Remembering Len Bias

Posted on June 13, 2006

Here are some powerful and vivid accounts from fans about how they remember the one and only Len Bias. We also invite you to please share your own memories.

Author Greg Abel also shares his own memories.

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John Kochan
Former assistant coach, University of Maryland
Retired from basketball after many years as Millersville University Head Coach
Recruited Len Bias from Northwestern High School

Len was a good high school player, but he was not a mega, mega star like some other guys. Adrian Dantely, for example, when he was sophomore at DeMatha, was already a superstar.

I thought he would be a good player. He was a little bit thin in high school but he got thicker with weights and became The Man. I thought he was just a bubbly person. I got a chance to get close with his mother and father. They came to every game; they were close and wanted to see him play.

I had no clue that something like that was going to happen. Do I ever think he did it before? Absolutely not. What actually happened, I'll never know, I never suspected anything. There was never a sign, never an indication that he was into drugs.

Kenny Smith
NBA Analyst, Turner Sports
(from comments made on air, provided by Turner Sports public relations)

I played against Len Bias in the ACC and he was a unique power forward/small forward because he was a guy who could play with his back to the basket and he had a body by Adonis, so to speak. He looked like he was sculpted. He also had this great athleticism with a soft touch. To put him with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, you would think that his career would have been a 15-20 year career, NBA All-Stars, NBA All-Star games and probably one of the greatest players that ever played this game if he had an opportunity to do it. I thought it made a profound effect on everyone's idea and their thought process about drugs. In all of this tragedy, this was still a message saying you can be torn down no matter how strong (you are), how powerful you look, how great a body you have, how great a basketball player you are, if you do the wrong things, this is what happens to you.

Meredith Geisler
Former Public Relations Director, Advantage International
Agency that represented Len Bias 
 
For me it was more of a professional situation than personal. He was probably our firm's most significant basketball signing from a recruiting standpoint. We had good basketball clients. We had Moses Malone, Sam Perkins, Bobby Jones and many others, but Bias was local and he had a tremendous amount of marketing and PR potential. 
 
He was going to be the flagship player for Reebok and a star, everyone knew it. That Thursday morning, the day after his Boston Celtics press conference, was going to be a busy day. I came in to our office in Georgetown earlier than I normally do, at around 8 a.m. Before I even got off the elevator I could hear the phone ringing and ringing. I unlocked the door, no one was there yet, and I picked up the phone at the front desk. And in a low, southern drawl I hear this voice in a state of panic. It was Lefty Driesell and he said, "I need to speak to Lee Fentress. (Fentress was Len Bias' agent). It's an emergency." 
 
Lee wasn't in yet so I just waited at the door for him. He arrived 10 or 15 minutes later. I told him Lefty is calling in a panic, but I didn't know what was going on yet. A few minutes later Lee called me into his office and said "something's happened to Bias. He might be dead. It was his heart. You need to go with [Bias's client manager Bill Shelton] over to the Bias house and help the family deal with the media."
 
I'm 26 years old at the time … it was just surreal. Bill and I are driving over there and we are about to be with a family whose child was going to be their star … and we are going to be sitting with them and their entire life has been turned beyond upside down. 
 
When we drive up, there were literally hundreds of media camped out on their front lawn, picnic blankets, food, and all.

Gabe Harris
Reston, Virginia

I got a call from my friend Mike Howe with the news. I figured the call was to discuss the day's lawn mowing activities, or to rehash the weekend escapades. When he told me the news, my reaction was 100 percent certainty that he was joking. And it was not funny. Then he said it again, and I knew it was real. I sunk to the bed. I remember I was in my brother's room and I can still feel that raw gnawing in the pit of my stomach to this day. It was over. The rest of the day was a daze, just trying to go about my business, make some sense of it all.

I had to do something, so another friend and I went to his dad's tool shed and made a huge banner out of a king-sized sheet, black paint and two wooden pikes. It simply read "34."

We took it up to Westmoreland Circle at Massachusetts and Western, and we held it up for hours in the June sun as rush hour motorists rolled from Maryland into the District. Some honked, some shouted out, a few stopped to say thank you, and amazingly to us, many drove past totally indifferent or uncomprehending. I am not really sure why we did it or what we hoped to accomplish, but it felt good to do something, to let the world know that we were carrying the banner of our fallen hero.

Keith Rosenbaum
Owings Mills, Md.

At the time, I was living in the Leonardtown building and the basketball team was in the building next to us. Bryan Palmer had just gotten kicked off the team and was now one of our roommates. I was somewhat friendly with Keith Gaitlin. There were nights when basketball games or shoot-arounds would just happen on the Leonardtown Courts and Bias would drain shot, after shot, after shot. The further back he'd go, the more automatic he'd become. Watching him in a game was one thing, on a playground was ridiculous. He'd take on all comers for 1-on-1 or just a game of Horse and flash that big grin of his and then destroy anyone who'd challenge him, from a teammate to some frat guy who thought he could take LB.

The day he died, I was taking a summer class and this guy I knew, Mitch from New Jersey, came in and told me the news. I told him that wasn't remotely funny. After class, I was walking back to the frat house and the sounds were different, it was quieter on campus. As I got near the Chapel, I could see news trucks down to Route 1, police cars starting to direct traffic and everything was immediately different. I saw a girl standing near the Chapel in absolute tears and I walked up to her and just gave her a hug. One of the news stations, D.C. Channel 7 I think, faded to black that night with that picture of that hug.

Twenty years later, I am no different than any other Maryland fan from that era. I always wonder what would have been. Would the Bulls have won all those titles? Would Michael Jordan or Bias have been the MVP of the league and its leading scorer? I see a great college player and tell my sons, "So and so may be good, but he is no Lenny Bias. Have I ever told you about Len Bias?"

Joanna Sullivan
Editor, Baltimore Business Journal
1987 University of Maryland graduate

I was living in Baltimore, working as an intern on the Sun's copy desk the summer Len Bias died. My friend Elena and I subletted a dumpy house in Waverly from a couple of Hopkins students. I remember running to answer the phone early one morning. It was my father calling from Philadelphia. He told me Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose. I couldn't believe it. Minutes later, someone from the now-defunct Evening Sun called me. They were looking for Maryland students to interview before their deadline. I gave the reporter a few quotes about how sad it was. My quotes were suddenly sent across the U.S. in the first AP stories about his death. A friend from out-of-state called me to tell me they saw my quotes in a Maine newspaper.

Anyway, Lenny was a big part of my college life. Watching him play was incredible. But he was a big deal off the court too. He was definitely a celebrity on campus. He was always surrounded by women. He lived in the New Leonardtown campus apartments where I lived. I saw him often walking around or in the student union lounge.

His death completely devastated the campus. My senior year was consumed by the aftermath of his death. News crews were always on campus. Nightline even did a show from campus. Lefty Driesell resigned. The athletic department was in turmoil. I covered some of the developments as a stringer for the Evening Sun. I mostly remember the vigil Lonise Bias held on the campus mall. The mental picture of her holding a candle and trying to be so stoic has always stayed with me. It was a few years later that she lost her second son, Jay. I always wondered how she held it together.

Keith Askenas
Reisterstown
1986 Maryland graduate

I graduated from Maryland that year and worked as an intern with the sports marketing department. I was involved in helping coordinate private workouts for Lenny with NBA teams and making sure that the Celtics were set up when they came in. When Reebok came in, I was able to sit in the room with faculty when they were negotiating the deal.

I was out of town when it happened. Some friends and I traveled from June 1st to 19th to Las Vegas and Tahoe for a trip after graduation. I actually won $500 on a bet in Vegas that Bias would be taken second overall by the Celtics. I guess I had some inside information there, but you never know what's going to happen.

That morning (the morning of June 19th), we were sitting in the airport in Lake Tahoe, getting ready to fly home and go to a party in College Park. We called home and all of a sudden it's, "Did you hear the news?"

Our jaws dropped.

We walked around ... me and three other guys ... we walked around like zombies for three and a half hours at the airport and missed our flight because we were numb. We didn't know what to do.

When we came back into town, everyone was in absolute disbelief. It was almost like we were mourning someone in our family. We went back to the fraternity house and you gave each other hugs because we lost someone who was close to us.


Andy Rosenfeld
Columbia, Md.

I was at my summer job orientation at Winand Elementary school in Randallstown. Ron Kiewe walked in and said Len Bias died. I didn't believe him. I lived about a half mile from Winand. I sprinted home at lunch time to see my brother crying on the chair in front of the TV. I cried most of that day and the next day. I felt like a family member had died. He's still the greatest basketball player I've ever seen.


Dick Davies
Columbia, Md.

In 1986, I lived in Akron, Ohio and followed Big 10 basketball. I remember knowing who Len Bias was when he died, but I was not that familiar with him. In 1986, Johnny Dawkins and the Duke Blue Devils got all the national coverage. At the time, I could tell you any stat on JD that you wanted to know. Sadly, I knew very little about Lenny because I lived in the Midwest and Maryland was not the No. 1 team. I was actually more affected by what happened nine days after Lenny passed away. The Cleveland Browns' soon to be All-Galaxy safety, Don Rogers, died of a similar cocaine overdose during his bachelor party. This guy could hit like Ronny Lott and would have been an absolute beast for a long time to come. He was the 1984 AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year and on his way to greatness. He might have been inducted into Canton by now, an easy trip to make from Cleveland. It's hard to believe it's been 20 years. It's harder to believe that nine days was not long enough for someone to reflect on the fatal mistake of another.

Jeremy Gold
Chicago, Ill.

There are four moments in my life that I remember exactly where I was when I heard "the news:"

1. The Challenger explosion, sixth grade math class
2. The O.J.Bronco chase, sitting around a keg in the backyard of our college apartment
3. 9/11, my client's office in Atlanta
4. Len Bias' death, my friend Marc Butt's house.

I was only 11 and I had spent the night at Marc's house with a couple other friends from school. We probably played video games on the Commodore 64 all night. The next morning, Marc's dad called us to the TV and I just stared at images of Bias' exploits. My heart sank. I couldn't believe it. As a kid, I idolized Eddie Murray and Lenny Bias. That was it. None of it made sense. He was wearing a Celtics hat yesterday!

The ensuing days were really hard. I was only 11, so I didn't understand what was happening, but the University just seemed to get dragged through the mud. Things kept getting worse. As for Bias, in my eyes, he is the single biggest could-have-been, never-was in the history of sports.

John Beaver - Annapolis, Md.

I saw Lenny the night he died. We were in Town Hall drinking beer and shooting pool and Lenny came in. He was wearing his Celtics hat and we chatted for a little while. He was with a couple of guys and after they had a beer, they went into the liquor side of store and bought some stuff and left. He came back through the bar side and waved to everybody, and the rest is history.
 
I lived in a dorm near Cole Field House and went over and watched practice quite a bit. Lenny was truly an amazing player.

Jung Lee
New York, N.Y.

Do I remember where I was? Sure. Was it devastating at the time? Sure. Was it a tragedy? Absolutely.
But as is often the case, the fact that he died young (see Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, etc.), has built his legend to a degree that it probably doesn't warrant.
He was a great talent of course, but one of the top five to play in the ACC as Dick Vitale says and everyone wants to believe? He's not even the best college player to play at Maryland. Albert King was a better college player than Bias, but fortunately (or unfortunately) he lived on to a mediocre NBA career. John Lucas was the first pick in the draft, as a 6-1 point guard!
One thing it did do though is scare the #!#$0 out of me that one use of drugs could kill you.

Brian Pinsky
Reisterstown, Md.

I can vividly remember exactly where I was when I got the news about Len Bias. I had just finished my sophomore year of high school so I was asleep and my uncle called me and broke the news like Lenny was a member of my family. I was only 15 and could not really comprehend what had happened.

We lost a player who most people in this state thought was already a legend. Just a year before, I had been at Millersville University Basketball Camp in Pennsylvania and Len came up to talk to the campers and put on a dunk show. I sat 10 feet from him.

The man was a beast. He seemed invincible. One of my friends asked him what his vertical leap was and I remember Lenny said, "I'm not sure, I am working on touching the top of the backboard."

I think everybody in the state that follows sports knows that the man charged with selling Lenny Bias the drugs was Brian Tribble. It is very rare for a drug dealer's name from 20 years ago to roll off my tongue without hesitation. I will never forget the foul line jumper that he hit in the NCAA Tournament for the Terps to win or the steal that he made in the ACC tournament followed by a reverse dunk. All that so Lefty could put the trophy on the front of his caddy and drive down tobacco road. With Lenny we will never know. Could he have been Jordan's rival?

Neil Maria - Perry Hall, Md.

I was in attendance at the last Maryland game that Bias played in for the Terps.
 
March 1986
Location: Long Beach Arena
Venue: NCAA Tourney
Opponent: UNLV
Winner goes to Sweet 16
UNLV advances.
 
However, after Maryland beat who I believe was Pepperdine, the place was packed with SoCal basketball fans taking the day off or playing hookie from work to catch a glimpse of Bias. After what I remember as being a lackluster half and Maryland down by 10 or 11, Bias came out in the second half and literally took on the entire UNLV starting five and tied the game in the first five minutes of the second half. Patented base line jumper, steals, slams, steals, slams and patented base line jumper.
 
The thing that stuck out was the manner in which the fans were in awe of Bias. They spoke to us like we were unbelievably fortunate to root for a team that had a talent like Bias. And, we were!!!! The best part was that we never took his talent for granted. Unfortunately Lenny did.
 
Greg Smouse
Baltimore, Md.

I spent my junior year of college studying at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, spending the school year very far from Davidson College, where Lefty Driesell coached with great success before coming to Maryland.

When the spring semester was over, I took advantage of the chance to do some traveling. On a very cold and wet night I found myself in a small town somewhere along the Southern coast of England. As the rain beat down, I huddled inside a distinctly English red telephone booth to call a friend back home in Baltimore.

Halfway through the phone call he told me that Len Bias had died of an overdose. The police were investigating. I was stunned. I was about the same age as Bias and could not believe that someone so young, so strong and so healthy could perish.

I walked out into the rain completely alone. There was no one I could talk to. There was no one who could understand my confusion and yes, my pain. No one in England knew who Len Bias was, or why he mattered.

There was no one who would understand that I became a Maryland fan in earnest on the night my parents took me to Cole Field House in 1983 and we sat behind the Maryland band playing "Amen!" as the Terps trounced the No. 1 UNC Tar Heels with some skinny kid named Jordan. Imagine that! Seeing Michael Jordan and Len Bias on the same court together. It remains a favorite sports memory. One I much prefer to the night I walked around in the cold, English rain trying to come to terms with the news that we are all, indeed, mortal.

One thing I wrestled with as I walked around that night was how someone could have killed such a gentle soul such as Len Bias. Immediately upon hearing the news I was willing to buy into the conspiracy theory and exonerate Lenny from having a hand in his own demise.

When I got home several months later I realized that Lenny had killed Lenny. Someone gave him the drug, but he is the one who ingested it. He had made a bad mistake and paid a great price. I still think how magnificent he would have looked on the parquet at the Boston Garden playing with Larry Bird. It is a shame that Lenny denied himself that experience.

Kurt Helwig
Clifton, Va.

Len Bias was a great player. And this was just as college hoops was exploding beyond its real die hard fans to become the nationwide phenomenon that it is now. Len Bias was as exciting and dynamic a college player as I have ever seen.. You could tell he had fun on the floor. He possessed an almost larger-than-life persona. His senior year he was doing things on the floor that No. 23 hadn't even done yet.
 
I will never forget where I was. I was working in the mail room of an association and had my radio on. This was before the days of all-sports radio and they cut into the WMAL morning show to make the announcement. I listened in disbelief, hoping and praying that I heard something wrong. At first we did not know that it was drugs, though perhaps we suspected. We were kind of hoping against hope that it was something else.
 
My friend Jimmy and I went to the memorial service at Cole. Bias was our favorite player of all time and it was incredibly sad. As far as long-term effects go, let me just say this: drugs, especially coke was, believe it or not, considered fairly benign back then. It wasn't unusual to see people, our peer group of young professionals, doing it in bars and out in public.

After Len Bias died, it was like a switch was turned off. It was no longer socially acceptable to do anymore, just stupid and pathetic. I think the mindset was, "If Bias could die doing that in the great shape he is in, why would anyone take that kind of chance?" I personally know many people who never did any drugs after that event. I like to think that if anything positive could be gained out of such a tragic experience, it was that. Maybe that is his legacy.

Alan Kline
Washington, D.C.

I remember where I was when I heard, working a summer job, landscaping. Of course, I had no attachment to Maryland at the time but even I was a Celtics fan back then. Today I couldn't name the starting five. My initial reaction was "tough break" but the Celtics have always been good and would get through it. Of course, 1986 was their last championship.

Jimmy Lynn - Arlington, Va.

I graduated high school in 1980 from WT Woodson, Pete Holbert and Tommy Amaker's school, then graduated from AU in 1985. My favorite teams were Maryland and Georgetown. I loved the Buck Williams/Albert King/Ernie Graham Terps as well as the Patrick Ewing/Sleepy Floyd Hoyas.

But my favorite all-time college basketball player was No. 34, Lenny Bias.

I first remember him as a freshman. He was raw, athletic and powerful. I so vividly remember that jump shot from the foul line during the latter part of his freshman year. I don't recall the opponent, but I remember he hit a game-winner. It showed that this kid had potential. Then, he turned in those monster years during his junior and senior years. I recall that beautiful stroke from the baseline as well as those powerful dunks, with his legs splayed open. He was cocky, but he was so good. And, he had fun playing the game.

During his last home game, a couple of good friends and I went to watch the Terps game at R.J. Bentley's in College Park. I remember one of my friends said that we had to drink a shot every time Lenny made a shot. Well, no one can drink that much. After all, Lenny was draining jumper after jumper.

I still recall how the Duke fans were in awe of Lenny during his last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. They even applauded his greatness. And, who can forget that magical game he had against UNC his junior year?

I was happy for Len that he was chosen by the Celtics. After all, he would get to play with one of the all-time greats, Larry Bird. Wow, what a combination they would have been.

On June 19, 1986, I was visiting one of my closest friends near Princeton, N.J. I was scheduled to drive home that day. That was the day I got the phone call that Lenny had overdosed and died. I was in shock. "Not Len Bias!" were my first thoughts. No friggin' way. Not Lenny Bias. I was crushed, devastated.

To pay homage to the Bias family, another one of my best friends and I went to Cole Field House for the memorial service. We were moved to tears as Coach Driesell asked the crowd to give Lenny one more standing ovation. I recall how hot it was in Cole that day. Brutally hot. But we had a hole in our hearts as we sat there in disbelief, not wanting to believe that Len Bias was no longer alive.

I still can't believe the strength Mrs. Bias showed on that day. What a remarkable woman. And, to have to do it a second time with the passing of Jay Bias is almost too cruel.

I was in my first year of grad school in 1986. I know that a number of friends had experimented socially with recreational drugs at that time. But after Lenny's death, most of them stopped. Because if it could kill our hero Lenny Bias, it could kill anyone.

Posted June 14, 2006

next up:

Greg Abel Remembers Len Bias

June 13, 2006

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