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Bias Was So Good . . . and Getting Even Better

The Washington Post

Len Bias and Bob Wagner, his high school coach, had a way of cheering each other up. If one was downcast, the other would remind: “Live, love and laugh as if every day might be your last. Because someday, you’ll be right.”

Len Bias didn’t figure to be right so soon.

He figured to make millions of dollars. He figured to design the interiors of houses. He figured to design and model his own line of clothing.

He figured to be playing with Larry Bird and Bill Walton on the parquet floor of the Boston Garden. He probably even figured to finally win the championship he had never won in high school or college.

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But Len Bias never figured to be dead, at 22, with police sources saying evidence of cocaine was found in his urine.

Did you see the NBA playoff game a couple of weeks ago? The Celtics were walking off the floor to the locker room, and there was Len Bias, right out of Gentlemen’s Quarterly in his black leather jacket, standing right behind them, one of the big boys.

Just before he had gone to Boston to see that game and meet the Celtic staff, he knew the team might take him in the first round, with the second pick in the entire NBA draft.

“Can you believe me playing in Boston Garden?” he said to a reporter. “Larry Bird and D.J. (Dennis Johnson)? The Boston Garden?”

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He was full of life, love and laughter that day. He was reminded that he had almost been scared to take one dribble with the ball two years ago, and he answered, “Oh yeah? When was that?”

Bias ought to be remembered, rather, for so many stunning performances.

There was that night at the end of his freshman season when he beat Tennessee Chattanooga in the NCAA tournament with a jumper at the buzzer.

Or the night in Cole Field House in his sophomore season when he jumped so high for a dunk that he landed piggy-back on the shoulders of North Carolina’s 7-foot Brad Daugherty.

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Or the Sunday afternoon two years ago at Greensboro, N.C., when he scored 26 points against Duke to give his University of Maryland team its first Atlantic Coast Conference basketball title since 1958.

Or the North Carolina game this year when Maryland beat the Tar Heels at Chapel Hill as Bias totally dominated, scoring 35 points.

There are a lot of good basketball players. But how many looked as good on the court as Bias?

Few played with the same nervy recklessness. He worked a basketball court in the same style Muhammad Ali did a ring, with a bold defiance that combined with his overwhelming athletic gifts to create an aura rarely seen. See Len Bias play once, love him forever.

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Bias just didn’t believe he was supposed to lose. It was never easy to walk up to him after a Maryland loss and ask him what went wrong. One day after practice, he was asked why he was so uptight after losses. Bias said: “You lose enough times and you become a loser. I ain’t losin’.”

After his freshman year, when he was determined to improve his dribbling, Bias went to his teammate, point guard Keith Gatlin, and asked for help.

All summer, Gatlin worked with Bias on his dribbling. Gatlin blindfolded his friend and made him learn to handle the ball by feel. Bias had dramatically improved his game by the beginning of his sophomore year.

All Bias ever did was get better, every year he played. Maybe that’s why Larry Bird was so adamant in his insistence that the Celtics draft Bias. Bird thinks nothing of screaming at a teammate who’s messing up; neither did Bias.

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Bias usually left his hell-bent fury on the court, or at least in the Maryland locker room. The best way to get to know him was to talk about something other than basketball. During one interview early in his freshman season, he was so nervous he could barely finish a sentence.

But words always came quickly when Bias got on a subject he loved--clothes, all the latest fashions and styles. And it became obvious early on that he had the same eye for detail in clothes that he had for correcting a flawed jump shot.

Bias walking through a clothing store, searching the racks for the extra-longs, was a sight to behold. Well-dressed, well-mannered, Bias was the kid everyone wanted to know.

Last Oct. 15, Bias officially began his senior season at Maryland, already with one ACC Player of the Year award, already an All-American. The Washington/Baltimore reporters, print and television, swarmed him, as 10 or so other Maryland players sat around the Cole Field House floor, completely devoid of attention.

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Bias excused himself for a moment and called one reporter over with a wagging finger. “This is crazy,” Bias said, more than a little angry. “You’ve got to tell these guys that they can’t just talk to me and leave my teammates sitting there. This is embarrassing. How is it going to look when I’m the only one on television and in the paper?”

Bias got tired of some of the media attention. He often sought solace at the house of Wagner, his coach at Northwestern High School here, and on the basketball court.

At Wagner’s house, where Bias was no big deal, they rarely talked about basketball. On the court, where he was usually the biggest deal, Bias was the player you never wanted to stop watching.

Johnny Dawkins, the All-American guard from Duke who grew up a few miles from Bias and was drafted just a few notches below him the other day, once said: “When Lenny is on, he’s one of the very few players in the whole country you can legitimately call unstoppable. By unstoppable I mean impossible to defend.”

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Told what Dawkins had said, Bias recalled when it wasn’t that way.

“In junior high school, I was 6-3 or 6-4, but I didn’t have any coordination,” Bias said. “A guy once said, ‘See if you can dunk the ball.’ So I did, and I liked the feeling. So I kept doing it over and over. But for a while, that was all I could do.”

For a while, but not for long.

And now we hear that Len Bias died of a heart attack with cocaine reportedly in his system. For some, it will be impossible to watch the Boston Celtics or Maryland Terrapins again and not think of Len Bias.

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