Len Bias, like Pete Rose, shouldn’t be in a Hall of Fame


Len Bias, shown in 1985, died of a cocaine overdose soon after he was the No. 2 overall pick of the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft. Maryland announced on Wednesday that Bias will be inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. (Joel Richardson/The Washington Post)
John Feinstein
Columnist July 16

More than 28 years after his death rocked the sports world, Len Bias is going to be inducted to the University of Maryland Athletics Hall of Fame this October, the school announced Wednesday.

Almost 25 years after being banned from baseball for betting on games, Pete Rose still is begging to be inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

The question is this: Should either one of them be in any hall of fame?

Rose is baseball’s all-time hits leader — 4,256 — and if he hadn’t been caught betting on baseball, he would have been a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer five years after he last played in 1986.

Bias is — almost without argument — the greatest basketball player in Maryland history. If he hadn’t died of a cocaine overdose soon after being taken with the No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics, he would have been in the school’s Hall of Fame the moment he was eligible.

[ Another view: Why Maryland is right to put Bias in the Hall ]

But greatness as a player has never been an issue with either Rose or Bias. Rose is banned from baseball and can’t be inducted to Cooperstown unless he is reinstated by Commissioner Bud Selig or whoever replaces Selig next year. Bias’s number has hung from the Comcast Center rafters for years, but the school has never seen fit to make him a Hall of Famer until now.

There is no doubt a stain of mendacity on Rose that never fell on Bias. Rose repeatedly lied in depositions for the Dowd Report, the findings of which led to Rose accepting a ban from baseball in 1989. Rose only stopped lying about betting on baseball in 2004 because he was peddling a book and because he believed — as he said as recently as this week — that if he finally fessed up, Selig would reinstate him. He didn’t do it because his conscience caught up with him but because he was tring to sell books and because he thought he would get off the hook if he said, “Yeah, yeah, you got me.”

It hasn’t worked out that way. And Rose has become a pathetic figure, annually showing up on various media outlets during the all-star break to plead his case. His latest rationale is that what he did wasn’t as bad as what steroid users did. That’s debatable — but it’s also irrelevant to his case for induction.

There’s a character clause on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, which is why no one should ever vote for Rose or any of those who took steroids and lied about taking them.

There also is a character clause attached to the Maryland Hall of Fame. Apparently the committee decided 28 years was enough time either to look the other way or believe that dying of a cocaine overdose doesn’t represent a major character flaw.

Of course many people, including Lefty Driesell, who recruited and coached Bias, have convinced themselves Bias had never used cocaine before that night. Others have tried to make Bias into some kind of martyr. He was neither innocent nor a martyr. He was an extraordinarily gifted basketball player who got involved with some bad people. It cost him his life — and it cost Maryland dearly.

Driesell insists to this day that, in spite of his death and the way he died, Bias was good for Maryland, that many players wanted to go there because they were so enamored of him as a player. Gary Williams, who had to deal with the specter of Bias’s death when he arrived on campus in 1989, disagrees.

“I had just gotten to Ohio State when Bias died,” he said Wednesday. “When I heard the news, it was as if I’d been hit over the head with a sledgehammer. He was such a great player, and he played for my alma mater.

“But it wasn’t until I got back to Maryland that I really understood the impact he’d had on the school. There were kids who were great players who were decent students who we couldn’t get in school because Maryland was trying to prove it was recruiting a different kind of athlete.

“Maryland people were still shaken by the whole thing. It hurt our self-image. I remember after we lost to Duke in the Final Four in 2001, feeling as if a lot of Maryland people still thought, ‘Well, that’s who we are. Something’s always going to go wrong.’

“I have mixed emotions about this. As a player, obviously it’s a no-brainer. But I think you have to remember everything in life, not just the good things. It’s as if some people want to forget that the reason he died was because he did something wrong. That’s a fact, and there’s no getting away from that fact. I saw the results of it up close.

“If the publicity from this reminds some kids that this can happen, this does happen, not just to famous athletes, then maybe that way some good can come of it.”

The question, ultimately, in deciding whether someone is a hall of famer is whether they elevated their sport, their school or their profession. Some sports’ halls of fame rely strictly on numbers, even though they often paint an incomplete picture.

In the cases of Bias and Rose, there is no ignoring the numbers — but they can’t stand alone in making final judgment.

Baseball was sullied and damaged by Rose’s actions, which should mean the privilege of being in the Hall of Fame is taken from him in spite of his remarkable achievements.

The same, sadly, should be true of Bias. There’s no questioning he lit up the Maryland campus for four years. But there’s also no questioning he left it in darkness for many years in the wake of his death.

Unlike Rose, Bias should be forgiven. He was young and foolish and paid the most horrible price possible for his mistake. But, like Rose, he should not be honored.

Pitied, certainly. But honored? No.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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