Memory of shock, emptiness still fresh 20 years later

David Steele

I was sleepy. But I couldn't have been that sleepy.

It wasn't 9 in the morning yet. I was knocked out on the pull-out sofa in my mother's apartment in Silver Spring. The sound of my younger brother and my friend busting through the door as they came back from an early summer-school class at Maryland had woken me up.

The first thing they said was "Did you hear about Len Bias?"

Twenty years ago this morning, there were a million potential answers to that question. He signed his Celtics contract. He signed a shoe contract. He dunked on Larry Bird in a workout. He appeared in a commercial already. He got traded already.

Any and every answer was possible. Except "He's dead."

They had heard it on the radio on the way home. A heart attack. That didn't make any sense, either. Len Bias had to have been the healthiest-looking athlete on earth. We all, at various stages of our time as Maryland students, had seen him play like Superman.

Len Bias, in fact, had marked the beginning of my professional career. Four months earlier, when I had interviewed in St. Petersburg, Fla., for a job at the now-defunct Evening Independent, my host had asked me what I wanted to do for dinner. I don't care, I said, as long as we watch the Maryland-North Carolina game.

My host was from Baltimore; he understood immediately. We went back to his place and watched Bias hit that jumper, then steal the inbound and throw down a dunk as Maryland became the first visiting team to win in the Dean Dome.

I got the job. A bout of homesickness had brought me back that week, the same week that Len Bias had gotten a new job himself.

We all - and by that, I mean all my Maryland friends - had just seen him shaking David Stern's hand after the Celtics, who had just won another NBA championship, drafted him second overall. For the first and last time, I had gotten together with a bunch of people to watch the draft. Special occasion.

In the two days after, we had pondered the deep psychological and philosophical shift that was required of us becoming - gulp - Celtics fans. Celtics gear had already started popping up all over D.C. and Prince George's County. You did not see kids in the D.C. area, certainly not black kids, wearing Celtics gear in 1986.

Now, the local stations were breaking in with special reports. The cameras were at the hospital. When they showed the stretcher with the long, sheet-covered body, we all let out a gasp. It hadn't been a big mistake after all, a terrible rumor.

Now, they were showing Keith Gatlin, his teammate, the one who threw Len Bias all those alley-oops. He was in the hospital hallway, his fists in the air, his head tilted toward the sky, his face contorted in agony and streaked with tears. Of all the great things Gatlin did as a player, the image I've carried of him for 20 years is not of him in uniform at Cole Field House, but of him in the hospital crying.

Stations returned to regular programming. Between soap operas, a CBS Newsbreak came on. The lead story was Len Bias. Until then, it didn't even dawn on us that this was a national story. It wasn't until later that I realized that everybody, not just us around here, would remember where they were when they heard.

I got dressed, and we drove to campus. It just seemed like that was where we needed to be. TV trucks were all over the place. We went to Cole. People were sitting in the stands, students, lots of them, more coming in every minute.

They sat staring at the vacant floor. Or sat with their heads in their hands. Or leaned back, staring at the ceiling. The ones who didn't sit walked slowly around the concourse until they stopped and just stared at the court, too.

We sat down. We stared. If we said anything, and I don't remember saying much of anything, we whispered.

We went home. The TV and radio stations kept breaking in with reactions from around the country. Lefty Driesell wiping away tears and talking about how he hoped to see "Leonard" in heaven. Larry Bird calling it "the cruelest thing I've ever heard." More clips of the big, sheet-covered body.

The phone kept ringing. Everybody wanted to talk. Can you believe this?

In the middle of all of that, at about 4 in the afternoon, Channel 9 in D.C. suddenly cut live to the newsroom. A reporter had new information. From his mouth, with no warning whatsoever, came the word "cocaine."

No gasp this time. We all blurted out a loud curse.

That moment, even more than when word of Len Bias' death first got out, was when everything changed.

Later, I called the office in Florida. Everybody's been talking about it, I was told. And everybody's been asking about you. Was I all right?

Yeah, I said, sort of.

But nothing, including me, has really been the same since.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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