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Len Bias: 30 Years Later

June 15, 2016
Johnny Holliday was doing morning sports at radio station WMAL in Washington, D.C., June 19, 1986, when he got a call from someone at the old Leland Hospital, near the intersection of Route 1 and East-West Highway in Riverdale.

Leland, which would close about seven years later, was just a few miles south down Route 1 from the University of Maryland. The anonymous caller told Holliday Terps basketball star Len Bias had just been brought to the hospital.

"It was a little after 7. My news director said, ‘Get in a car and go out there,'" recalled Holliday, who became the radio voice of the Terps in 1979. "I got to the hospital and got word he had died."

Holliday was then told by the radio station to head to the Maryland campus, where Bias had been an All-Atlantic Coast Conference standout. The graduate of Northwestern High in Hyattsville, Md., had been drafted two days earlier in the first round by the Boston Celtics as the second overall selection.

"I was walking down the hall, and I saw Dick Dull and others," Holliday said of the former Maryland athletic director. "You could just see the look in their faces of shock and disbelief."

Someone told Holliday that Bias had suffered a heart attack, which the veteran announcer couldn't fathom, since Bias was 22. It was later learned Bias died of a cocaine overdose.

"I was there when he signed [with Maryland]. I went to his signing at Northwestern," Holliday said. "He was very shy and did not say a lot [as a freshman]. As he got more familiar with me, he got a lot looser and better with interviews."

His death hit hard.

"I was in denial; I would have never even guessed this kid was into something like that. Most of the people, they didn't want to believe it, because of the player he was and the role model he was for kids," Holliday said.

In addition to being All-ACC, Bias was a two-time ACC Player of the Year and a 1986 All-American while at Maryland.

"He was better than [Michael] Jordan at that time," Holliday said. "If you go back and look at the box scores when they went head-to-head, Bias won the head-to-head battle. You wonder how good he could have been. He could jump out of the gym. He played really good defense. He had something about him. He didn't want to lose. He could hit the jumper; he could drive past you. He could dunk. He had the whole package."

Dave Ungrady was a track athlete at the University of Maryland in the late 1970s and graduated in 1980. Now a veteran journalist, he was working for Prince George's Community Television when Bias died. 

"We couldn't believe it," said Ungrady, who helped with a segment on Bias' memorial service.

"I was an usher at basketball games at the beginning of his career, when he was a freshman and sophomore," added Ungrady, who lives in Virginia. "He had a 44-inch vertical jump. When you look at pictures of Len taking a shot, his hands are pretty high. He worked on that with Coach [Lefty] Driesell, who wanted to make sure that no one could stop his shot. While Michael Jordan was more like a floater, Bias was more of a leaper. He sort of revolutionized playing above the rim in college. He was a beast, and he had a beast mentality."

The death of Bias had far-reaching ramifications for Maryland athletics and the university for many years.

Holliday feels the death of the 6-foot-8 Bias is one major reason former Maryland basketball coach Driesell is not in the National Basketball Hall of Fame. Driesell resigned later in 1986, as did Dull.

"I thought he got the shaft," Holliday said of Driesell. "As he said, ‘I can't police these kids 24 hours a day. I hope I teach them the right thing.' It cost him his job. The chancellor [John Slaughter] was gone. It took forever for that program to get back."

Driesell, who had coached at Davidson before coming to Maryland, also led James Madison and Georgia State to the NCAA tournament and is now retired.

It took until 2014 for Bias to be elected into the athletic Hall of Fame at Maryland.

"It's great to hear about Lenny," Driesell, the Maryland coach for 17 years, told The Baltimore Sun that year. "I was elated that he got in. It's a long time coming."

M Club director Kevin Glover, a former football standout at Maryland, told The Sun in 2014: "We all know it's a very sensitive issue. A lot of changes were made to the university back in the day because of this situation [of his death]. Once we discussed it and the votes came in, we decided it was time to move forward and honor one of our greatest student-athletes ever."

Frank Costello, a 1968 Maryland graduate, was the Maryland strength and conditioning coach for the four years Bias played for the Terps. He is also a former track coach for the Terps and has worked for the Washington Capitals as a strength and conditioning coach.

"I just wish there were more like him. He was on time, and he tried hard," Costello said. "He was an extremely good athlete. The three best athletes I ever had were Randy White in football, Renaldo Nehemiah in track and Len Bias, for pure athletic ability. I never had any trouble with him from day one until the last day I worked with him. He never missed a workout."

Costello said it took Maryland years to get over his death. 

"It took a long time. The memories lingered for many years, from the point of view of reputation and the feeling around the athletic department. It took a while to bounce back," he said.

John Philbin, a former Olympic bobsledder, was an assistant under Costello at Maryland in strength and conditioning and worked with Bias his freshman and sophomore years. Philbin was at his own apartment in 1986 with two friends when he heard Bias died from a radio report. 

"One of no way," Philbin said describing his feelings at the time, "that could not be happening. He was very nice to everyone around him. He was not a regular partier."

Philbin has worked with elite athletes for nearly 30 years, including a stint with the Washington Nationals through the 2015 season. He said the best athletes he has worked with are Herschel Walker, who is in the College Football Hall of Fame; Darrell Green, who is in the NFL Hall of Fame, and Bias.

One of the assistant coaches on the track team when Ungrady was at Maryland was Dull, a former track athlete for the Terps who would move up to athletic director. 

"Everybody loved Dick," Ungrady said. "When I started at Maryland, Dick was in the ticket office. Dick was the person you would go to if you had a problem. He was so calm and so mellow."

Ungrady said it took Dull about 10 years to get a job in Division I athletics after he left Maryland. 

"I saw what it did to him when he lost his job," said Ungrady, who noted Dull has recently worked at Hood College in Frederick, Md. 

With that background, Ungrady decided to write a book about Bias -- "Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias," which was published in 2011. 

Ungrady, through his Born Ready Project, speaks to youth about Bias and how to make good decisions.

Holliday also notes that the  tragic event has prompted efforts to help others, as Bias' mother, Dr. Lonise Bias, has spoken around the country to youth about the dangers of drugs.

"I saw her at a Maryland game, maybe last year," Holliday said. "I have not seen her since the funeral. I gave her a big hug. She said, ‘He is bigger in death than he was in life.' Her message to kids is not to even try it once."

"You can go out and put a $200 hat on a $20 brain, and you've still got nothing," she said, according to The Morning Call newspaper in 1990, when she spoke to students at Lehigh University. 

She said her religious faith had helped her through tough times, and she urged students not to conform to peer pressure.

In the past, Dr. Bias has worked for The Abundant Life Resources A More Excellent Way in Prince George's County.

"Her work is a balm for the troubled, the lost, the weary, and those who have simply lost their focus. Dr. Lonise P. Bias is a dynamic and effective speaker," according to the organization's website. "After nearly two decades of work, Dr. Bias has broadened the borders of her business to include a team of experienced speakers, trainers, facilitators, consultants and event planners who share her vision, passion, and commitment for youth family community and the work place."

Sadly, the Bias family lost another son when Jay Bias, the younger brother of Len, died after a shooting at Prince George's Plaza in 1990. He died at the same hospital as his brother at Leland, then just east of Prince George's Plaza.

"I admire her for what she is doing, going around the country and telling the story [of Len Bias]," Holliday said. 

Holliday, an actor in dinner theaters, was asked by the Bias family to sing the Lord's Prayer at a service on the Maryland campus for Bias 30 years ago. 

Three decades later, the basketball program is on solid ground, thanks to Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams and now Mark Turgeon, who had the team ranked in the top five nationally last season.

But it has not been easy.

A few years before Williams retired, in 2011, ESPN was on hand to cover a Maryland game when Williams heard announcers refer to the death of Bias, which at that time had been more than 20 years ago.

Holliday recounted the event, saying Williams walked over to the announcers and simply said, "It is over, OK? Let us give it up and go on with our program."

Issue 222: June 2016