It has been 20 years since the Washington area and the sports world woke up to the shocking news: Len Bias, an All-American basketball player at Maryland on his way to NBA stardom, had used cocaine, suffered a heart attack and died.
Only two days earlier, Bias had been chosen by the NBA champion Boston Celtics with the No. 2 pick in the draft. The 6-foot-8 forward visited the Celtics — he was to team with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in the game’s best frontcourt and eventually build his own legend — and returned home the next day.
He went out for a night of partying in College Park. But in the morning hours of June 19, 1986, the celebration turned deadly, and Bias died of cocaine intoxication at the age of 22.
“While my parents remember where they were when President [John] Kennedy was assassinated, I will never forget the feeling I had when I learned of Len’s death,” said Jay Bilas, an ESPN commentator and former Duke player who played against Bias. “It is still very fresh in my mind.”
That’s a sentiment shared by many whose lives momentarily stopped on that day two decades ago.
Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, then at Ohio State, remembers his disbelief after receiving the news over the phone. George Mason coach Jim Larranaga still remembers the road in Ohio on which he was driving when he turned on the radio and heard the news.
Morgan Wootten can still see the somber faces at his basketball camp in Takoma Park.
“The bomb hit here,” said Wootten, a Hall of Famer who for many years coached at DeMatha High School. “It’s hard to think of anything in the area that had a greater impact than his death. I am not talking about [the September 11 attacks] or anything like that. I am talking about the entire area, the University of Maryland and every human being in the area and well beyond.”
Bias’ mother, Lonise, since has traveled the country, speaking to children on the dangers of drug use, hoping to spare other families her everlasting torment.
“Len died so that others could live,” she said. “I believe that he was a seed that went down to bring forth life to help save others.”
Bias’ death prompted some college programs to institute drug-testing regimens. The NFL and NBA also either instituted or toughened substance-abuse policies.
“It used to be if someone looked a little off or like something was wrong, you just sort of let it go,” said Williams, who still occasionally brings up Bias’ name in hopes of helping kids make the right decisions. “After that, you were in their face finding out because you didn’t want it to happen again.”
But, two decades later, does Bias’ death still have any impact? Many current college athletes were not born when Bias died, and the others are too young to have any recollection of his career or death.
“I really didn’t hear much about him growing up, but I was aware of how he died,” said James Gist, a current Maryland player who is from Silver Spring. “Through the years, I would see highlights and clips. It was amazing what he could do playing basketball.”
Gist attributes his value system to his parents, family and friends. “Nobody really talks about” how Bias died, he said.
Bilas, who described Bias as “Superman” on the court, doesn’t think his death has much influence today.
“Sadly, I don’t think so,” Bilas said. “I think it is something coaches use as a cautionary tale to a player. But at the same time I am not sure the rate has changed of unfortunate incidents. All you have to do is look toward just the use of a motorcycle. In the last three years, we had Jay Williams, Kellen Winslow and Ben Roethlisberger fall off motorcycles and jeopardize their careers. Jay Williams lost his career. You have to ask yourself, ‘What does it take?’ It doesn’t seem like that hard an analysis to make. It’s sort of that youthful feeling of invincibility.”
Dave Dickerson was a teammate of Bias at Maryland and an assistant coach on the Terrapins’ national championship team in 2002. Dickerson, now Tulane’s head coach, has no doubt Bias’ death saved lives at the time. But he feels the problem of drugs and athletics is a never-ending battle.
“The Len Bias situation gave people a different type of consciousness towards it. There were a lot of people who abused drugs and cocaine and I did see and hear of a decline in sports,” Dickerson said. “Drugs have been a part of sports for a long time. You see it now in baseball. They are different kinds of drugs and different kinds of abuses. It will always be a part of sports.”
Still, the name Len Bias holds a powerful meaning to those of a certain age. Wootten used to remind his team of the Northwestern High star and “the greatest player ever at Maryland” and how he died.
“I don’t think a year went by that we didn’t talk about Len Bias at the beginning of the season,” Wootten said. “In death, he had a profound influence on hundreds of lives.”
In recent years, Maryland again has embraced Bias after years of trying to avoid any connection. A banner with his No. 34 hangs from the rafters at Comcast Center. He is prominently featured in a mural inside the entrance to the arena, and there is a picture of Bias in the team’s meeting room. Even his jersey has become popular again and is now sold on campus.
“I used to think it was a bad thing for Maryland to bring up Bias’ name every June on the anniversary,” said Williams, who three years after Bias died took over a program in shambles and soon to go on probation and turned it into a national champion in 2002. “I don’t feel that way anymore. If it helps save one life, it is a good thing.”
Lonise Bias has committed herself to that cause. She also lost her younger son, Jay, when he was shot and killed in a parking lot at Prince George’s Plaza four years after Len’s death. She continues to speak to ensure the lessons of 20 years ago are not forgotten.
“Sports are a wonderful part of our culture,” she said. “But the biggest portion is entertainment. And the way I see it, had Len lived, he would have entertained you. But in death, he brought life.”