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  Landover Loses 'The Man'

By Ed Bruske and Patrice Gaines-Carter
Washington Post Staff Writers
June 20, 1986

The brief but spectacular career of Len Bias began in a scruffy little gymnasium behind the Columbia Park Elementary School in Landover. Recent snapshots of Bias horsing around with friends still hang taped to a window in the office of the Columbia Park Recreation Center, where Bias got his first basketball coaching and often returned to give tips to younger players.

"That's who I wanted to be when I grew up," said 15-year-old Sean Sanders. "Because he was so good. He was It. That was The Man around here."

Late on Tuesday, Bias left his family's modest bungalow for Boston and what is to most athletes only a fantasy: fame and fortune as the first college player picked by the best team in professional basketball, the Boston Celtics. Less than 48 hours later, he was gone.

"I still don't believe it," said friend Clinton Venable, 18. "It's still like a dream."

The blow was felt all the more closely because Bias had never left the embrace of his friends and community and seemed to draw strength from them as his success and fame grew. His world could be described as a small circle on the map of metropolitan Washington, a circle only as wide as the few miles from his house to the University of Maryland, which he chose to attend so he could remain near his family.

On Columbia Avenue, a few blocks from the recreation center, Bias' father James, an electrical repairman, and mother Lonise, a bank employee, stayed behind closed doors yesterday while young men in athletic shoes and jogging suits milled under a tree and a stream of friends delivered food and flowers.

Leaning against a fence in the front yard, one of Bias' earliest coaches, Wharton Lee Madkins, director of the recreation center, tried to make sense of the loss, but could not.

Being picked by the Boston Celtics this week "was like a dream come true," Madkins said. "When he was young, kids used to laugh at him when he played basketball. They never picked him on a team. Then he ended up with everyone wanting him on their team.

"I can't see why we would lose someone like this," Madkins said, "someone so important to us."

"I know this soulds strange, but he was an all-American kid," said Ven Chapman, Bias' next-door neighbor for the last 12 years. "He was mamma's and daddy's baby. We were so happy. Everything was just the way it was supposed to be. He was going to be close to home and we were going to be able to go see him play."

It seemed that Bias never entirely left behind any of the way stations that marked the road to Boston. At Northwestern High School in Adelphi, he was a standout player, even though the school never won any championships. Later, Bias often returned to Northwestern, which was less than a mile from the university, to get away from the pressures and fish bowl existence that went along with being a basketball All-American.

Called "Frosty" by his family and oldest friends, Bias would walk to the high school for a workout or a game of one-one-one with a promising Northwestern player—like his brother Jay, who just finished the 11th grade—or just to chew the fat with his old coach, Robert W. Wagner.

"It might've been a little therapy to get away from Maryland and be around the kind of people that just liked him for what he was," Wagner said. "There's a lot of got-to's in there: Got to play great, got to make grades, got to smile at the press. I think he was comfortable here. He liked his private world, what he would call the real world of friendly people."

Bias' rise to the top in basketball drew comparisons with another local Prince George's county hero: boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard from nearby Palmer Park.

Bias "was definitely a local hero. When you have a Len Bias come out of your high school basketball programs, that's something to feel good about. A lot of people aspire to that," said Luther W. Fernell, Northwestern's principal. "His image, that hero kind of image, the role model that Sugar Ray was to Parkdale [High School], Leonard was to Northwestern."

"When he got selected second overall and first by the Celtics Tuesday, we all said, 'Wow, there's another success story for Prince George's County,'" said Brian Porter, spokesman for the county's schools.

"There was someone from our own community who was destined for glory, and he was on the brink of attaining what few people ever achieve," said Porter. "And suddenly he's dead."

Bias showed the world a big smile and an affable disposition. Neighbors remembered the attention he gave to children, telling them to mind their school books as much as their sports. About three months ago, he joined Pilgrim A.M.E. Church in Northeast Washington, where he had gone with his family for Sunday school since he was a child.

"That morning he joined he brought the whole Maryland team to visit the church," said an aunt, Edith Brooks. "He was a church person and his team supported him."

There was more to the neighborhood hero who was friendly to kids and like to stick close to his roots.. The would-be stars who shoot baskets at Columbia Park remember him as a fierce competitor who worked hard—and made his opponents work even harder— at the local gym.

During his high school years, Bias was a summer recreation leader at Columbia Park and played in local games. Extracurricular play was forbidden when he made the team at Maryland, but he still came by almost every day to work out, said Madkins.

"You'd think somebody that good would be big-headed," said Venable. "But he still came when we were practicing and gave us points."

As recently as a week ago, Madkins said, Bias was still reporting to gym on Wednesday evenings for "Men's Night" games. The kids who stood around the gym floor couldn't wait for "Frosty" to show how he could "dump" the ball through the hoop leaping through the air. And even in pickup matches were the stakes weren't high, Bias was all business.

"He'd make you work and make you sweat," said Henry Hall, 16. "You couldn't play around with him because he wanted us to do good like he did. He told me 'You work hard and it pays off in the end.'"

Bias' brother James, who turns 16 today, said, "I want people to remember that he was a hard worker, easygoing, softhearted and loved his family and loved to play the sport."

James Bias, a 6-1 forward on the Northwestern Wildcats, suited up last night to play in a summer league game in Montgomery County. Jay, as his friends call him, played most of the game and scored 20 points as his team defeated the Paint Branch Panthers, 71-52.

Jay Bias said earlier in the day that he would play despite his brother's death because "he told me, 'Whatever you do, don't leave the court.' Last Sunday he told me if anything ever happened to him, I should work twice as hard and then I'd get twice as much as he did."

That was part of the credo Bias and the other players told themselves when they were at Northwestern. "Live, love and laugh every day as if it might be your last," their saying went, "because someday you will be right."

Staff writers Victoria Churchville and Alexandra Clough contributed to this report.

© 1986 The Washington Post Company

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