Archives – Rise and fall of Len Bias

Cole Field House is dimly lit, just a single row of lights burning high above the floor. a few people walk around the concourse, but it's mostly quiet.There are no banners hanging from the rafters, and there are no basketball hoops down below. But you can still feel something. Red wooden seats circle the arena and even though the Maryland Terrapins moved out three years ago, the sense of history hits you like a rush of air when you open the doors.

You take a seat and travel back 20 years. There he is - Len Bias - near the baseline. A 10-footer. He lifts off the ground, rising more than three feet before peaking and pausing. It's a jumper that smiles for the camera. He's suspended. You look for wires that might be dropping from the ceiling, but there are none.

There, he hangs forever.

Two decades have passed, but Bias' 1985-86 season still stands as the best anyone has put together in a Terps uniform. History focuses its lens on the negative. Bias overdosed on cocaine two days after the Boston Celtics made him the No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA draft. Potential wasted.

But that senior season, the potential is what the buzz was all about. That's why Bias had such lofty expectations. That's why they all said his death hurt not just the University of Maryland and the Celtics, but all of the NBA and the entire sport of basketball.

He set foot on campus as a freshman, raw and undisciplined, and built himself into something they're still talking about today. Bias' junior year, he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring and was named the ACC's Player of the Year. By the start of his senior season, you could see how special he was. He had that quality about him, something more than confidence, like Bias was the only one who really understood how good he might be.

His own teammates were star-struck at times. The Landover native was treated like a deity.

"Seeing Lenny on campus, it was always like some kind of big sighting," says former teammate Dave Dickerson. Dickerson, head coach at Tulane University, was a wide-eyed freshman during Bias' senior season.

"A lot of people walked around campus preparing to see him, hoping that this was the day you'd see him," Dickerson says. "They walked around with cameras. They were ready for an autograph at any moment. L.B. was a rock star. It was pretty spectacular."

Twenty years ago this week, it all started, the beginning of the end.

On Nov. 23, 1985, Bias and the No. 19 Terps tipped off the season against Northeastern, led by Reggie Lewis, another Celtics draft pick who would die too young. Bias put up 23 points and eight rebounds before fouling out. The rest of the season moved like dominoes.

The Terps struggled early in ACC play, losing six straight - including a four-point home loss to top-ranked North Carolina. In a loss to Duke, Bias poured in a career-high 41 points - the third most in school history.

By that time, coach Lefty Driesell had ordered the team to feed Bias the ball more often and the wins started coming.

A month later, the Terps upset No. 17 N.C. State and had some confidence heading into a mid-February meeting at North Carolina, still ranked No. 1 in the country.

The game stands as Bias' best, saved in scrapbooks and preserved in memories. Bias scored 17 in the first half, but the Tar Heels led by nine with three minutes to go. Bias was fouled as he hit a jumper and made the free throw.

Then, like a move from a video game, he intercepted the inbounds pass and in one fluid motion launched toward the hoop. His reverse slam made it a four-point game.

With just 58 seconds on the clock, Bias hit another jump shot, bringing the Terps within two. The Tar Heels swarmed around Bias like bees, and Jeff Baxter hit an 18-footer to send the game into overtime.

Bias scored four of Maryland's eight points in the overtime and the Terps upset the nation's best team by five points. Their star finished the game with 35 points.

"God was with us tonight, and God was Lenny Bias," point guard Keith Gatlin said after the game, according to Lenny, Lefty and the Chancellor, former Sun reporter C. Fraser Smith's thorough 1992 book on the Bias tragedy.

The Terps beat North Carolina again on March 7 and had high hopes entering the NCAA tournament. Bias scored 26 in a first-round win over Pepperdine.

In the second round, UNLV clung to a narrow lead for much of the night and took a seven-point lead into the waning moments. The seconds were ticking away on Bias' collegiate career.

He scored 19 of his team's final 21 points, including 10 in the final two minutes, but it wasn't enough. Bias fouled out of his final basketball game with three seconds to go, walking off the court with 31 points. The Terps lost, 70-64.

Away from basketball, Bias was somewhat of an enigma. He was everything to everybody. Many saw whatever they wanted to see.

He was a Christian, and yet he'd started casually using cocaine his senior year. He was the model student-athlete and talked to young kids about the value of an education, and yet he was failing classes and stopped attending them altogether once the basketball season ended.

He was often difficult with reporters but glib with complete strangers.

"People are always talking about my attitude, but they never put themselves in my place," he told The Washington Post after winning his second ACC Player of the Year award and being named to two All-America teams. "And the publicity gets hard. It makes me uncomfortable."

That senior season, he was Lenny and L.B. and Leonard and Len. He was a monster with a basketball - NBA players came to Cole Field House to watch him play - and yet still a kid most of the day.

"I have two images of L.B.," Dickerson says today. "I can see him going to the rim in practice every day, dunking all over me. And then I have this image that I love the most, just being around him in the dorm, listening to him sing James Ingram. He was always checking on everyone, knocking on everyone's door, telling us it's time to go play pickup or time to do this or that."

Bias' dorm room had posters featuring a Porsche, a Lamborghini and himself - all elite, high-performance machines. He drew cartoons and pictures and dreamed about the future. No one knew how bright - or how dark - it could be.

He died before he ever set foot on an NBA court. Last week would've marked his 42nd birthday.

It's easy to say now, but many scholars mention Bias' name alongside David Thompson's and Michael Jordan's when discussing the game's top talents.

"He could've been as good as anybody," says Maryland coach Gary Williams. "As a basketball fan, you wonder how far the game would've taken him. NBA All-Star? One of the best players of all time? We don't know."

Cole Field House was a dark place in the years after Bias' death. Today it's a relic on campus. The team plays its games at Comcast Center, which is almost too nice and too fancy. That's where you'll find Bias' old No. 34 on display, but that's not where Bias' legacy hangs.

As a teenager, Bias sold ice cream at Cole Field House. The antique arena is where he came for four years and made his name as a basketball wunderkind. And when that was over, it's where 11,000 fans gathered for a memorial service to say goodbye.

To see Bias at the field house now, you have to close your eyes and remember that he's eternally hanging in midair, ready to flick his right wrist, eyes locked on the hoop. When that ball was in his hands, it seemed like he'd never come down.

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