. He was a figure in the aftermath of Bias’s death, but I never pressed him on that. It was too painful for those who actually lived through it, and I understood.
It was painful for me from afar.
I did love to hear “OP” talk about who Bias was as a player, though, how he could lift an entire team, fill an arena with energy and passion with his play. Made me wish I had seen it up close and personal.
I arrived on the Maryland basketball beat in the late ’90s, and the impact of the tragedy was still apparent here — in how the athletic department dealt with the media and with public perception. And honestly, in a virtual cloud that often seemed to hang over events here and made even the diehards pessimistic about the program.
Thanks Gary Williams and Ralph Friedgen for making it all just fun again.
I had that same epiphany about Maryland Wednesday night, Bias’ parents basking in the adoration for their son, and briefly meeting with the press and sharing nothing but positive thoughts. His mother called it “ashes turned into beauty.”
Thirty-five years is a long time. I now just conjure up the good from Bias’ career. I smiled as I looked into an absolute sea of yellow Maryland jerseys emblazoned with the No. 34 in Xfinity. No sad thoughts. Only the good. Thanks, Len.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics