It was only an exhibition game, but people had paid to get into the building and Maryland was playing so poorly the thought of canceling the season had undoubtedly crossed some minds. Into the locker room trooped the Terrapins. Behind them came Coach Lefty Driesell.

"He walked in," Len Bias said, laughing now at the memory, "and went crazy. He was screaming, hollering and kicking things all over the place. He was so mad, I thought he was going to hit somebody. I was actually scared. I turned to Herman Veal and said, 'Is it like this all the time?' And Herman said, 'Yeah, but he doesn't mean it. He just yells for a while, then we go back and play.'

"I said to myself, 'Leonard, you can handle that. Relax.' "

That was the fall of 1982 and since that time Leonard Kevin Bias has handled just about everything that has come his way at the University of Maryland. He has gone from talented but inconsistent freshman to rising sophomore star to superstar junior.

"Len Bias has a chance to become one of the best players to ever play his position," said Tom Newell, personnel director of the Indiana Pacers. "I don't mean one of the best now, I mean one of the best ever."

There are those who will tell you that Newell is a little bit starry-eyed, but Bias' progress from uncertain high school senior to absolute college all-America as a junior is remarkable. "I always knew I had the ability," said Bias, who does not lack for confidence. "It was just a matter of putting all the things in my game together."

Now, as Maryland prepares to take a 23-10 record into Friday's ACC Tournament opener against Duke, Bias has his game put together as well as almost any player in the country. At 6 feet 8, he has played inside and outside this season, averaging 19.0 points per game, to lead the league. He is shooting 53 percent from the field, quite a statistic considering the fact he has faced at least two men nearly every time he has touched the ball this season.

"There is no one man alive who can stop Lenny Bias," said Adrian Branch, who has given up a lot of his notoriety as a star this season while Bias has blossomed. "If you stop him outside, he'll go inside and kill you because he's so strong. If you double on him inside, he'll go outside and jump over you. No one stops his jump shot."

Newell explains that this way: "He's replaced Newton's theory of gravity with Michael Jordan's theory of gravity -- which is that there is none. He just climbs up there and hangs."

Bias grins when he hears all this. "Sometimes, when I look at pictures of myself, I think, 'How in the world did I get up there?' "

It was not an easy climb.

Bob Wagner, the basketball coach at Northwestern High School, is a no-nonsense, rational man. The Len Bias he first met as a Northwestern sophomore did not excite him that much.

"You could see he was a great athlete," Wagner remembered. "But he was kind of a big baby. He liked to hang out with little kids and a lot of the time he ended up acting just like them. It took him a while to outgrow that sort of thing."

Bias' motivation to grow up came from basketball. As a small boy, the oldest son of James and Lonise Bias, he was like most kids, playing all sports all the time. But by eighth grade, he had grown to 6-4 and thought basketball might be his sport. He went out for his junior high school team -- and got cut.

"It was one of the big shocks in my life," he said. "I remember going down the steps to look at the list and my name wasn't on it. I couldn't believe it. Right then, I decided I was going to show these people that I could play the game."

Basketball became his passion, the other sports secondary. Bias played recreation league ball that year and by the time he was in ninth grade no one was about to cut him. By the time he was a Northwestern junior, he was Wagner's star and the recruiters were at the door.

"At first, I always thought I'd go to Maryland," he said. "It was only a couple of miles from school and I used to go down there, hang around and play all the time. It just seemed the natural thing to do. But I wanted to visit other places, too."

The visit that affected him most was the one he made to North Carolina State. Bias loved the campus, the Washington area players on the team -- Dereck Whittenburg, Sidney Lowe, Thurl Bailey -- and Coach Jim Valvano. "By the end of the visit, I knew I wanted to go to State," he said. "That's the last thing I told Coach Valvano when I left."

Valvano's smile grows wistful when he remembers the conversation. "Do I remember him saying it? Are you kidding? I remember him hugging me at the airport and saying he was coming. I said, 'Don't tell me that, I'll get too excited.' If we had gotten that kid . . . "

Valvano's voice trailed off. He didn't get Bias largely because his family wanted him to stay near home. It was not because Driesell put on one of his famed recruiting pushes. Driesell wanted Bias, but not the way Valvano did. A lot of people thought Bias was a risk.

"He didn't have a great senior year," Driesell said. "His potential was always there; you could see that the minute he stepped on the court. But you didn't know if he was going to be one of those raw talents that worked out or one that flopped. It was only after he got to Maryland and I realized how hard he was willing to work that I began to believe he could be a great player."

Driesell gives a lot of credit to Wagner for the mature, willing-to-work freshman who arrived at Maryland. Early in Bias' senior season, when the pressure of making a college decision was bothering him, his grades slipped badly. Wagner benched him for two weeks.

"He had come to me at one point and said all people talked about to him was where he was going to go to college," Wagner said. "He was crying, upset. Then I started hearing from his teachers that he was doing poorly in class. I called him in and told him he was going to sit for two weeks and then we would decide whether he'd play that season. He handled it well, got his act together and came back and played well."

He played well as a Maryland freshman. His most notable achievement that season was hitting a basket at the buzzer to beat Tennessee-Chattanooga in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But no one could tell even then that he was going to become a star.

"That year, we had Adrian, we had Ben Coleman, we had Herman, we had a lot of guys," Bias said. "I just felt like the best thing I could do was play hard, rebound and look for my shot when it was there.

"It wasn't until we lost Adrian my sophomore year that I started thinking about myself as a main man offensively. But when he went out, I had to shoot more because if I didn't, all we would have was the inside game."

That is one of the ironies of Bias' success. Since high school, Branch has been his best friend and mentor -- "I raised him," Branch says -- but it took Branch's two-week suspension to move Bias from solid starter to rising star.

There was more to it than that, however. When Bias arrived at Maryland, Driesell noticed that as high as he jumped, he always released his shot on the way up, letting it go before he reached the apex of his leap. Driesell encouraged Bias to try to get into the habit of shooting at the top of his jump.

"It took me a while to adjust to that," Bias said. "In fact, for a while I didn't shoot the ball well because it felt funny to me. But now when I go up to shoot, I don't expect anybody to block me."

Now, when he goes up to shoot, other coaches cringe. When Bias wants the ball and wants a shot, he is going to get it. "When we're in trouble, I've got one job to do," said point guard Keith Gatlin. "Get the ball in the hands of the horse."

In January, against Duke, Bias scored 16 second-half points to lead a comeback from a 14-point deficit. No fewer than four of his shots hit the rim twice before rolling in. "When we first looked at the film of that game, we thought Bias had a lot of luck making those shots," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "But if you look at him game after game, his shots always get that kind of roll. That isn't luck, that's touch. When you have a kid who can jump that high and shoot that soft, the combination is unbelievable."

Coaches are unanimous in saying that two things make Bias special: his great athletic ability and his work rate. "He never disappears during a game," Valvano said. "No matter how hard you work to defense him, there's never a stretch where you say, 'What happened to Bias?' He's always in the game."

Watching Bias during a game, his intensity is easy to see. His eyes become slits when he wants the ball, and when he feels the pressure coming to him he goes into a crouch and, gradually uncoils, either powering his way over the defender in traffic or going over him from outside. His looks of disgust when a call goes against him are enough to make most officials want to dig a hole in the floor and climb in.

Because he has become the ACC's toughest offensive player, Bias has received special attention this season. He never sees simple man-to-man converage. Even when Duke's Danny Meagher, who Bias says is the toughest defensive player he has faced in the league, is guarding him, he gets lots of help.

Bias has been banged around a lot this winter. Early in the season, he spent a lot of time moaning to officials, earning a reputation as something of a crybaby. Lately, he has been involved in several pushing, shoving and elbowing incidents. Most are brought on by other players' desperate attempts to slow him. Nonetheless, Bias has a reputation for throwing the occasional elbow. He does not like it.

"I don't think it's fair. At Wake Forest, Coach (Carl) Tacy yelled at me because I accidentally elbowed Delaney Rudd in the head. Earlier in the game, Kenny Green did the same thing to me on purpose. Against Duke, I got a technical for elbowing Meagher after he pulled me down. That wasn't fair, either. Smart play by Meagher, but not fair.

"I just want the refs to treat me the same as everyone else. That's all I ask. Some of them have told me I play so high (in the air) that they miss a lot of stuff guys do to me down low. I guess I have to live with that."

While Bias is living with that, Driesell must live between now and May 4 with the question that the coaches of all great juniors deal with: will he turn pro or won't he. Bias says he probably won't but wants to sit down and talk things over with Driesell at season's end.

Many pro scouts think Bias is ready today and would definitely be one of the first seven or eight players chosen (as a small forward) if he came out. Others say his ballhandling (he has 59 assists and 102 turnovers this season), never that good, his rebounding (6.0 per game) and defense could still use another year of college ball.

Probably, Bias will return. He is not an exceptional student (2.3 grade-point average), but he has kept on schedule for graduation. He would like to be an interior designer someday because he enjoys and has a knack for drawing.

For now, however, Bias will continue to draw his pictures on the court. And, he will continue to listen to Driesell's harangues and smile softly to himself, thinking back to that day as a freshman when he wondered if any man could get any louder.

"Sometimes," he said, "It's hard for me to believe three years have gone by."

More often, it's hard to believe just how far Bias has come in those three years.