University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias on March 3, 1985. (Joel Richardson/The Washington Post)
June 17, 2011

At the far end of a display of University of Maryland athletic greats in the Comcast Center in College Park stands a life-size image of Len Bias.

The basketball legend is flashing victory signs with both hands. Inside the arena, the home court for the school’s basketball teams, Bias’s No. 34 hangs from the rafters along with banners for 15 other standout players.

But Bias, a two-time all-American and the only Maryland basketball player to win the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year award twice, has not been elected to the University of Maryland’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Now, 25 years after his tragic death, it’s time for him to receive that honor.

Bias meets all the criteria for election based on what he did on the court. There is no doubt that he demonstrated “superior athletic achievements . . . which brought considerable fame to the University and the individual,” as the qualifications state. He has been excluded, however, because of this rule: “Nominees must have good character and reputation, and not have been a source of embarrassment in any way to the University.”

On June 19, 1986, Bias suffered a seizure after snorting cocaine in a campus dorm room. The seizure led to cardiac arrest, and Bias, age 22, was pronounced dead a few hours after being brought to a hospital. A Maryland medical examiner’s report cited “cocaine intoxication” as the reason for his death. The sudden loss devastated the Maryland community and the sports world.

Two days earlier, the champion Boston Celtics made him the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft. The selection capped a triumphant senior season, punctuated by the signature Bias game: a 35-point effort to shut down No. 1 UNC and help secure an NCAA tournament bid. With Maryland down by nine and just under three minutes remaining, Bias hit a mid-range jumper, then converted a dunk after stealing the inbound pass. The win was his pretty much entirely, and he sealed it by blocking a shot with about 15 seconds remaining in overtime and Maryland ahead by one. The final moments of that game should play on an endless loop in the Hall of Fame, not just on YouTube .

At a news conference shortly after his death, Maryland coach Lefty Driesell called Bias “the greatest basketball player that ever played in the Atlantic Coast Conference.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski puts Bias and Michael Jordan on a similar plane. “During my years as an ACC coach, the two most dominant players we’ve faced were Michael Jordan and Len Bias,” Coach K wrote to me last year. “I always thought those two players were a cut above. They did things no one else could do. I would put the two of them together.”

I was among the more than 11,000 people who braved oppressive heat and filled Cole Field House, where the Maryland basketball teams used to play, for Bias’s memorial service. It was a dark moment for Maryland fans, and it ushered in a dark period for the school. In the aftermath of his death, as well as the revelations about drug use among Maryland athletes, two task forces reviewed the university’s academic and drug polices. A Prince George’s County grand jury investigated. Top coaches and administrators left the school.

But Bias’s basketball accomplishments were legendary, and remain so. He deserves to claim a spot among the 200 others in the Hall of Fame. Only two Maryland basketball players, John Lucas in 1976 and Joe Smith in 1995, have been picked higher than Bias in the NBA draft. His 2,149 career point total ranks second all-time at Maryland (he was first for 16 years). He’s second all-time in points in a season and twice led the ACC in scoring. Beyond the numbers, Bias played with a showman’s flair and an unyielding commitment to victory.

In 25 years, the influence his death has had on Maryland and the broader community is an additional argument for his inclusion in the Hall of Fame. His tragedy has inspired others to improve their lives — and that should, per the Hall of Fame rules, constitute a legacy of “good character and reputation.”

Driesell, who coached Bias at Maryland, told me last summer about a man who walked up to him as they both left church in Virginia Beach one Sunday. The man told Driesell that he had lost his family and a job because of his cocaine addiction. He said that when Bias died, he quit using the drug the next day. Bias’s death saved his life.

Within months after her son’s death, Lonise Bias switched careers from an assistant bank manager to a motivational speaker. She estimates that she has spoken to tens of thousands of students about making proper choices and improving self-esteem.

An eighth-grade girl put a small, folded piece of paper in Lonise’s hand after a speech she gave in Connecticut in late 1986. It read: “I have used drugs, and no one knows but you. I will never use them again after hearing you.”

Derrick Lewis, who grew up in Temple Hills, was a sophomore forward at Maryland when Bias died. Now a health teacher and head boys basketball coach at Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn, Lewis showed a documentary about Bias to his freshman class last month.

Afterward, a student said she learned that abusing drugs even one time can kill you. “That’s what we’re looking for,” Lewis told me. “We try to catch these kids when they’re in ninth grade, before they get trapped. They may use it one time. I want them to know what can happen if they do.”

Keith Booth’s number also hangs in the Comcast Center rafters. Booth was a 1997all-American at Maryland and recently served as a Maryland assistant coach. He was a 10-year-old Terps fan in Baltimore when Bias died. The loss, he said, convinced him to stay away from drugs.

Still, the reservations that have kept Bias out of the Hall of Fame all these years endure. Frank Costello, an all-American high jumper at Maryland in the mid-1960s and the head track coach in the 1970s, said Bias’s name came up for discussion during the seven years he was on the election committee. “It’s like with Pete Rose,” he said. “Some are on the fence about it.”

But Bias doesn’t have a Pete Rose problem. Rose, who hasn’t made it to the baseball Hall of Fame because he bet on games as a player and a manager, committed an act that could have compromised the integrity of baseball. Had he lived, Bias’s decision to consume cocaine would have been an indiscreet act of drug use and would have harmed only himself.

Bias has a complicated legislative legacy, as well. His death directly influenced the passage the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a major piece of legislation in the country’s war on drugs. The measure established mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, including a wide disparity for crack and powder cocaine drug crimes. This resulted in thousands of young men and women, mostly black, receiving prison sentences of 15 years or more for minor drug infractions.

Congress has since revisited those standards and last summerpassed the Fair Sentencing Act, which narrowed the gap in sentences.

The Maryland Hall of Fame election committee should follow suit and revisit its position on Bias. The panel will meet at the end of the year to make its 2012 selections. Michael Lipitz, a former chairman, said committee members have expressed support for electing Bias. He said that it will be a tough case, unless they rewrite the criteria, but that there is some degree of subjectivity at play.

So rewrite the criteria — or just decide in Bias’s favor. A place in the Hall of Fame 25 years after his death is a fitting tribute to his complex legacy.

Dave Ungrady, a former member of the University of Maryland soccer and track teams, is the author of two books on athletics at Maryland. He is working on a book about Len Bias. Ungrady will be online on Monday, June 20, at 12:30 p.m. to chat. Submit your questions and comments now.

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