Johnny Holliday was working the morning sports shift at WMAL-AM 25 years ago Sunday when he got a call that he’ll never forget. It was a buddy telling Maryland basketball’s play-by-play man that Terps All-American Len Bias had been rushed to a hospital with an apparent heart attack. At first, Holliday thought it was a prank.
Derrick Lewis, who had started alongside Bias that 1985-86 season, was walking to a calculus exam that morning when teammate John Johnson, lookiing scared, ran up with the news that Bias was at the hospital.
There was still no word on Bias’ condition when they arrived at Leland Memorial, but one look at teammate Keith Gatlin’s face made Lewis realize that his first thought that Bias had maybe broken a leg were wrong.
Less than 36 hours earlier, Bias had been taken second overall in the NBA draft by the newly-crowned champion Boston Celtics just as he had hoped.
And now there were whispers about a heart attack. Not the invincible Bias, the player Lewis said that “one person couldn’t guard. We ran one play all season. Len would come off a double stack and just take over. We all got so many open looks because they would double-team Len. He had so much athletic ability – 20-foot jumpers were nothing for him and he could really jump — and he was strong and smart.”
But Bias had been foolish enough to overdose on cocaine early that morning in a dorm room party that Lewis had skipped because of the early calculus exam.
“I remember Len’s mom (Lonise Bias) coming into the waiting room at the hospital and saying, ‘He’s gone. We lost him,’ “ Lewis said. “She had no facial expression. She wasn’t crying. It was like she was saying he had gone to the store. It didn’t seem real. I’ve lost family members and other friends, but that’s one of those moments I’ll always remember. It was just unbelievable.”
Bias’ death rocked the university. Soon, legendary coach Lefty Driesell, athletic director Dick Dull and chancellor John Slaughter would all pay the price with their jobs.
It would be almost three years before alumnus Gary Williams returned to take the reins of the program which had been sanctioned by the NCAA after Driesell’s replacement, high school coaching wizard Bob Wade, had gone for the quick fix after an 0-14 ACC debut and broken rules in providing illegal benefits to recruits and enrolled players.
Fifteen years after Bias’ death, his tragedy still cast such a large shadow over those then at Maryland that Driesell was reluctant at first to cooperate with “Cole Classics,” the history of Terps basketball that I wrote with John McNamara, because he feared it would be a Bias-based hatchet job.
“Len was a great kid,” Driesell said this week. “He went to church every Sunday. Our players were drug-tested. Every NBA team drug-tested. It was just one night of celebrating become a millionaire that went too far.”
The happy memories of Bias also still remain vivid for College Park veterans who remember the sophomore leading the Terps to their only ACC Tournament title during Driesell’s 17 seasons in 1984 and dealing conference kingpin North Carolina its first loss in the Dean Smith Center with a magnificent 35-point performance two years later.
“Len could do it all,” Driesell said. “He was strong. He could jump. He could shoot from the outside. He could score inside with a jump hook and a drop-step dunk. He was the complete package.”
Holliday ranks Bias among the greatest players he has covered during his 32 season, along with Albert King, Juan Dixon and Greivis Vasquez, all of whom played in the NBA unlike their fallen predecessor.
“Len’s mother asked me to sing ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ at the funeral,” Holliday recalled. “I was trying to think of anything else except what was going on to keep from crying. But when I saw her walking down the aisle behind the casket and she blew a kiss, that was the most poignant moment.”
Every year Lewis, now coaching at Archbishop Spalding in Severn, Md., shows his players and students – all of whom were born well after Bias’ death – a video of his teammate, whom he believed would’ve been an NBA superstar along the lines of Boston’s Kevin Garnett. Driesell compared Bias to Miami superstar LeBron James.
“I don’t think Len’s death had as much of a deterring effect on young people taking drugs as it should have,” Lewis lamented. “The kids will ask me why someone with so much who was about to become a millionaire would do something like that. It’s hard to explain. I just tell them that Len was the happiest person in the world. He thought he was Superman.”
Until he was gone, just like that, a quarter of a century ago Sunday.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.