WASHINGTON — The actual date of Len Bias’ passing was June 19, 1986, but the NBA Draft will always be the memorial that saddens D.C. and Maryland sports fans.
Ironically, it was the happiness of living out his dream, the elation of becoming an overnight millionaire that caused Len Bias to risk it all and lose his life to a cocaine overdose in the dorms at the University of Maryland.
At this point, 31 years later, Bias has been dead far longer than he was alive. He would have been 53, older than NBA Draft analysts Jalen Rose and Jay Bilas, and nearly as old as broadcaster Michael Wilbon.
But it’s hard to imagine Bias as anything other than the grinning 22-year-old wearing a green Celtics hat on draft night. That is how he will be etched in the minds of the people he left behind as well:
Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell: “Len could do it all. 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.”
Teammate Derrick Lewis: “One person couldn’t guard [him]. We ran one play all [1985-86] 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.”
Alabama Coach Wimp Sanderson: “My first impression of Bias was that he was an active, powerful guy and so athletic, almost like a Bernard King. He was hard to defend because you didn’t know how to defend him — big guy, quick guy — and if he got a mismatch, Lefty would make sure he got the ball.”
Teammate Keith Gatlin: “He was destined for greatness because Lenny worked hard. He wasn’t born with that jump shot that allowed him to dominate games. He modeled his post-up game after [2013 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee] Bernard King who had the ability to — with a defender on his back — turn in the post and shoot over the top. Easily. Once Lenny had that perfected, everybody was at his mercy.”
Teammate Dave Dickerson: “He was the toughest player in college basketball. … He was tougher than any player that I’ve ever seen to this day. I think guys were afraid to cover him, I think guys were scared of him. I don’t think it was a physical, attack-type deal, I think it was a respect deal. You had to be at your best. If you were not, he was going to beat you up and spit you out and that’s what he did.”
Since Bias’ death, the attitude and stigma of drugs has shifted over time, as has his legacy. But one thing that will never change is that Bias was one of the greatest Terps of all time, and one of the saddest stories in sports.