At long last, ghosts departing Cole Field House

January 25, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

COLLEGE PARK -- This is about memory. It's about a former basketball star named Bob McDonald, who was introduced to a big crowd here over the weekend and found himself remembered by almost nobody, and it's about a ghost named Len Bias, who is finally, perhaps, beginning to be exorcised from the premises.

When Bob McDonald played for the University of Maryland back in 1961, he led the team in scoring and rebounding. For this, they made him an honorary captain last Saturday and let him stand at midcourt and wave to the crowd. As they clapped politely, almost everybody in the stands said: "Bob who?"

Len Bias, some of them still remember. He was a basketball player here who might have been another Michael Jordan, if only. He could leap and he could score, and he had a life of magic in front of him, if only. Eight years after his death by drug overdose, Bias is a haunting figure whose chains can still be heard clanking around Cole Field House, though the noise seems to be going away.

Time does that. Memory fades. When Bias died, in the midst of his very own legend, the kids now going to class here were still in elementary school. He's a name they heard during a brief national convulsion over athletes and drugs, but the details of his story are beginning to be fuzzy. Soon, if everyone's lucky, Len Bias will become: "Len who?"

For all the magic he performed on a basketball court, it's Bias' dying, so needlessly and so stupidly, that's most affected this campus over the last decade. For a while, quality basketball players didn't want to come here. Who could blame them? For a while, the school brought Baltimore's Bob Wade down here to coach, but then let him go for reasons not entirely of Wade's making. For a while, the NCAA slapped sanctions on the school that kept the basketball team out of tournaments and off of television.

TC The school seemed cursed, unable to throw off the pall of the Len Bias death and unable to restore a sense of joy to its athletic program.

On Saturday, though, the most remarkable things were happening. Maryland played North Carolina State in basketball, and there were people outside the field house scalping tickets. Inside, the place was sold out, even though there was television coverage. When you walked in the front door, ushers were handing out T-shirts which showed a packed arena and pronounced this campus Garyland.

It's a reference to Gary Williams, the 48-year old coach, who has now guided his team to a record of 11 wins and 3 losses, including Saturday's victory over N.C. State. The score was 102 to 70. It was Maryland's biggest margin of victory in two decades, and the team finds itself ranked today in the nation's Top 25.

Williams is a picture to behold. He looks as if tiny time capsules are bursting inside of him, thrusting him into frenzies of activity: waving his arms about as if conducting a symphony, berating officials at decibel levels that could drive dogs rabid, conducting instant, nose-to-nose seminars with players deemed momentarily unthinking. His intensity level never seems to waver. And then you look at the scoreboard and notice his team's up by 27.

Williams played here in the mid-'60s. He was a shy kid, and not particularly gifted at shooting a basketball, but somehow he was a starter for three years. He could hit the open man, and he kept his composure in difficult times. More than that, he was always thinking, and he played for a man who wasn't just a coach, but a teacher.

His name was Bud Millikan. When they introduced the forgotten Bob McDonald before the game, the public address announcer said McDonald, too, played for ''the legendary'' Bud Millikan, who coached here for 17 years. Most people said: "Bud who?" "Legend who?"

Thus, memory becomes both a slight and a blessing. When the crowd seemed indifferent to Bob McDonald, the mind said: "What the heck, he played more than 30 years ago." When they seemed not to recognize Millikan's name, it was a little embarrassing. He really was a legend, once upon a time.

But maybe there's a cleansing effect here. Each incoming group of students brings its own limited sense of history. One year not so far from now, there will be kids here who weren't even alive when Len Bias died, and then his ghost really will be exorcised.

It's nice to come here and finally see the process beginning to happen.

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