An apparition's slow fade

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This morning brought that daily flip through the mental calendar, an attempt to come up with some reason or another to settle on something significant before moving on with things.

Of course, the pondering fixated on a very specific “something significant” rather quickly. As someone who deals with Maryland athletics on a nearly everyday basis, how could it not?

It’s impossible to forget, even for people who were not present to truly remember it. It had been two decades and change, after all, enough time for some folks to be born, raised and done churning through a four-year series of giant lecture halls on a sprawling campus adjacent to a ceaseless chain of strip malls, hotels, gas stations and stoplights since the ultimate game-changer hit College Park.

But beyond expedience – a means to an end – I’m not much of anniversary guy. Days come, days go, insignificant in a grander cosmic sense.

Then came the late-morning e-mail.

Subject line: “Nothing on Lenny?”

No last name needed, of course. Len or Leonard (as Lefty Driesell is so often quoted as saying) would have sufficed as well.

But here it was, so many years after Len Bias‘ cocaine-induced death, and the craving for reflection among Maryland fans still exists.

“Nothing on Lenny?”

Hadn’t planned on it, at least up until then. That was the initial instinct for a reply, too. So many reasons for that, and so little time to explore them all.

Better, though, to actually read what a loyal reader had to say before moving along with things.

“I was expecting something about the 23rd anniversary of his passing today on the blog. I guess the day is young and all, so I very well might have jumped the gun… or maybe it’s just not the story it used to be.”

Undoubtedly, it is and forever will be the story it always was for those close to Bias. His family, his friends, his teammates, his coaches.

To those in the world at-large? The story’s faded, as is usually the case as years wind on. Memories are short, and those that are not so often gradually erode as time carries on its steady march.

“Nothing on Lenny?”

There was a good reason for that inclination. How much uncovered territory remains with regard to Len Bias? There are books. There are films (including this documentary premiering at the American Black Film Festival next week). There are countless retrospectives at so many anniversaries no one could possibly keep track of all of them.

In short, what else is there to really say? Especially when, at what was clearly for so many people a seminal moment, you weren’t there.

Perhaps, though, that’s worth a nod on its own.

For the over-30 crowd, Bias’ name evokes more than simply a cause of death and a distant understanding of a talented basketball player. It creates memories, however foggy, of a maestro at work. Through the haze is his forever moment, the outside jumper-steal-dunk sequence at the Dean Dome in 1986 thankfully captured on tape for posterity.

There are the highlights of that spring’s NBA Draft, the dark-haired commissioner and the beaming Maryland star who soon tugged that emerald hat onto his head and beamed at his table, off to extend life on a dynasty sure to sputter because of age without a youthful infusion.

It’s the nutshell version of the story, condensed because it never had a chance to grow any further.

For the substantially younger set, the most substantial appreciation for Bias comes from those with an affinity for YouTube and grainy old VHS tapes. He’s almost otherworldly, his jersey fluttering above the court at Cole Field House and later Comcast Center.

The on-court exploits? Is it possible to fully comprehend what wasn’t witnessed in person? Sometimes it is. With Bias, maybe not.

The impact on the university? It was severe, and the school absorbed a painful public beating before commencing on a massive rehabilitation process. Some of those effects remain today, right down to the escalated standards for admissions to an inflated self-perception.

And as for basketball? Everyone understands Bias’ death was the start of the program’s Dark Ages. But less than 16 years after that dark June morning, the Terrapins scaled the pinnacle of college basketball.

Yet the Bias who is most immediately recalled by the under-30 crowd is Bias the Apparition, the man who in death galvanized attention toward the dangers intrinsic with drug use.

Whether the ongoing “War on Drugs” was a success – or whether its nomenclature was even appropriate – is for someone else to determine. But Bias is surely associated with it regardless of how it is evaluated.

Increasingly, that’s almost all Bias is truly remembered for. When I chatted this morning with former Maryland lacrosse coach Dick Edell (whose office was just steps from the seating bowl in Cole Field House), he vividly remembered everything about those uneven days and months.

Hearing the news on the radio while driving down I-95 to work. The huge service at Cole. The presence of Red Auerbach and Jesse Jackson at the memorial service. His recollection of how “for 87 consecutive days something negative came out in the paper about the University of Maryland,” as well as the less-than-stellar crisis management that accompanied it.

For those who were there, it was a day everything changed. For those that weren’t?

Well…

“Nothing on Lenny?”

No, not nothing. More like an admission. The visceral emotions of that morning in 1986 – anguish, anger, astonishment and vulnerability – can neither be replicated nor fully fathomed by those who were not old enough to understand what unfolded.

Instead, no matter the number of highlights seen or the words used by fans from my parents’ generation (and older) gush about the man’s talents or the vividness of the tales of on-court derring-do, it is tough to avoid this truth:

Thanks to the passage of time, for an increasing number of people Len Bias is as much an idea or a concept or even an allegorical figure as he is an actual person.

“Nothing on Lenny?”

Not precisely. Just an acknowledgment of the sometimes intangible nature of history, and a reminder that regardless of effort, it’s not always possible to capture the tenor of a moment once it is gone.

Patrick Stevens

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