Even if you’ve never watched the full game, you’ve probably seen the clip.
He rises without hesitation to sink a clutch jumper from 20 feet. As the camera focuses on the ensuing inbounds pass, he roars from off-screen to rip the ball away from a future NBA point guard and in a continuous motion, reverse dunks it in the face of a 6-foot-11 center. With the rim still shuddering, the crowd at the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center exhales in awe as if it has just witnessed a heavyweight knockout punch.
Five seconds that capture the refined skill and improvisational fury of 22-year-old Len Bias.
In the 35 years since Bias painted this Chapel Hill masterpiece, his name has become shorthand for so many things — drug tragedy, lost potential, the temporary fall of Maryland athletics. But on the night of Feb. 20, 1986, he was just a basketball player, a magnificent one.
“That Carolina game was a representation of him,” said his Maryland roommate, Jeff Baxter. “He displayed every facet of his game, the whole package.”
It’s not hard to find brilliant performances as you comb through Bias’ four years in College Park. He scored 26 to lead Maryland past Duke for an ACC tournament championship in 1984 and dropped another 41 on the Blue Devils in January 1986. He scored 19 of the Terps’ final 21 points in his last college game against UNLV.
But it’s the North Carolina game where he scored 35 points to lead Maryland to victory that has lived on — replayed on YouTube and ESPN as our best evidence of all Bias was and could have been.
After decades of conference realignment and the rise of Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke empire, younger fans might not realize that in 1986, North Carolina was King Kong in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The recently opened “Dean Dome” was a sky blue Skull Island.
“The whole place was sky blue,” Baxter said. “The locker room walls, the Gatorade machines, even the towels we had to use after we took our showers. … And at that time, they were clearly expected not to lose in that dome.”
The Tar Heels seemed well on the way to another vintage season when Bias and Co. showed up for their first dance in the new building. Coach Dean Smith’s team was 25-1, ranked No. 1 in the country and stocked with six future NBA players, led by seven-foot center Brad Daugherty, who would be drafted No. 1 overall (one spot ahead of Bias) in June. North Carolina had already beaten the Terps, who started 0-5 in the ACC, at Cole Field House.
“When you beat Carolina, it was something that sticks with you,” said Keith Gatlin, Maryland’s second-leading scorer that season. “It’s like when the Ravens play the Steelers. Nothing else really matters.”
Bias loved this setup. He could be a sweetheart away from the court, but put him in a hostile gym with the television lights on and he became a scowling terminator. Maryland coach Lefty Driesell wanted his big men to play mean, and no one operated with more ferocity than Bias.
Baxter chuckled, recalling an NCAA tournament game against Pepperdine in which Bias dunked so hard that he inspired an impromptu dance from one of the game officials.
Smith taught his players tried-and-true methods for bottling up the stars they faced weekly in the ACC, but Bias transcended any game plan.
“The way we played, when a guy cut on the wing, we would force him baseline and then we’d help across,” said Jeff Lebo, the star freshman on that North Carolina team. “But he would just take it to the baseline and when the next guy came to help outside the paint, he would stop and jump up to about 12 feet. … I helped one time on a baseline drive and he jumped up and all I could see was the bottom of his shoes. You were just like, ‘Man, this dude is different.’”
Bias showed off his entire arsenal as he scored over one Tar Heel after another. He snaked around 6-foot-11 Warren Martin and made a knifing layup between Martin and Daugherty. He dipped his shoulder past Joe Wolf and made a leaning jumper in the face of 6-foot-10 Dave Popson. He waded behind Daugherty for a thunderous alley-oop finish.
Every time Baxter fed Bias the ball, he’d shout, “Use him, Lenny. Use him!”
“And he did,” Lebo recalled, laughing. “He used all of us.”
On one baseline drive in the second half, Bias seemed to trap himself under the basket only to extend his arm like Mrs. Incredible and flip the ball in from the other side. “Holy cow, what a shot!” blurted Raycom Sports announcer Mike Patrick.
Nonetheless, the Tar Heels led by nine with less than three minutes on the clock when Bias swished the jumper that would kick off the most enduring sequence of his career. Driesell had told his team to press after a made shot, but Bias forgot momentarily, so he was actually playing catch-up when he burst in to snatch the ball from unsuspecting North Carolina point guard Kenny Smith. His ensuing dunk over the hulking Martin was a moment of pure athletic wonder.
“Lenny took ballet; a lot of people don’t know this,” Baxter said. “And when I look back at that game, that reverse dunk, it was like a ballerina in the air. You look at it, it was that beautiful.”
“I’ll never forget that,” Lebo said. “We always would huddle on foul shots … and I just remember after that play happened, we had to huddle, and poor Warren, we were just like, ‘Damn!’ We were dumbfounded. We felt bad for Warren; it was so powerful and so stunning.”
The Terps could not revel in the moment; they still had a deficit to erase. Bias swished another jumper in Steve Hale’s face to cut the lead to 69-67. Then Baxter sent the game to overtime with a jumper of his own. In the extra period, Bias dribbled around a double team and hit over Martin to give Maryland a lead it would not relinquish. He sealed the victory — the first for any visiting team in the Dean Dome — when he blocked a Smith floater and recovered the loose ball himself.
“What hasn’t he done tonight?” Raycom color analyst Dan Bonner said.
All these years later, it’s the block that lingers in Bonner’s memory. “As he was going up to block the shot, you could hear on the microphone under the basket him hollering, ‘Gimme that!’” the veteran announcer recalled. “It was sort of, to my mind, the exclamation point for what he had done the entire night.”
Lebo played against Michael Jordan in Chapel Hill pickup games. But when people ask him to name the best player he faced in college, his answer is always the same: Len Bias.
His whole body went numb on the morning of June 19, 1986, when he learned that Bias had died suddenly, two days after the Boston Celtics drafted him No. 2 overall. But he considers it a privilege to have shared the court with an all-time great on the signature night of his short career.
“Coach Smith never believed that one person could beat you,” he said. “And usually, they can’t. But that game, he did.”
For Baxter and Gatlin, it’s important that people remember their friend in his glory as much as they feel the void left by his death. That’s why the North Carolina game remains essential.
“I would show people the game when we beat Duke for the ACC championship his sophomore year,” Gatlin said. “I would show them the Villanova game, when he was a monster at home. He had so many. But the Carolina game sticks.”
Baxter can still feel the embraces in the postgame locker room, can still picture Driesell thrusting his left fist triumphantly in the air. Whenever he revisits the game, laughs mingle with tears over the tragedy that followed four months later. With no NBA moments to reflect upon, Bias’ 35-point dissection of the Tar Heels has stood as his valedictory statement.
“People remember that game,” Baxter said. “I was in Mexico years ago and someone who was vacationing in the same place remembered that win in the Dean Dome. They remember that as much as they remember when Lenny passed. That is the game you reflect back on.”
Bias walked off the court with a toothy grin brightening his face. Several North Carolina fans leaned over the railing to shake his hand.