Rise and fall

20 years ago, Len Bias began a senior season in which he soared to new heights. His tragic descent would be just as memorable.

Commentary

November 20, 2005|By RICK MAESE

COLLEGE PARK -- Cole Field House is dimly lit, just a single row of lights burning high above the floor. a few people walk around the concourse, but it's mostly quiet.

There are no banners hanging from the rafters, and there are no basketball hoops down below. But you can still feel something. Red wooden seats circle the arena and even though the Maryland Terrapins moved out three years ago, the sense of history hits you like a rush of air when you open the doors.

You take a seat and travel back 20 years. There he is - Len Bias - near the baseline. A 10-footer. He lifts off the ground, rising more than three feet before peaking and pausing. It's a jumper that smiles for the camera. He's suspended. You look for wires that might be dropping from the ceiling, but there are none.

There, he hangs forever.

Two decades have passed, but Bias' 1985-86 season still stands as the best anyone has put together in a Terps uniform. History focuses its lens on the negative. Bias overdosed on cocaine two days after the Boston Celtics made him the No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA draft. Potential wasted.

But that senior season, the potential is what the buzz was all about. That's why Bias had such lofty expectations. That's why they all said his death hurt not just the University of Maryland and the Celtics, but all of the NBA and the entire sport of basketball.

He set foot on campus as a freshman, raw and undisciplined, and built himself into something they're still talking about today. Bias' junior year, he led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring and was named the ACC's Player of the Year. By the start of his senior season, you could see how special he was. He had that quality about him, something more than confidence, like Bias was the only one who really understood how good he might be.

His own teammates were star-struck at times. The Landover native was treated like a deity.

"Seeing Lenny on campus, it was always like some kind of big sighting," says former teammate Dave Dickerson. Dickerson, head coach at Tulane University, was a wide-eyed freshman during Bias' senior season.

"A lot of people walked around campus preparing to see him, hoping that this was the day you'd see him," Dickerson says. "They walked around with cameras. They were ready for an autograph at any moment. L.B. was a rock star. It was pretty spectacular."

Twenty years ago this week, it all started, the beginning of the end.

On Nov. 23, 1985, Bias and the No. 19 Terps tipped off the season against Northeastern, led by Reggie Lewis, another Celtics draft pick who would die too young. Bias put up 23 points and eight rebounds before fouling out. The rest of the season moved like dominoes.

The Terps struggled early in ACC play, losing six straight - including a four-point home loss to top-ranked North Carolina. In a loss to Duke, Bias poured in a career-high 41 points - the third most in school history.

By that time, coach Lefty Driesell had ordered the team to feed Bias the ball more often and the wins started coming.

A month later, the Terps upset No. 17 N.C. State and had some confidence heading into a mid-February meeting at North Carolina, still ranked No. 1 in the country.

The game stands as Bias' best, saved in scrapbooks and preserved in memories. Bias scored 17 in the first half, but the Tar Heels led by nine with three minutes to go. Bias was fouled as he hit a jumper and made the free throw.

Then, like a move from a video game, he intercepted the inbounds pass and in one fluid motion launched toward the hoop. His reverse slam made it a four-point game.

With just 58 seconds on the clock, Bias hit another jump shot, bringing the Terps within two. The Tar Heels swarmed around Bias like bees, and Jeff Baxter hit an 18-footer to send the game into overtime.

Bias scored four of Maryland's eight points in the overtime and the Terps upset the nation's best team by five points. Their star finished the game with 35 points.

"God was with us tonight, and God was Lenny Bias," point guard Keith Gatlin said after the game, according to Lenny, Lefty and the Chancellor, former Sun reporter C. Fraser Smith's thorough 1992 book on the Bias tragedy.

The Terps beat North Carolina again on March 7 and had high hopes entering the NCAA tournament. Bias scored 26 in a first-round win over Pepperdine.

In the second round, UNLV clung to a narrow lead for much of the night and took a seven-point lead into the waning moments. The seconds were ticking away on Bias' collegiate career.

He scored 19 of his team's final 21 points, including 10 in the final two minutes, but it wasn't enough. Bias fouled out of his final basketball game with three seconds to go, walking off the court with 31 points. The Terps lost, 70-64.

Away from basketball, Bias was somewhat of an enigma. He was everything to everybody. Many saw whatever they wanted to see.

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