Lonise Bias: reaching people since 1986

Lonise Bias has made it her mission over the past 20 years that her son Len's death not be in vain. Tuesday was the latest proof that it was not.

A woman came up to her that day, Bias recalled last week, and told her that she had just seen a report about her. "She said, 'I'm so glad you're still alive. I was telling my daughter about you, and I remember when you spoke at my church 20 years ago, at a program for the youth,'" she said. "She was in her early 20s [at the time], she was a young adult, and she said, 'I still remember every word you said.'"

So yes, one generation has heard, and has passed it on to the next.

Len Bias' mother started telling her story of hope - that young people do not lose their life to drugs the way her son, Maryland's All-America basketball star, did 20 years ago tomorrow - at Len's memorial service at Cole Field House, hours after his funeral at the chapel. Many in her audience then have children of their own now. Much of the audience that hears her today, from her many platforms, was not yet born on June 19, 1986.

To that newer audience, she said, she simply gives background information, telling the story so many of the previous generation know by heart, then continuing with her themes: reach them, teach them, love them, save them.

No, it isn't hard trying to reach those kids. "I've done the hardest thing I've ever had to do - that's bury my son. Now that was hard," Bias said. "But I have an understanding about people. I'm not offended because someone may not know or have that reference."

She laughed softly. "It's like the young people say, 'It's all good.'"

Lonise Bias' sunny demeanor, unwavering faith and seemingly limitless composure remain as striking today as they did 20 years ago. From her speech at Cole and appearance on The 700 Club the next night, she graduated to speaking at schools, churches and youth groups locally, then to seminars and conferences nationally. She works with the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy and will spend tomorrow's anniversary doing interviews with the national drug czar, John Walters.

What Bias has done the past two decades - transforming herself from publicly grieving mother to public advocate for drug awareness and parental responsibility - "is a remarkable thing," Walters said. "Obviously as a parent, you can't be unaware that every time you go through this, it's painful. It's positive, but she's doing it by living through that pain."

The pain is especially acute this time of year.

"It is Father's Day this weekend," she said. "Every year for the rest of my life - Father's Day, the day Len died, the NBA draft and my second son's birthday, all fall around the same time. So we've learned to adjust."

Her second son, Jay, turned 16 the day after Len died. Four years later, Jay was shot to death. Bias and her husband, James, have a surviving son and daughter. Jay's death increased both the agony of their loss and the impact of her message.

While it seems at times that no one learned from what happened to Len, she said she meets people all the time like the woman from 20 years ago.

"It's kind of like when you go to the desert," she said. "You see all this desolation, nothing is growing and it's dry. Then, all of a sudden, the right rain comes, and all of these beautiful flowers are there," she said. "I believe, with all of my heart, that I am sowing seeds of life and that in due season the flowers will come. It may come 20 years later. You never know."

The seeds are scattered even in places she never would have imagined back in 1986. Besides being in demand by political, social and community leaders, she is represented by several speakers' bureaus, and her talks to major corporations encompass topics far beyond the death of her famous son. In 1990 she received an honorary doctorate in education from Anna Maria College near Boston, and plans to return to school in the next year.

Bias remembers that as far back as second grade, teachers were calling on her to speak at school programs, but it wasn't until that memorial service that she realized how that ability could serve her and others.

She is not immune to the thoughts everybody else is having today. "You see the John Salleys in entertainment, and the Johnny Dawkinses in coaching, and the young man [Avery Johnson] that is coaching the Mavericks," she said, naming Len's college contemporaries. "You say, 'What if?'"

But she has an answer - and it was illustrated later on the day that she spoke to the woman from 20 years ago. Her husband was watching Game 3 of the NBA Finals. "He was excited, he's a Heat fan, and I heard him yelling. But all that was, was entertainment," she said.

"Had Len lived, that's what he would have been: an entertainer, an entertainer in the sports field. He would have brought a lot of excitement to the game. But in death, he's reaching out in a different way. He lives because we're still talking about him. He's still in the hearts of the people. And I am keeping his legacy alive by bringing hope and life to those who are willing to hear the message."

Points after // David Steele

It's excruciating to think what might have been. Here are some of the players who made All-Atlantic Coast Conference first or second teams during Len Bias' four seasons at Maryland, from 1982-83 to 1985-86, and how their careers went:

Michael Jordan // Besides what he did as a player, he just became part-owner of an NBA team for the second time.

Sidney Lowe // Won a national championship, was just hired to coach at his alma mater, N.C. State.

Johnny Dawkins // Has been one of Mike Krzyzewski's assistants at Duke seemingly forever, and either will be a major college coach someday, or Krzyzewski's replacement.

Kenny Smith // Probably could be an NBA coach any time he wants to; for now will settle for being one of the great studio analysts ever, and winner of two NBA championships.

Mark Price // Avoided the '86 draft jinx, had a great NBA career, now coaching pro ball in Australia, with a return to the states as a coach likely some day.

Chris Washburn // Didn't avoid the '86 draft jinx. Substance abuse drove him out of the NBA and into homelessness. A wasted career and wasted life. But he's still here.

david.steele@baltsun.comRead David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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