MIKE BURKE

Allegany Radio Corporation Sports

The word “legend” is overused, and most of those who throw it around don’t seem to know what it actually means.

The first and most basic definition of “legend” by Merriam-Webster is, “an old story that is widely believed but cannot be proved to be true”

The great Leonard Bias died 37 years ago yesterday.

Leonard Bias remains legendary. Neither he nor his life is legend. It is real.

So many of us know it. So many of us saw it and experienced it. We have no need to prove it to be true.

In the summer of 1981, I met a shy, gangly youngster with Bambi eyes who loved to draw and, had he not died on June 19, 1986, would have been the greatest basketball player of all time.

To this day, the world knows that young man to have been Len Bias, but to those of us who were there long before the legend began to take life, he will forever be remembered as Leonard Bias. And in November 2021, over 30 years after it should have occurred in the first place, Landover and Hyattsville, Maryland’s Leonard Bias was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri.

It can be said that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player who ever lived, and the most telling words there are “who ever lived.”

Leonard Bias, 6-feet, 8-inches of muscle, touch, creativity and airborne splendor, was well on his way to equaling, then surpassing his former rival from North Carolina when he died of cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose two days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics.

Leonard Bias never wanted to be The Chosen One. He never wanted to be known as King Bias. His friends knew him as Frosty.

When I met him he was entering his senior year at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, and as far as I knew, outside of his family and friends, the only people in the world who knew about him were my sports editor at the Prince George’s Sentinel, Dave Ginsburg, Northwestern basketball coach Bob Wagner and the head basketball coach at the University of Maryland, Mr. Charles G. “Lefty” Driesell.

Because of those three men, I met Leonard Bias and everything changed forever. I saw things I never dreamed were possible, and I saw things that summer of 1981 that I haven’t seen since. On the basketball court? Of course. But, most importantly, in the form of human behavior and genuine emotional care.

Everybody loved Leonard Bias, almost in a protecting way. And once he felt comfortable enough around you to lift his soft eyes and his warm face away from his shoes, you grew to understand why.

It was the summer of 1981, and Dave Ginsburg called me and assigned me to cover the Northwestern Summer Basketball League because, “Northwestern’s got some hot shot named Bias who has Lefty’s attention. He’s there every night watching him. Might be a story.”

It ended up being a lot of stories.

I arrived at the humid little Northwestern gym on Adelphi Road and the first person I met was Bob Wagner, who looked every bit the part of the 1980’s high school coach: weight-room toned, busy dark hair with a bushy dark mustache, polyester Bike coaching shorts and an enormous ring of keys that could conceivably open any door in Prince George’s County.

Lefty sneaked into the gym (as best a bald 6-foot-6, 250-pound national celebrity could sneak anywhere) about five minutes after Northwestern’s game began.

As for the game, I had never seen a human being fly before that night.

As for Lefty, even though he was the only college coach there, he couldn’t talk about Bias because NCAA recruiting rules prohibited him from doing so. He was, however, happy to talk about just about anything else.

Leonard? He didn’t say much, either. In fact, he talked more about his drawing than he did about his basketball. Although he once — accidentally, I believe — admitted Lefty’s nightly presence motivated him to improve his game if not just to show all of the coaches who weren’t there just what they were about to miss.

The world soon found out, and in November of 1982, Ginsburg assigned me to the Maryland basketball beat — at least for games he couldn’t attend when he worked nights at Giant Food.

In fact, the first Maryland game I covered was over the Thanksgiving weekend and Ginsburg somehow found me back here in Cumberland just as I was sitting down to eat Thanksgiving dinner.

“Maryland’s playing Penn State Saturday at the Baltimore Civic Center,” he said. “It’s Bias’ first game. I know it’s short notice, but can you make it?”

I was young, so I was there for what would be a 20-point Maryland loss to Penn State; but it was the first game for what was finally and rightfully recognized as a National College Basketball Hall of Fame career. And for the better part of the next two Maryland basketball seasons, I covered another dozen or so of Leonard Bias’ games.

He had the highest vertical leap in the country and was the best shot blocker in the country. He could muscle with any big man in the country. He could cover any guard in the country, including Jordan. And his shooting touch from 25 feet in was as gentle as a summer breeze.

He was the most magnificent athlete and basketball player I have ever seen, and he was one of the nicest young men I will ever know.

Often, of course, I think about what could have been. Today, though, I once more appreciate what once was. The legend of Len Bias took life and grew before my very eyes. The wonder of knowing Leonard Bias grows more in my memory with each passing day.

Particularly at this time of the year.

All of these years later, I am most grateful for the opportunity of a lifetime given to me by Dave Ginsburg. Sending me to that Northwestern Summer League game over 40 years ago opened the door, not only to my realizing a childhood dream of covering Maryland basketball, but to everything that would then happen for my career and for my life.

Jackie Robinson said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

So when the talk of who has been the greatest and most influential basketball player of our lifetime is on the table, it doesn’t even evoke a second thought for me.

I’m Bias. I’ll always be Bias.

He is not a legend.

Bias is real.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT