I’m beginning to think we’re a tortured bunch of sports fans in the Greater Baltimore area. At least, ESPN’s “30 at 30” series is making me feel like it. Just 3 weeks after “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” comes “Without Bias”, a film that attempts to chronicle the final moments of Len Bias’ life, which ended far too soon and tragically due to acute cocaine intoxication.
For those too young to remember, and for those of us old enough to never forget, Bias’ death was truly a shocking and sad and frustrating and somehow pointless moment. Because you had to see Len Bias play, you had to feel the force and the energy he brought to the basketball court, you had to understand how proud he made people to say they were students or alumni or just lifelong Maryland Terrapin fans. Len Bias was an absolute beast. He could feather jumpers, he could soar for ridiculous alley-oop dunks off those Keith Gatlin passes, he could will his team to victory, he could block shots, he could go low-post or perimeter, he could simply overtake games for minutes at a stretch. And he was ours; no matter where basketball took him, he was always ours, a touchstone Terrapin forever.
My first and most vivid memory of Len Bias was a Saturday afternoon game in Atlanta against Georgia Tech. It was his Sophomore season; at that point he was coming off the bench, still finding his game and his confidence at the collegiate level. Gatlin threw a seemingly crazy pass towards the top corner of the backboard. There was nobody there when he threw it. Then there was Lenny, flying from the baseline corner, catching the ball with both hands (!) and slamming it down with a primal ferocity. It was fast, it was furious, it was wholly unexpected, and it was the moment that I really remember realizing what an incredible athlete Maryland had in this young man. Many great players had graced the Terps’ basketball program through the years, but this guy, he was totally different than anyone and anything before him. I mean, nobody had ever made a play so startling, so athletic, so above-the-rim. Len Bias had arrived.
It was a great ride those three years. Lefty Driesell’s only ACC Tournament championship came with Bias leading the way. The Terps were a conference force, a legitimate threat against some great ACC teams in the early ’80’s, as UNC and NC State won National Championships in back to back years, Duke was a rising power under Coach K, Bobby Cremins was building Georgia Tech into a relevant program, and every conference game was a challenge. There were just no nights off in the ACC in that era. Every school had talent and solid coaching. It was really basketball junkie heaven.
And the biggest debate of all was Lenny vs. Michael.
If you stop and think about all the great matchups you’ve seen as a sports fan, in any sport, it always distills itself down to who the players were that made it so memorable. And Bias vs. Jordan was a rare treat, as both were obviously rising stars who would captivate a much larger audience in the years ahead. But back in the early ’80’s, before 24/7 sports news coverage, before the internet and phones with cameras, you felt as if you were in on the hot secret that the rest of the country didn’t know about yet. Here, in ACC territory, you could watch the regional telecasts of Jordan, see his rare talent and sheer athleticism, and appreciate that he would still just get better (yeah, even though he played for Carolina). You could catch every Terps game and witness Bias’ development, understand how unique and special he was, and keep it to yourself like a special secret. Just wait until the rest of the world got to see this, you’d think. But I get to see it first and proudly announce how great those games were that you didn’t see.
That’s why Bias’ death hit so hard. It was unthinkable. It didn’t make sense (not that it does even today). Here was our treasure, our joy, our guy, about to burst onto the professional level with the greatest organization in the NBA. He’d join Larry Bird, he’d continue the tradition of excellence, he’d win championships and be revered forever, and he’d do it as a Terrapin. We were about to share the secret with everybody. We would smile proudly as he went through a magnificent career and be able to say, “Yeah, Lenny’s really something. But you should have seen that Duke game when he started with 4 alley-oops!” (Yeah, that actually happened too. I was there. How could I forget?). But we never got the chance.
It’s pretty amazing that even 23 years later his death resonates so deeply and powerfully. But I think it’s understandable too. Len Bias was, in so many ways, larger than life on a basketball court. You had to see it, experience it, embrace it and hold it very closely as a fan. You knew you were witnessing something extraordinary, somebody who really was once-in-a-lifetime special, a rare sporting gem. It’s those memories that are the best ones, that bring a smile and a tingle to the spine, that are wonderfully, completely yours and yours alone. Anyone who lived it and saw it knows that feeling.
Len Bias was unforgettable. In life. Perhaps even more so in death.