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Remembering Len Bias 30 years after his death: 'We were in awe'

Remembering Len Bias 30 years after his death: "We were in awe."

The first inkling about Len Bias came the summer before his freshman year at Maryland when he played in the well-respected Urban Coalition league in Washington. The league was made up mostly of college players, local NBA players and a few older playground legends.

"He was better than [Washington Bullets] Greg Ballard and Charles Davis," recalled Pete Holbert, who was one of Bias' teammates and was going into his junior year with the Terps. "He was just killing these guys. These were grown men. He dunked on everybody."

Bias led the league in scoring with 36 points per game, Holbert said.

Approaching Sunday, the 30th anniversary of Bias' death from a cocaine overdose following his senior year at Maryland, Holbert looks back on that summer league performance by the still gangly 6-foot-8 forward as a foreshadowing of what was to come during four years at Maryland.

"That was the best shape I ever was in my life," said Holbert, who had been a McDonald's All-American in Fairfax, Va. "I scored 21 points a game and I thought I had a great summer. I was just being overshadowed by this guy."

Not even Maryland coach Lefty Driesell knew what to expect from Bias. At Northwestern High School, a few blocks from the Maryland campus in Hyattsville, Bias was known as much, if not more, for his quick temper as his explosive athletic ability.

It was perhaps the biggest reason most major college coaches backed off recruiting Bias.

"I had known him since he came to my camp in eighth or ninth grade," Driesell said recently. "I think the only other schools he was considering [were] N.C. State and Oregon, and I didn't think he was going to go that far away. I figured I had to beat out [N.C. State coach Jim] Valvano. It was one of the easiest recruiting [battles] I ever had."

Bias did not dominate the Atlantic Coast Conference as he had the local summer league.

Though the Terps were still rebuilding after losing former ACC Player of the Year Albert King, then the school's all-time leading scorer, as well as all-ACC forward Buck Williams, Ernie Graham and Greg Manning after the 1980-81 season, Driesell didn't start Bias for the first six games in 1982-83.

In the seventh game, before a packed Cole Field House against No. 3 UCLA, the public address announcer uttered words he would say a dozen more times that year: "At forward, a freshman from Landover, Maryland, No. 34, Len Bias."

Holbert recalled Bias being nervous for a good chunk of the game, but after Holbert fouled Kenny Fields, whose free throws sent the game into overtime, Bias took over, scoring all 10 of Maryland's points in the extra period and helping the Terps win, 80-79.

"It was like, 'This guy is going to be really good,'" Holbert said.

Becoming Bias

There were only flashes the rest of that season. On a 20-10 team led by sophomore guard Adrian Branch and junior center Ben Coleman, a transfer from Minnesota, Bias averaged a modest 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds. The big jump came the next year.

Point guard Keith Gatlin, who was a year behind Bias at Maryland, said Driesell had a major impact on helping Bias reach his potential. Gatlin recalled Driesell telling Bias during his sophomore year that some of Bias' old friends from high school were not a good influence.

"Lefty told him that he had to let some of his friends go because 'You're in a different place than them now,'" Gatlin recalled. "Lenny even admitted to me that he didn't buy all the way in as a freshman. He said, 'In high school, I was talented, but I never had to work hard.' Lefty made him work hard."

Driesell and others talk about how Bias spent hours in the weight room, adding 20 pounds of muscle to reach a perfectly chiseled 220, as well as on the court, where he honed what became one of the prettiest jump shots in basketball — replete with a reported 44-inch vertical that made Bias difficult to block.

"He just worked hard in the offseason, in the weight room, he probably worked harder than anybody I ever had at Maryland," Driesell said. "He was the only one player in the school — football or basketball — who could bench press 300 pounds."

Driesell also recalled how Bias spent hours playing full-court one-on-one in the stifling summer heat at Cole Field House.

"I think I told him that Michael Jordan used to do it, that's why Lenny was in such great shape," Driesell said.

Gatlin said "the light came on" during the second half of Bias' sophomore season and he started to become a dominant player.

"He was like a raging bull, you couldn't stop him," Gatlin said of Bias, who finished second behind Coleman in scoring with 15.2 points per game.

Along with Branch and Coleman, Bias led the Terps as a sophomore to their only ACC tournament title under Driesell. In the championship game against Duke, Bias scored 16 of his game-high 26 points in the second half and spurred a 24-3 run that erased an eight-point deficit.

"Johnny Dawkins couldn't miss in the first half, he was having his way with us," Gatlin said. "We went to a zone in the second half and we got a couple of stops and we got some momentum and Lenny went crazy. You just couldn't stop him."

It continued like that for the next two years.

'One great player'

After leading the Terps in scoring with 18.9 points per game and being named ACC Player of the Year as a junior, Bias was considered among the best players in the country.

Dave Dickerson, who was a freshman when Bias was a senior, recalled how Bias never lost a single drill at practice, whether it was running lines or hitting free throws or lifting weights. What impressed Dickerson extended well beyond Bias' athletic ability and skill level.

"He was the toughest player in college basketball. ... He was tougher than any player that I've ever seen to this day," said Dickerson, now the associate head coach at Ohio State.

"I think guys were afraid to cover him, I think guys were scared of him. I don't think it was a physical, attack-type deal, I think it was a respect deal. You had to be at your best. If you were not, he was going to beat you up and spit you out and that's what he did."

During his senior year, Bias averaged 23.2 points per game and repeated as ACC Player of the Year, the only Terp ever to do so. By the time his career in College Park was finished, after a second-round loss in the NCAA tournament to UNLV, he had passed King as the school's all-time leading scorer.

Bias finished with 2,149 points at Maryland mostly without the benefit of the 3-point shot (which was used on a limited, experimental basis his freshman year before being implemented by the NCAA after his career was over). He would eventually be passed in the record books by Juan Dixon (2,269) and Greivis Vasquez (2,169), the two most prolific 3-point shooters in school history.

Bias was drafted No. 2 overall by the world champion Boston Celtics on June 17, 1986. He was expected to become the next star for the NBA's greatest dynasty.

A cautionary tale

Two days after the draft, Bias was dead at age 22 in what the Maryland medical examiner determined to be a cocaine overdose.

Gatlin, who says he neither drank nor smoked, said that as one of Bias' suitemates, he saw no signs to indicate that Bias regularly used drugs. If anything, Gatlin believes that it was Bias' need to be "one of the guys" that might have led to his demise.

"I don't think he could say no with being with the guys," Gatlin said. "I think he wanted to fit in so much. I tell kids all the time, 'Sometimes saying no is a good thing.' When you want to be normal, you just go along just to be with the crowd."

Gatlin has coached a number of future Division I players as a high school coach in High Point, N.C., most recently Harry Giles, considered by many the No. 1 prospect in the country who will be a freshman at Duke next season.

Three decades later, Gatlin still brings up Bias to his players.

"I invoke Lenny's name to all my kids that I coach, I let them know the story, that nothing is [guaranteed]," Gatlin said. "When you're young, you think you're invincible, you can conquer the world. … If you're not on your grind in the classroom, basketball will eat you up and consume you and you will never be thought of again."

Dickerson said that he became a "better player and better teammate" at Maryland because of what he saw Bias do. Watching the Bias-Driesell dynamic has helped Dickerson during his career as a college coach, both as an assistant, including being on Gary Williams' staff when the Terps went to back-to-back Final Fours and won the 2002 national championship, as well as in his brief stint as a head coach at Tulane.

"I think from what I observed, Coach Driesell and Lenny had a great relationship and if you're going to be as good as he was, you need to have a collaborative partnership effort and Lenny had that with Coach Driesell," Dickerson said.

Driesell, who was forced to resign four months after Bias' death before resurrecting his career two years later at James Madison, thought Maryland was wrong for excluding Bias from its athletic Hall of Fame until two years ago.

"It bothers me that people say that Leonard Bias hurt the University of Maryland; the only one he hurt was himself," Driesell said. "Guys like Walt Williams and Tony Massenburg came to Maryland because of Len Bias; a lot of guys did."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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