From Chapter 1
A Mixed Legacy
There are no statues of Len Bias. There is no Len Bias Boulevard stretching across the Columbia Park, Maryland neighborhood where he grew up, a few miles outside of Washington, D.C. There are no memorial tournaments or charity events raising money in his name for victims of cocaine-induced deaths. At least the Columbia Park Civic Association tried to honor Len’s memory. According to John Ware, a longtime neighbor of the Bias family in Columbia Park, the group wanted to establish a $1,000 annual scholarship award in Len’s name for someone in the neighborhood to attend college. But he says Lonise Bias, Len’s mother, turned down the gesture. “She didn’t tell us why,” he says.
But how do you define the legacy of a universally endeared and admired All-America basketball player, one with the potential to be one of the greatest of all time, when he goes and throws it all away? How can you honor a young man whose youthful indiscretion placed the University of Maryland, the school that helped make him a star, into a tailspin that lasted for almost a decade? How can a fan or even a friend of Len Bias salute the vast achievements and joy of his brief life without also acknowledging how his choice that night wreaked havoc on the world around him, both near and far?
You want to, badly. But even 25 years later, you struggle.
Take a leisurely walk through the Comcast Center in College Park, Maryland, the epicenter of University of Maryland athletics and home venue of the men’s and women’s basketball teams, and you will pass a temple of Terrapins tradition and triumph known as the Maryland Walk of Fame. Saunter over to the middle, and you notice two of Maryland’s all-time great basketball players from the early 1970s, All-Americas Len Elmore and Tom McMillen, standing side by side a few feet to the left of a large head shot of Louis “Bosey” Berger, who in 1931 became Maryland’s first basketball All-America. Slide over to the right and, next to the Maryland Terrapins mascot Testudo hoisting a sign that reads “Fear the Turtle,” stands Bias. He is adorned in the glowing gold Maryland jersey with the blazing red number 34, his arms raised triumphantly.
Most of the several dozen Maryland athletes or teams displayed on the wall have been selected to the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame. Bias is not among them. The only two-time ACC Player of the Year, the All-America is considered by many to be among the top basketball talents ever to wear a Maryland uniform. None of the others left out of the Hall of Fame matches Bias’s athletic impact. Only two Maryland basketball players, John Lucas in 1976 and Joe Smith in 1995, have been drafted higher than Bias in the NBA draft – and to do so, they had to be picked No. 1.
Bias’s number 34 banner was first retired in Cole Field House in 1988, with no ceremony so as to avoid scrutiny. It now hangs from the rafters at Comcast Center, and Bias is recognized as one of the best basketball players in Maryland history. But a Hall of Fame bylaw stands between Bias and membership in the school’s most revered athletic fraternity: Nominees must have good characterand reputation, and not have been a source of embarrassment in any way to the university.
In April 2011, Booth talked excitedly about the day he met Bias, his hero. It happened during a promotional appearance by Bias and teammate Keith Gatlin at a sandwich shop in East Baltimore. Booth, an impressionable 10-year-old, arrived three hours early to secure a spot at the front of the line for the 11 a.m. event. When he met Bias, he told him that he would play hard and one day be a Terrapin just like his idol, and, yup, that he would at least tie Bias’s scoring record.
Booth knew the owner of the sub shop and was given close access to Bias and Gatlin once the signing ended. He says the moment is recorded in a picture of Booth with Bias and Gatlin and several others, which hung on a wall in the shop for almost a decade.
When his older sister woke him on the morning of June 19, 1986, after hearing on the news that Bias had died, Booth grew hysterical. He cried uncontrollably as he called his mother at work to tell her the tragic news. Booth was 11 years old. He saw the kinds of people where he grew up in his East Baltimore neighborhood who used drugs. They weren’t like Bias.
Before Bias died, the thought never crossed the boy’s mind that elite athletes used drugs. He used Bias’s death as a reminder to stay focused on basketball and his grades, and to continue a lifestyle that avoided drug use. “Once I understood what it was and how it happened that he died, it made me never want to touch a drug ever or abuse my body,” he says. “It affected my life to help me become the person and man I am today.”
For almost a decade, every time Booth visited the sandwich shop, the photo hanging on the wall reminded him of that happy day. When he was 17, he stopped by one day and it was gone. The owner had moved to Greece, and taken the photo with him. “Every time I tell that story, it makes me sick to my stomach,” Booth says. Bias was gone and now, too, the treasured photo.
Soon after Bias died and long before the photo vanished, Booth went to a sporting-goods store and bought an autographed poster of the player to hang on a wall in his room. There it stayed until his freshman year of college, when he gave it to one of his cousins. “I’d see it every day,” he says. “It reinforced the impact his death has had on me and the player I remember I fell in love with growing up.”
Although he’d seen Bias play only on television, he vividly remembers him as “the first guy who played the game with such passion in college,” sending blocked shots two rows deep into the stands and even slapping the hands of opposing players during pre-game introductions with intimidating force. Those images shaped his career: a Terrapin All-America in 1997, Booth spent 2005 to 2011 as an assistant men’s basketball coach at Maryland. In between, he did something his idol never livedto do: Booth played for two years in the NBA, winning an NBA title with the Chicago Bulls in 1998. But, despite his banner hanging in the rafters of the Comcast Center alongside Bias’s, Booth never did break his scoring record.
From Chapter 2
Even as his basketball career at Northwestern High School was gaining momentum, Bias had already started developing a fondness for the University of Maryland. While in middle school, Bias had worked in Cole Field House as a popcorn vendor, although Waller insists that Bias spent more time eating popcorn and watching games than actually selling the snack. During the summer, Bias attended Maryland head coach Lefty Driesell’s basketball camps and also spent two summers on the Maryland campus attending Upward Bound programs. Upward Bound provides high-school students achance to take college prep classes and work on a college campus for six weeks.
Then there was the emotional connection. Throughout high school, Bias and Brian Waller would often walk the couple miles from Northwestern to College Park and cruise the Maryland campus, dreaming about the days they would showcase their basketball skills at Cole Field House. Maryland coaches left home game tickets for Waller and Bias. The two relished the experience, sitting nearcourtside behind a basket, watching their hero Ernie Graham along with future NBA players suchas Buck Williams and Albert King lead Maryland to the ACC regular season title in 1980. They dreamed of wearing the Terrapins’ home colors of red, white, black and gold. Dozens of times, they met up on campus with Graham, a Terrapin from 1977 to 1981 who stillholds the school record for most points in a game, with 44. “Everything Ernie did, we did,” saysWaller. “We’d go to his room. We’d go to a gym and play ball. We’d go play in Cole Field House.We were so blessed. We were so happy.”
Waller and Bias played one-on-one games alone on the Cole Field House floor during the offseason,or pick-up games with Graham and other Maryland players. If Graham was in line to playthe next game, he would often do so only if Bias and Waller could play on his team; otherwise, he would wait until the three could play together. The two high schoolers lifted weights in Cole FieldHouse in the same rooms used by Maryland’s basketball players and other athletes.
After workouts, Waller and Bias ate dinner with Graham at a campus dining hall. They accompanied Graham to a party in the campus Student Union and, as Waller emphatically mentioned with a smile, mingled with the college girls. Once, Graham took the two into Maryland’s basketball equipment room and outfitted them with a wide range of Terps basketball gear, including red Nike basketball shoes andNational Invitation Tournament T-shirts. Graham remembers Bias as a nice, enthusiastic kid who smiled and joked around a lot. “He would just show up and stand there at the door,” says Graham. “He wouldn’t want anything or sayanything. He says ‘I’m doing whatever you’re doing.’ He always had that smile, always had a jokeor something funny to say. He kept everybody laughing.”
Graham admits that he started smoking marijuana before he entered Maryland and started using cocaine recreationally while at the school. He says one of his teammates, John Bilney, joked about Graham’s drug use by writing “$100 a gram” on Graham’s door. But Graham insists he never exposed Bias to drugs.“They never used drugs with me,” says Graham, who eventually became addicted to cocaine, an ordeal that lasted until 1994. “The smel lof marijuana would be in our dorm room but we would turn the fan on and let it get out of there. But I’m not saying they didn’t smell it on the walls. I would never light a bong or smoke a joint infront of them. I wanted to hide that from them. I wanted them to respect me. I wanted them not to look at drugs.”
Maryland coach Lefty Driesell learned to appreciate a player who had come to him with seemingly limitless but raw potential. The first time Driesell saw Bias play in high school, the player threw the ball at an official and drew a technical foul. “A lot of people told me he’s a hothead, you’re crazy for recruitinghim,” says Driesell. “I knew he was a hothead and a great competitor. I knew he was going to be good. But I didn’t think he was going to be that good.”
Driesell, a devout Christian, was also impressed that Bias became a born-again Christian at Marylandand resumed attending church services. The coach remembers the time he saw Bias sitting alone in Cole Field House reading a Bible. Sue Tyler, a former coach and associate athletic director at Maryland, recalled seeing Bias reading a Bible while leaning against a wall in Cole Field House.Driesell relished Bias’s fun-loving personality and his modest, but passionate, approach to the game.
The coach fondly remembers a typical interaction with Bias when the team would be on the road getting ready to leave a hotel or depart a bus on the way to an arena.
“You ready, Leonard?”
“Coach, I was born ready.”
From Chapter 4
As Dave Dickerson recalls it, the escalating culture of drug abuse that swept the country in the1970s and 1980s hadn’t reached Olar, South Carolina, by the time he graduated high school in 1985. Dickerson, the youngest and only boy amid seven siblings, admittedly lived a sheltered life steeped in Pentecostal faith in rural Olar, a town of a few hundred people. A year later, Dickerson saw firsthand how drugs can not only kill a person, but cause severe collateral damage to everyone around him. He also learned lessons about fortitude and perseverance that some 20 years later helped himlead a tattered basketball team at Tulane University as it battled to recover from devastation of anotherkind: Hurricane Katrina.
Dickerson, an all-state player out of South Carolina, chose Maryland in part due to its proximity to Washington, D.C., the political capital of the world. Dickerson wanted someday to be mayor ofhis hometown. At the end of his freshman season, during which he played in 15 games and averaged 2.1 points, Dickerson had no reason not to feel positive about the next year. With forwards Bias and Speedy Jones ending their eligibility in 1986, Dickerson was expecting more playing time the following season. But then Bias died and, as for all his teammates, chaos became the new normal.
Dickerson admits he was a “green” freshman whose sheltered background would have prevented him from noticing the signs of a drug user. “I never experienced anyone losing their life from drugs,” says Dickerson, who insists he never so much as saw Bias drink alcohol let alone use drugs. “I was shocked at how Len died.”
In the weeks that followed, Dickerson considered transferring – as did many of his teammates – but chose to stay at Maryland. “There was a big risk in transferring,” he says. “And Maryland was my choice coming out of high school.” Dickerson also feared that if he left Maryland he would suffer the wrath of his father, whom he called “an old-school guy. If you start something, you finish it,” he says. “I was scared of my father.”
In a profound understatement, Dickerson says that playing for the Terrapins that first season after Bias died was not fun. “We were viewed in a different light than any other athlete on campus,” he says. “The perception of that team and the players on it was that we were drug abusers, we all didn’t go to class and that we all were all part of what happened that night. There were stares, people being standoffish. There weren’t a lot of people reaching out and hugging you. It was a life-altering experience.”
Dickerson ended his career at Maryland as a part-time starter. He was the team captain his senior season in 1989 and earned his government and politics degree in 1990. But his most cherished moment took place after his junior season, in 1988, when he met his future wife, Laurette, a 1991 graduate of Maryland. “I’m at peace with everything that happened,” he says. “I don’t look back and say coulda, woulda.”
Dickerson left Maryland with a reputation for helping maintain calm amid chaos, a trait that would help him in his post-college career. He never became mayor of Olar and did not pursue a careerin politics; instead, he became a basketball coach. From 1990 to 1996, Dickerson worked as an assistant coach at three programs, including one season at James Madison University for his former Maryland coach, Lefty Driesell.
In 1996, he began what would be a nine-year career as an assistantat Maryland, where he helped the Terrapins win a national title in 2002. While there, he recruited such All-Americas and future pro players as Steve Francis, Chris Wilcox, Steve Blakeand Juan Dixon. After the 2005 season, Dickerson was one of about 80 candidates who applied for the headcoach’s job at Tulane University in New Orleans. He was chosen in part, says athletic director Rick Dickson, for how he handled himself at Maryland after Bias died. A letter from former Maryland chancellor John Slaughter to Dickson boasted of Dickerson as a “pillar of calm during their storm and a national spokes person not just for basketball but for the university,” Dickson said in the Washington Post in 2005.
When Dickerson took over as head coach at Tulane in April 2005, he knew that he faced a challenge in rebuilding a program that had recorded just one winning season in its previous five and was coming off a 10-18 season. He had no idea how tough the challenge would be. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, it rendered the Tulane campus unusable, sending the men’s basketball squad and five other school teams to the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station.
Dickerson and his staff worked out of their apartments in College Station until they couldset up an office in an old room in the football stadium. Once Dickerson had his team together again, he had to think of ways to keep their minds focused on playing basketball rather than on their personal hardships. He quickly told them the Bias story.
“When I got them together for the first time [in College Station], I told them the story about sticking with the University of Maryland and not transferring and weathering the storm, and look where it got me,” he says. “I’m surprised the Len Bias story is not being told on a yearly basis when new athletes come into college, or in high school. I think the Len Bias story is one of the better stories you can use to get an individual or team to do the right thing.
“Without that story, I think I would have lost half my team. They had to remain loyal to a coach who hadn’t recruited anyone on that team. I just told them what happened and what type of player Bias was. I told them, to this day he was the best player I played with or against, or saw during my coaching career. I compared him to Michael Jordan and [Karl] Malone and [Larry] Bird. I talked to them about what happened the morning of June 19, 1986; I went through that step-by-step. The Len Bias story was the catch to get their attention, to get guys to be loyal, maintaining the course and yes, there will be some ups and downs, tragedies here and there. We needed to continue to work and stick together. I told them: At the end of the day, you will benefit from it.”
When Tulane finally played its first game under Dickerson, in College Station, it won 77-66.The team would go on to finish 12-17 in that dislocated season, followed by records of 17-13 and 17-15 – the first consecutive winning seasons in 11 years. But the program struggled with losing records the next two years, and after the 2010 season, which Tulane finished 8-22, Dickerson resigned on March 31, 2010, never having led Tulane to a post-season tournament.
True to form, Dickerson rebounded quickly. Ohio State hired him as an assistant coach three weeks later. He soon discovered that the legacy of Len Bias stretched further than he thought. Dickerson recalls players and coaches asking him about Bias: “ ‘Was he really that good? What kind of person was he? Did you know what he was doing in that room that night?’ I get those questions from my 10-year-old son, who doesn’t fully understand the scope of what happened. I talk to him about what’s right and wrong, about making good decisions, and the consequences of making bad decisions. To this day, I still consider Len Bias a role model. Role models don’t always makethe right decisions. When you make a bad decision, sometimes you can pay for it with your life. Len Bias taught me more about life in the one year I spent with him than any other person outside of my family.”
"Sad story, but I am also sad there isn't more to read. I did not want it to end. You did a fabulous job. Thank you for one of the greatest sports books ever written."
Dr. Rob Gilbert, sports psychology professor, Montclair State University and and a motivational speaker.
"It was an amazing piece of work. I was 10 when news of Len Bias' death took over the local and national news channels. It greatly affected me as a young basketball player and as a person who to this day has never tried drugs partly because of Bias. Your book was gripping from start to finish and was satisfying in the ways it explained so many things that other publications failed to do in the past. What also hit home for me was your mentioning of Bearden High School in Knoxville, TN -- the same city I used to live and work in as the sports editor for The Knoxville Journal. I never realized I was so close to the Bias legacy. Dave Ford, former sports editor, Knoxville, TN Journal
"I loved your book -- well written; thoroughly researched and insightful; and chock full of life lessons. Literally couldn't put it down."
Brian Kriftcher, Global Chair, PeacePlayers International.
Recommended summer reading by basketball blogger Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News (scroll down to no. 5).
"I had such a difficult time putting the book down. You've gotta read it, (it has) multilevels in political, social, personal and sports."
Joe Madison, host of the Joe Madison show on SiriusXM radio.
"This book captures the true essence of Len Bias' legacy. No University of Maryland athlete left as profound an impact on the school and society as Bias. He embraced life with an infectious personality and captured the interest of a sporting nation with his supreme athleticism. His death, he caused immeasurable pain but also prompted positive changes in the drug culture. It taught our youth an invaluable lesson: using drugs can kill you."
Len Elmore, 1974 Maryland All-America, ESPN basketball broadcaster
"The death of Len Bias 25 years ago was a shock to the sports world, a sad story that is worth remembering and retelling today. Dave Ungrady has written a compelling, well-researched account of what happened and why it happened. This is an important book that makes sure we never forget this tragedy."
Christine Brennan, USA Today sports columnist, ABC News commentator, author of "Best Seat in the House"
"During my years as an ACC coach, the two most dominant players we've faced were Michael Jordan and Len Bias. I always thought those two players were a cut above. They did things no one else could do."
Mike Krzyzewski, men's head basketball coach at Duke University since 1980 and a four time NCAA champion.
The death of Len Bias was the most important date related to drug abuse in the United States since the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in June 1935. It focused the national attention on drug abuse like no other event has. It brought it home to everybody.
Dr. Robert DuPont, President of the Institute for Behavior and Health Incorporated; former president of the American Council of Drug Education.
"A lot of kids who had the opportunity to use drugs chose not to use drugs. He didn't die in vain. It was an eye-opener. Because of his death, a lot of people in this country began to make drugs a target."
Horace Balmer, former head of security for the NBA.
Jackson Star-News of W.Va reviews the book.