I wrote this piece about the day Len Bias died some time ago, but it has never been published. I thought the 20th anniversary of his death would be the appropriate time to present it. This was the most painful piece I've ever written because I dug very deep to bring back the pain of that day, one of the most depressing, disillusioning of my life.
In 1986, if you were a Maryland fan, you were a Len Bias fan. He had capped off his senior season (most stars actually stayed in college for four years in those days) by winning his second consecutive ACC player of the year award a feat no other Terp has accomplished. Bias also made the first team on every meaningful All-American squad published in 1986. He broke Albert King's school career scoring record and clearly established himself as the best basketball player in Maryland history up to that time.
Although Maryland's 19-14 record in 1985-86 represented the most losses in the 17-year Driesell era, it did not diminish the superstar aura around Bias. That status was cemented when he almost single-handedly led the Terps to a 77-72-overtime victory at #1 North Carolina. After so many outstanding teams had been better remembered for the games they lost, this mediocre Terps squad would be remembered for a game they won. More specifically, this was Len Bias’ signature game.
Bias would simply not allow Maryland to lose that night. He scored 35 points and showed unbelievable quickness and cunning late in regulation by scoring, dropping back on defense, then abruptly dashing in to steal the Tar Heels' inbound pass and slam home a reverse dunk to turn the game around in Maryland's favor. Even sweeter for Maryland fans was the fact that this was the first loss for the Tar Heels in the brand new Dean E. Smith Activities Center, better known as the Dean Dome. I still enjoy bringing that up when talking to a Carolina fan that is plucking my nerves.
One seemingly mandatory item for a dorm room in College Park that year was a life-sized poster of Bias, all 6'8" of him flashing his infectious grin, palming a basketball with each hand and wearing Maryland's gaudy gold and red home uniform. Terrapin fans anticipated having many years of enjoyment watching him lead a new generation of stars into the NBA.
There was little doubt among us that Bias would be a better pro than Michael Jordan. To a younger fan, this may sound ludicrous, but the young Jordan was quite raw and very much a work in progress, nothing like the player who would lead the Chicago Bulls to six titles in the 1990's. In 1986, Bias was a better jump shooter and rebounder than Jordan. Bias was also bigger and stronger than Jordan, and ran the court just as well. Jordan was a better man-to-man defender and could handle the ball better than Bias at the time, but he also had the benefit of two seasons in the pros (although the second one was severely shortened by injury). If Bias was drafted by the right team and received some good NBA coaching, his potential seemed limitless.
On June 17, 1986, Bias’ fans had their prayers answered when the Boston Celtics, benefiting from a trade made three years before, selected him with the #2 pick in the NBA draft. The Celtics had just won the world championship and featured one of the greatest front lines in the history of basketball; Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale. This group was reaching the end of their prime, so Bias would have the opportunity to learn the game from these masters before the mantle of leadership was placed on his broad shoulders. Even better, Red Auerbach, a native and resident of Washington, D.C. and one of the greatest sports executives in history, would oversee his development.
As the Bullets had slipped into mediocrity, I had grown to love watching the Celtics play. I enjoyed the toughness and poise they demonstrated on the court, and I thought Bird was the epitome of what a basketball player should be. He immediately offered to arrive early at the following fall's training camp to begin working with Bias, yet another example of the high esteem in which the rookie was held. It appeared the Terps were headed for a bit of a down cycle following Bias' departure, but at least Maryland fans would be able to enjoy watching him keep the Celtics at or near the top of the NBA for at least the next decade.
Two days later, Len Bias was dead, and many dreams died with him.
Thursday, June 19, 1986 held no promise of being unlike any other workday. It would just be a long one for me since I had a class at the University of Maryland to attend that night. I was in the midst of the seemingly endless pursuit of my bachelor’s degree on a part-time basis. The summer heat and humidity that is such a staple of the Nation’s Capital area was establishing it’s stranglehold that morning, and I reminded myself yet again that I must get air conditioning in my next car.
When I arrived at the office, there was still a buzz among the sports fans there regarding the Celtics’ selection of Len Bias in Tuesday’s NBA draft. Along with that, there was considerable debate on how much the Bullets’ blockbuster trade two days ago would help the team. The Bullets had obtained former MVP Moses Malone from the Philadelphia 76ers, bringing him back to the area he spurned eleven years earlier when he chose a pro contract over playing college basketball at Maryland.
Early that morning, word started filtering into my office and many like it throughout the Baltimore-Washington area that something had happened to Len Bias, perhaps a heart attack. That seemed impossible, since Bias appeared to be as close to physical perfection as a human being could get. Phones were ringing constantly throughout the morning at my office as friends and loved ones called to relay the latest news or rumor they had heard in these pre-Internet days.
I was desperate to get any information I could about the situation. AM radio signals could not be picked up in our building, so we had to rely on outside sources or people running out to their cars to hear news broadcasts. I absolutely would not accept the possibility that Bias would be doing anything except playing for the Celtics in the fall. There had been the tragic, premature deaths of former Maryland basketball players Owen Brown and Chris Patton within weeks of each other in 1976, but this was Len freakin’ Bias for God’s sake. Fans would not have been all that surprised to see bullets bounce off his chest. He couldn’t just keel over. He just couldn’t!
Finally, the announcement came late that morning that Bias had died. My mother, who was severely limited physically but still razor sharp mentally, was one of our office's unofficial current event monitors. Some of my co-workers used to call her "UPI" because she often called me and relayed breaking news. As she had done only a few months earlier when the Challenger space shuttle exploded during takeoff, mom called me with the news about Bias. Initially, I argued irrationally with her, denial having a firm hold on my suddenly fragile psyche. I told my mother that she must have heard reports wrong or that there must be a case of mistaken identity, anything to make this not be true.
HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN? HOW COULD THIS BE REAL? Only two days earlier, Bias had been on top of the world and taken his fans along for the ride. Now he was gone and the joy we shared because of his accomplishments and the celebration of the person we thought he was had been replaced with a deep, dark and intense feeling of despair.
I joined many coworkers in moving through the balance of the day in a daze. This tragedy was not on the same level as the Challenger accident, but I didn’t know the astronauts personally. Maryland basketball fans felt we KNEW Len Bias. It was like having a member of our extended families stricken down. One young African-American in our office was particularly devastated. He had played some college basketball at a smaller school and idolized Bias. Idols are not supposed to die, especially so young, but his had.
I then had my class on the College Park campus that evening. I habitually left work immediately at quitting time on school nights to try and beat the worst of rush hour traffic on Washington's Capital Beltway. This usually gave me a chance to relax in the student union on campus or at a local restaurant before class and wind down from the day at work. There was no need to wind down that night, however, because I was already numb. Instinctively, I headed directly for Cole Field House. Upon my arrival, I found that I was not the only person drawn there that night.
Cole was usually open when there was no event in progress. The concourse, located above the seating bowl, was often used as a jogging track, discouraging loiterers. When I entered the building I saw dozens, perhaps hundreds, of students and other fans scattered among the gray, yellow, and red seats. Many were in small groups but some, like me, were alone with their memories and sadness. Some were holding their heads in their hands sobbing, but more were staring out into space, searching for a way to make sense out of what still seemed to be a tragic death of an innocent and heroic young icon.
Sports are where most of the people in that building had turned to escape everyday stress and find a balance to pain and tragedy in their everyday lives. Damn it, that's what I had done, and I just did not feel I could bear having the only orderly and entertaining part of my life violated by such heartbreak! Other schools did not have to deal with their stars dropping dead at the ridiculously young age of 22. Why Maryland? Why us? God, I thought, help me understand why this happened!
My Christian training led me to consider approaching someone who was sitting alone to try and reach out to offer comfort, but I truly had none to give. If I opened up to someone, even a complete stranger, I was fearful of starting to cry and not knowing when or if I would stop. Instead, I looked up toward the heavens for answers. What I saw were the banners hanging from the rafters at Cole commemorating the greatest players and teams in school history.
At that time, Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, John Lucas, Albert King, and Buck Williams were the athletes so honored. All of Lefty's teams that finished in the top 20 nationally were also recognized. Driesell had put together some wonderful teams made up of truly great college players. None of them had been greater than Bias, who was now gone forever. He would never experience the love of his adoring fans on a special night when his number joined those hanging over the floor where he had made basketball magic happen. On this night, it was instead Bias' memory being honored by an impromptu gathering of heartbroken mourners.
I sat in the stands for a while, allowing my mind to sift through the happy memories and today’s tragedy. I was in too much of a daze to shed tears, and I eventually left without interacting with anyone. I'm not even sure I went to my scheduled class. I don't remember anything until my return home later that night. I sat on my bed for the longest time trying desperately to get my mind on something, anything else so I could get some sleep. Instead, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that things would never be quite right again, how a part of my spirit had been crushed and I was not sure that it would ever heal.
For the first and only time in my life, I seriously questioned if I should try to douse the fire burning so strongly in me that fueled my passion for sports and especially the Terps. The joy that I had experienced watching the Redskins, Orioles, and Bullets win championships was wonderful. More specifically, the excitement and attachment I felt toward Maryland basketball had been a great part of my life, even with all the close losses in big games. As good as any of that had ever made me feel, it could not compare to the depression I was not settling into.
How could watching games and becoming emotionally attached to players I would likely never meet be worth this? I had no answers, only a dull ache in my soul. I desperately needed to get my arms around this pain, but it was like a shadow, something I could not touch but that was engulfing me in darkness.
I finally went back into the living room and turned on the television. I aimlessly flipped channels with the remote, making sure I did not linger on any news or sports channel since they were saturated with reports about Bias’ death. I could feel how the despair, anger, and confusion were working together inside my body to tie my stomach up in a knot that threatened to consume me. After a while, I turned off the TV and sat by myself in the dark, silent apartment and felt the tears finally flow. When I returned to bed, I thought the worst part of this tragedy was over. I never suspected that, in reality, it had only just begun.