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.”
“He’d jump and his knees would be in my teeth, and I’m 6-2,” said Reginald Adams, a junior at Drexel University in Philadelphia who had played against Bias in high school and came here because he idolized Bias. “The way he played motivated me so. I’d look at him play and say I wish I could do that. He’d intimidate you with words, talk about your mother. But when you tried it on him, go to him on the line and say, ‘You’re gonna miss,’ he’d smile and say, ‘No. Too good.'”They wandered through the hallways and sat in the stands. They reminisced about his great plays, like his steal of the inbounds pass and consequent jam over Warren Martin in Maryland’s win at the Dean Dome, the game Bias got 35 and became gold-plated. They stood outside [Coach Lefty] Driesell’s office, where a University of Maryland gym bag with a DCA airport tag and Bias’ name written on a strip of white tape sat unopened in a corner near a table. They walked past the glass trophy case where there were pictures of Bias—a still of him posed in a thickly braided gold chain, another of him jamming backwards—and lingered for minutes, taking a last, long look as if trying to memorize them.
I thought about him last February, when ESPN Classic showed that aforementioned Maryland-UNC game from ’86. You forget how good Lenny Bias was. For example, back in ’86, Mike Tyson was invincible, Eddie Murphy had his fastball, Don Johnson was the coolest man on the planet and Michael Jackson didn’t look like an alien. ‘Hoosiers’ hadn’t even been released yet. Wayne Gretzky and Bird were basically the kings of sport. Ronald Reagan controlled the button. Kids were still playing Intellivision and Atari. Fifteen years is a long time; maybe it’s easy to forget.As for Bias, he always reminded me of a more physical James Worthy, but with Michael Jordan’s leaping ability, if that makes sense (other than MJ and Dominique Wilkins, nobody in the ’80s attacked the basket like a young Lenny Bias). But those weren’t even the qualities that separated him from his peers.There was a brashness about him, a swagger, a playground vibe. Remember, these were still the days of tight shorts and awkward high fives; few players were cool, and the ones who were cool — David Thompson, Gus Williams, Clyde Drexler, Bernard King, Dominique, etc. — were more subtle and unassuming than anything. Jordan might have embraced that playground demeanor had he attended a school other than North Carolina, where Dean Smith frowned on anything that could be perceived as “showing up the opposition.”When Bias’ same playground swagger became fashionable in the ’90s — thanks to the UNLV guys, the Fab Five, the post-dunk woofing, the baggy shorts, the trash-talking and so on — it seemed much more contrived, almost like the players were saying, “Hey, look at me!” Nothing about Lenny Bias was contrived. He went out of his way to dunk on people. He grabbed rebounds and spat out an occasional “Arrrrrrggggggghhhh!” for show. He barked at his teammates, he barked at referees, he barked at opponents. He exhibited a refreshingly honest amount of passion and heart.