The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thirty-five years after his death, Len Bias’s story continues to resonate

Len Bias in 1985. (Joel Richardson/The Washington Post)

Jordan Ritter Conn, writer and host of the Ringer’s new narrative podcast, “What If? The Len Bias Story,” was only a toddler when Bias died of a cocaine overdose in a dorm room 35 years ago Saturday. Still, Conn knew enough about the 22-year-old Maryland basketball star that he was excited when a colleague pitched the idea for the project.

“He’s one of those names that, particularly my generation, you never saw him play, but if you’re a sports fan, you can never remember a time when you didn’t kind of know who he was and know the broadest outlines of his story,” Conn said in a phone interview.

Thirty-five years later, Bias’s death less than 48 hours after the Boston Celtics selected the 6-foot-8 all-American forward and Prince George’s County native with the second pick in the 1986 draft continues to resonate beyond just basketball circles.

Bias’s life has been chronicled in several books, in an ESPN “30 for 30” film and, just last year, as part of a “SportsCenter” special. Every year around June 19, especially when the anniversary is a round number, basketball fans, former teammates and media members alike share memories and reflect on his legacy.

Dave Ungrady was captain of the Maryland track and field team during his senior year in 1980. He kept in touch with members of the athletic department after graduating and becoming a journalist, so he saw firsthand the impact that Bias’s death had on his alma mater, including Athletic Director Dick Dull, who announced his resignation a few months later.

Ungrady was inspired to write a book about Bias’s life upon seeing director Kirk Fraser’s “30 for 30” film “Without Bias” in 2009. Ungrady self-published “Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias” in 2011 and promoted it by speaking to young adults at schools, camps and community centers in the area, including Columbia Park Recreation Center, where Bias learned to love basketball.

Last year, Ungrady began brainstorming ways to recognize 35 years since Bias’s death in a manner that could benefit others. He launched the 34+1 campaign, the main component of which is a podcast series featuring interviews with many of Bias’s friends and teammates he spoke to for his book. Don Markus, who covered Bias’s senior season as part of his 35-year career as the Maryland men’s basketball and football reporter at the Baltimore Sun, is co-producing the project.

With the support of interns from Maryland’s journalism school, Ungrady and Markus hope to release the podcast in September. The final episode will focus on effective decision-making, with training and resources from the Decision Education Foundation.

“This is not a celebration, in my mind,” said Ungrady, who teaches high school social studies in Loudoun County. “It’s recognizing his legacy and his death and not just telling a story but using that story to help people.”

In the past decade, several institutions that had been reluctant to honor Bias reversed course. In 2011, Bias was inducted into the Washington Metropolitan Basketball Hall of Fame, which was established by Bob Geoghan, founder of the Capital Classic and McDonald’s all-American game. Three years later, Maryland, which ousted coach Lefty Driesell, was hit with sanctions in the wake of Bias’s death and tried to distance itself from the tragedy, finally welcomed Bias into its athletic hall of fame. And in November, Bias was announced as one of six players in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame’s 2021 induction class.

Bias’s legacy as a dominant basketball player was always secure, though it’s hard not to wonder, as Conn does, how different the NBA and the career trajectory of Michael Jordan would have looked with Bias in them. His death, which some mistakenly attributed to the use of crack cocaine, would have a profound effect on the criminal justice system, too.

Spurred by the shocking news of Bias’s death, President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 into law four months later. The hastily written bill established mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, with possession of small quantities of crack carrying the same minimum federal prison sentence as crimes involving 100 times the amount of more expensive powder cocaine. Black defendants were disproportionately penalized and imprisoned as a result, a ripple effect Conn examines in his podcast. When their own podcast is completed, Ungrady and Markus plan to produce a documentary focusing primarily on the social justice aspect of Bias’s legacy.

A cautionary tale of unfulfilled promise, Bias’s story is not easy to tell. Both Conn and Ungrady encountered people in their reporting who refused to talk or questioned why they were revisiting a painful episode from 35 years ago.

“Some people said: ‘Why are you doing this? Why don’t you just let it go?’ ” Ungrady said. “I still hear that today. It became a mission to see if I could continue his story in a positive way. … I remember how hard it was to get people to talk for the book. I figured those who talked [10 years ago] would be willing to talk again, but a lot of them don’t want to relive it now.”

During a Zoom discussion of Bias’s legacy hosted by Ungrady and Markus on Thursday night with roughly two dozen members of Maryland’s Howard County Alumni and Black Alumni networks, one of Bias’s former teammates, Derrick Lewis, described how difficult it still is to watch old clips of his friend or listen to the 911 call Brian Tribble made the morning Bias died.

Perhaps the person most responsible for ensuring Bias’s legacy lives on is the one most affected by his death, his mother, Lonise Bias, who would lose a second son, Jay, to a drive-by shooting 4½ years later. Lonise Bias left her job as a bank manager and became a motivational speaker. For more than 30 years, she has delivered messages of hope and love to audiences across the county to honor her sons’ memories. Based on his interview with Lonise, who is featured in the first episode of the Ringer’s podcast, Conn said it’s apparent she is “really struck by the fact that people still want to hear her son’s story” and that it still resonates with so many to this day.

“I think it’s a story that can still linger and have impact and be discussed and be seen throughout our culture,” he said, “not only now, 35 years later, but 40 or 50 years later and beyond.”

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