If Len Bias could attend his own Hall of Fame ceremony on Friday, he'd do so as a 50-year-old man.
That's a heck of a thing to wrap your head around if, like me, you grew up as an obsessed ACC basketball fan in the 1980s. Lenny has lived as an idea about what could have been for so long, it's strange to think of him as an actual person.
Every generation has its touchstones. For my parents, it was the Kennedy assassination. People my age remember watching from their elementary school classrooms as the Challenger exploded and later on, 9/11. But if you came up around these parts and loved sports, there’s a good chance you remember where you were the morning Bias died of a cocaine overdose, two days after he’d been drafted No. 2 overall by the Boston Celtics.
June 19, 1986 — I was nine years old, idling away days on a South Carolina beach with my family. My godfather, the guy who taught me to love college basketball actually, walked down from the house that morning and asked, “Do you have any idea who just died?”
I actually guessed Brad Daugherty, because I had NBA draft on the brain and Daugherty had been the No. 1 pick, one spot ahead of Lenny. When he said no, it was Bias, I felt cold inside. I had experienced the deaths of my grandmother and a few other relatives, but this was something different — less intimate, yet more jarring.
I spent the next few days clipping every photo I could find of Lenny and gluing them in a scrapbook. For years, I’d page through that leather-bound volume, almost feeling that if I stared at the pictures hard enough, I could change the events of that awful night in Lenny’s dorm room.
His death sent off countless ripples of course. It cost Lefty Driesell his job, intensified the government’s drug war and haunted the state’s flagship university for years to come. But I honestly didn’t care about any of that. For me, it was simply the obliteration of something beautiful. In my imagination, I’d run through Celtics games that would never happen — Lenny racing up the Boston Garden parquet in pursuit of a visionary pass from Larry Bird. I’d always favored the Lakers in the NBA’s great rivalry of the ‘80s, but for Lenny, I’d have flipped.
I know Boston fans felt tortured by the same visions of what never was, the projections of a rejuvenated dynasty.
There's no great lesson to be drawn from what happened to Lenny. He took the sort of risk a lot of people take when they're young and death seems a remote specter. Most survive. He didn't.
You can bet countless 22-year-olds will take similar chances this very night and on other Friday nights in 10, 20 and 50 years.
But I’ll say this: He lived in my head for years. Even on my most experimental day in college, I wouldn’t touch cocaine. If it could fell a bull like Lenny, what guarantees did I have?
Every so often, I still pop in my copy of the 1986 game at the Dean Dome, where Lenny carried Maryland against a vastly more talented North Carolina squad. Everybody remembers the sequence where he hit a long jumper from the top of the key, stole the ensuing inbound pass and reverse dunked in Warren Martin's startled face. But he had it all going that day — the buttery baseline jumpers, the rattling two-hand dunks off lob passes, an impossibly difficult up-and-under in traffic. I watch that today and have no doubt Lenny would’ve been an NBA All-Star. That was the worst case. He might’ve vied with his old ACC rival, Michael Jordan, for league supremacy.
It’s weird, but I also now think about him from a parent’s point of view. The Biases lost their younger son, Jay, to a shooting four years later. I have two boys now, and I can’t even fathom that experience. The Biases clung to their strong faith, but I don’t know how.
Lenny has now existed as a myth of lost potential longer than he existed as an actual, breathing human. To the Maryland players of today, he’s an abstraction if he’s anything at all. That’s terribly sad on one hand, and on another, it makes him like any other remarkably talented person. Eventually, history flattens out every legacy.
I’m pleased Maryland is finally putting Lenny in its athletic Hall of Fame. I know his story left a complicated aftertaste, but universities aren’t supposed to run from uncomfortable truths. They’re supposed to be places where we wrestle with the world’s painful nuances.
And the truth about Lenny is no player in Maryland basketball history was ever more important. I’ll remember him until the day I die.