Allegany Radio Corporation Sports
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 even before the legend began to take life, he will forever be remembered as Leonard Bias. And now, over 30 years after it should have occurred in the first place, Hyattsville, Md.’s Leonard Bias was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame Sunday in Kansas City, Mo.
It can be said that Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player who ever lived, and the most telling words of that statement are “who ever lived.”
Leonard Bias, 6-feet, 8-inches of muscle, touch, creativity and furious flying 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. If you could have caught Red Auerbach just before he went to the Great Beyond, he would have assured you of that. Better yet, ask any Tar Heels fan how No. 1 in the nation North Carolina’s first loss in the then shiny new Dean Smith Center came about over 35 years ago.
Or, just go to YouTube, where the Bias legend continues to grow with each click.
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’ve never 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 it was the most miserable time of my life. For I, as a first-year season-ticket holder for my beloved Baltimore Orioles, was in the painful process of watching my hard-earned investment be washed away by the baseball players strike that cost the season 50 regular-season games.
As my roommates at the time would tell you, I was a contemptible human being that summer (not like I am now), until Dave Ginsburg called me with a question that would soon end my pain.
“What are you doing tomorrow night?” he asked.
“Let’s see,” I said. “Uh … nothing.”
“The Northwestern Summer League is going on,” he said, “and Northwestern’s got some hot shot named Bias who has Lefty’s attention. He’s there every night watching him. Might be a story there.”
I arrived at the humid little Northwestern gym on Adelphi Road as ordered, 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.
“You here to see Leonard or Lefty?” Wagner said as he crushed my right hand on the first handshake. “Or are you here to see Lefty watch Leonard?”
I soon saw what Wagner was talking about as Lefty sneaked into the gym about five minutes after Northwestern’s game began. I had never seen a human being fly before that night. Nor had I seen a human being devour as much popcorn as Lefty did without washing a bite of it down with something.
“Look at him,” Wagner laughed as he nodded in Lefty’s direction. “I don’t know if he’s hungrier for the popcorn or for Leonard. It’s like this every night. He’s the only (college) coach here, and he’s here every night. We’ll cover half the cost of our league with the popcorn that he eats.”
“You’re kidding?” I said.
“Yeah,” Wagner said. “We don’t charge him.”
“No,” I said, “about his being the only coach here every night.”
“He’s the only one,” Wagner said. “Leonard went to his basketball camp and Lefty’s been here ever since.”
Lefty couldn’t talk about Bias because NCAA recruiting rules prohibited him from doing so. But he would talk about everything else under the sun, from that dang loss to N.C. State seven years prior, to how he could still “whup” his former All-American John Lucas, who was also an All-American tennis player, “in straight sets.”
Leonard? He didn’t say much. 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 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 at my aunt’s and uncle’s.
“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?”
“Do you have to work?”
“No,” said Dave. “But I know you took to the kid (I had gone to about a dozen of Bias’ games by that time). And given what you’ve written, I know he’ll talk to you.”
“I’ll be there,” I said.
And I was there, for what would be a 20-point Maryland loss to Penn State; but it was the first game for what has finally and rightfully been 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, and the polite young mama’s boy from Hyattsville indeed recognized my face to be a familiar one. And in time he grew comfortable enough to talk more about his game than his drawing, not only to me, but to the growing swarm of reporters who believed, just as I had, that they had discovered him.
But there was actually very little for him to say about his game; it spoke for itself. 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 warm 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.
All of these years later, I am grateful for that baseball players strike of 1981, and 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.
Mike Burke writes about sports and a lot of other stuff for Allegany Radio and Pikewood Digital. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 (see above) and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT