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 clothing line. He figured to be playing with Larry Bird and Bill Walton on the parquet floor of Boston Garden. He probably even figured to finally win the championship he never won in high school or college.
But Len Bias never figured to be dead, at age 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 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 Celtics' 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.? The Boston Garden?" He was full of life, love and laughter that day.
It seemed so long ago that Bias and teammates Jeff Baxter and John Johnson had been suspended for one game after breaking curfew following a Maryland victory at North Carolina State on Feb. 13.
He was reminded that two years ago he was almost scared to take one dribble with the ball and he answered, "Oh, yeah, when was that?"
It must have been another lifetime ago. Because in this lifetime, the one that ended yesterday with so many questions still unanswered, one thing was certain: Bias made himself into a great basketball player.
Bias, the great leaper with the soft touch and the intimidating, sometimes surly demeanor on court, ought to be remembered for so many stunning performances.
There was that night, at the end of his freshman year, when he beat Tennessee-Chattanooga in the NCAA tournament with a jumper at the buzzer. Or the night in Cole Field House his sophomore year when he jumped so high for a dunk he landed piggy-back on the shoulders of North Carolina's 7-foot Brad Daugherty. Or the Sunday afternoon two years ago in Greensboro, N.C., when he scored 26 points against Duke to give his Maryland team its first Atlantic Coast Conference basketball title since 1958. Or the North Carolina game this year when Maryland beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, when Bias dominated, scoring 35 points.
"Len put on one of the greatest performances I have ever seen by an opposing player when Maryland played in Chapel Hill this year," said North Carolina Coach Dean Smith. "All we could do was congratulate him after the game. He certainly had the respect of everyone in the North Carolina basketball program."
"It's shocking, especially if you consider that of all the athletes ever, he has got to be in the top percent as far as true athletic ability," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "If it were a car accident or something you could believe it, but this is unbelievable."
There are a lot of good basketball players. But how many looked as good on 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.
A 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward, Bias finished his Maryland career as the school's all-time leading scorer with 2,149 points, averaging 23.2 points and seven rebounds his senior season.
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 completely uptight after a defeat. And Bias said, "You lose enough times and you become a loser. I ain't losin'."
After his freshman year, when he was determined to learn how to improve his dribbling, Bias went to then freshman point guard Keith Gatlin and asked for help.
All summer, Gatlin worked with Bias on dribbling. Gatlin would blindfold his friend and make him learn how to handle the ball by feel. At the beginning of his sophomore year, Bias had dramatically improved his game.
All Bias ever did was get better, every year he played. Maybe that's why Larry Bird was so adamant in his insistence that that the Celtics draft Bias. Bird thinks nothing of screaming at a teammate who's messing up; neither did Bias.
Bias usually left his hell-bent fury on the court, or at least in the locker room. The best way to get to know him was to talk about something other than basketball. During an interview early in his freshman season, he was so nervous he could barely finish a single 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 the Syms store in Rockville, searching the racks for the extra-longs, was a sight to behold. Well-dressed, well-mannered, Len 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-America. 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.
Bias excused himself for a moment, and called a reporter over with a wagging finger. "This is crazy," he said, more than a little angry. "You gotta tell these guys that they can't just talk to me and leave my teammates sitting there. This is embarrassing. How is it gonna look when I'm the only one on television and in the paper?"
Bias got tired of some of the media attention. Occasionally, he refused interview requests or was curt with his replies. Often, he would seek solace at the house of Wagner, his coach at Northwestern High School, 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-America 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."
Told of what Dawkins 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," he once 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 Len Bias died of cardiac arrest 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.
Perhaps Bob Wagner, his old coach, his old friend, said it best. "A lot of kids and a lot of people grew up today. He was every playground player's dream realized. . . . He had his qualities and his imperfections, too."