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As former Terps great Len Bias gets inducted into College Basketball Hall of Fame, a podcast is set to dive into his legacy

For the past year, Dave Ungrady and Don Markus have interviewed more than 60 people and spent almost 1,000 hours collecting material for a podcast series on the legacy of Maryland men’s basketball great Len Bias. They have managed the work while juggling professions as a social science teacher in Loudon County, Virginia, and a sports journalism professor at American University in Washington.

“I think we talk to each other more than we talk to our wives,” Markus quipped.

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Ungrady, a former Terps track and field and soccer standout and 1980 graduate, and Markus, a former Baltimore Sun sports reporter, hope their efforts with the podcast yield results. The 15-part series is scheduled to launch Dec. 1 on iHeartRadio and coincide with the late Bias’ induction into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame at The College Experience in Kansas City, Missouri.

The Class of 2021, which includes Rick Byrd, David Greenwood, Hersey Hawkins, Jim Jackson, Antawn Jamison, Tom Penders and Paul Pierce, was inducted Sunday. But in some circles, the late Bias is considered the star for more reasons than one.

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Don Markus, left, and Dave Ungrady pose beneath a wall photo of Maryland men's basketball great Len Bias in College Park on Friday. They are producing a 15-part series based on Ungrady’s book, “Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias.”
Don Markus, left, and Dave Ungrady pose beneath a wall photo of Maryland men's basketball great Len Bias in College Park on Friday. They are producing a 15-part series based on Ungrady’s book, “Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias.” (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“As a journalist, it’s one of the better sports stories of our generation,” said Ungrady, a former Washington Post reporter and freelance writer who also coaches a travel soccer team. “It’s not an easy story, but it’s one of the better stories because of all the aspects of it — the joy of having watched him play, the tragedy of his death and how it affected people.”

Ungrady and Markus are well versed in matters pertaining to Bias and Maryland. Ungrady wrote a book, “Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias,” in 2012 that examined Bias’ explosive career at Maryland, his rise to being the No. 2 overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft, and his shocking death from cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose on June 19, 1986, at the age of 22.

Markus covered the Terps men’s basketball program for 20 of his 35 years at The Sun, including Bias’ senior year in 1985-86 and the tenures of coaches Lefty Driesell, Bob Wade, Gary Williams and Mark Turgeon. He also wrote a book, “100 Things Maryland Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die,” in 2016.

In January 2020, Ungrady began to pursue a documentary film about Bias based on his book and found a backer in Octagon Entertainment. But when raising funds to bankroll the documentary proved difficult, Ungrady changed course and decided to go the podcast route.

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The series will offer 15 segments ranging from 15 to 45 minutes each from three specific sections: Bias’ life until his death, the impact Bias’ death had on the Terps, and Bias’ legacy beyond Maryland, which includes family and friends, the Boston Celtics, the NBA, the Black community and culture.

“It’s covering a lot,” said Ungrady, 63.

Bias was and still is a popular figure in Black culture. Ungrady and Markus found footage of a New York University-affiliated theater group that in 1988 performed a play based on Bias, and the play was featured on NBC’s “The Today Show.” Within the past month, Markus found a rap song by MC Longshot called “Len Bias” from 2013 that will be the podcast’s primary theme song.

Off the court, Bias tapped into his creative side. After an awards banquet for the basketball team in 1986, he raced to a reading on campus by Gwendolyn Brooks, the first Black poet to earn a Pulitzer Prize and the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and presented her with a bouquet of flowers afterward.

But it was Bias’ prowess with a basketball on the court that mesmerized observers. His 2,149 points are third-most in Terps history, and he was a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, just as North Carolina’s Michael Jordan was. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said the two toughest players he ever coached against were Jordan and Bias.

Markus, who joined Ungrady the day after the former announced his decision Feb. 7, 2020, to accept a buyout and leave The Sun, pointed out that when ESPN aired “The Last Dance” that profiled Jordan’s final season with the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls in April and May 2020, the network also broadcast a “Remembering Len Bias” tribute in June.

“We realized how much this story still resonates on different levels when ESPN is devoting three hours to a guy who never played in the NBA,” said Markus, 68. “People who know the Len Bias story haven’t forgotten about what happened to him because a lot of people talk about knowing exactly where they were when Len Bias died as people who are my age or older remember where they were when President Kennedy died. When you put in that perspective with people still talking about him and still wanting to know his story, I think it just shows you how in many ways because of the legacy and how wide-reaching the legacy has become, he has become larger in death than he was in life.”

One oft-ignored consequence of Bias’ death was its effect on drug enforcement in the United States. Markus noted that then-President Ronald Reagan took advantage of Bias’ death to intensify his “War on Drugs” platform that was embraced by members of both parties.

President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 on Oct. 27, 1986, providing a mandatory minimum prison term of 20 years and a maximum life sentence along with a fine of up to $2 million that became known as the “Len Bias Law.” That led to tougher policing, especially in the Black community.

Markus recalled he and Ungrady interviewing former Duke forward and ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas about the impact of Bias’ death during the 2019-20 season before the Terps hosted Michigan State.

“Jay Bilas was visibly upset talking about Len Bias’ death and how politicians used him as this poster child for their drug legislation,” Markus said. “I think Dave asked the question, ‘Did any good come out of this?’ [Bilas] said, ‘There’s nothing good that came out of this.’ Other people may disagree, but this is how different his legacy became to us in terms of how it was not just about how he was a superstar basketball player. It’s about the impact on things that are still going on in this country.”

Bias’ death continues to pain the people who lived through it. Dick Dull, who was the Terps’ athletic director until 1986, agreed to appear on the podcast before changing his mind two weeks later.

Former teammate Dave Dickerson, who was an assistant coach at Maryland under Gary Williams, said telling Bias’ story was important, but wished he didn’t have to contribute. And Derrick Lewis, another former teammate who coached the boys basketball program at Archbishop Spalding, got emotional during an online call with Ungrady and Markus.

Lonise Bias, mother of former Maryland great, the late Len Bias, talks about her son's college career during a National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame induction event on Sunday in Kansas City, Missouri.
Lonise Bias, mother of former Maryland great, the late Len Bias, talks about her son's college career during a National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame induction event on Sunday in Kansas City, Missouri. (Colin E. Braley/AP)

Noticeably absent are members of the Bias family, such as parents James and Dr. Lonise Bias or brother Eric Bias — all of whom did not answer Ungrady’s invitations to talk. Ungrady said he doesn’t fault them.

“Who can relate to what Lonise Bias has been through? I don’t know too many people who can,” Ungrady said, referring to younger son Jay Bias’ death in a drive-by shooting on Dec. 5, 1990. “So as integral a part as she is in the story and it would be nice to talk with her, I’m not going to push it, and maybe someday we will talk.”

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Ungrady has been inspired by Bias’ story to coordinate a “Born Ready” project that has partnered with the Decision Education Foundation to help teenagers make good decisions in difficult situations. While Markus joked that Ungrady is obsessed with Bias “in a good way,” Ungrady said he is eager to support others.

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“When I started the project, it became a personal mission to try to turn this story into a situation that can try to help people,” he said. “I like challenges. Sometimes it’s created problems for me, but I try to embrace challenges. I knew this would be a challenge, and it has been. The fact that it was harder to do made it more appealing to me to see if I could overcome those challenges and come out on the other side and say, ‘Hey, we’ve done everything we could, and it’s something that we’re proud of and that hopefully people will appreciate.’ So now it’s still a mission to use his story to help people make better decisions and the right decisions. Hopefully, that’s where this is going to go for the next 10 years.”

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