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  They Went to Cole to Light a Candle

By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Columnist
June 20, 1986

The court was closed to students, as it usually is after basketball season; a sign said to keep off. The lights were out, and on so blindingly bright a day as yesterday, the still darkness inside gave Cole Field House a holy feeling.

Here and there, scattered about the top rows of yellow seats like candles, students sat quietly, alone or in groups of two or three. Some stared down at the court wide eyed. Others leaned back, eyes closed. After a while, some would lay their heads in their hands and sigh. When they spoke, their first words were either "Why?" and "How?" He had such a strong, powerful body, it made no sense at all. They hoped it wasn't drugs that did it to him. They'd say it with dread in their voices, that they hoped it wasn't drugs.

They were pilgrims and this was a shrine. They had come because a brother in arms was shockingly and too quickly gone. Even if they hadn't known him, he had touched them, and in that way that sudden death confuses us and prompts us to grieve for ourselves as much as the departed, they didn't know what else to do but come here, to his stage, his special place. At 11 a.m., two hours after Leonard Bias had been pronounced dead, they had come to remember hisdeeds, and to pray for his soul.

"Come to the site of the triumph that is no longer," Joe Habeeb said sadly.

"The first thing we said was let's get over to Cole," said Tony Tijerno. "I felt like maybe his ghost would be out there jamming."

"It's appropriate it's dark like this now," said Karl Clark.

They hadn't known Bias, appreciating him from afar. "I'd sit way up in the stands watching him take his jump shot," Habeeb said. "The way he'd go straight up, it was awesome. You'd see it on two planes—Lenny elevated above mortal men. It was poetic."

"He borrowed a newspaper from me once, a few months ago," said Tijerino, brightening. "I looked at him and said, 'No. 1 pick.' He winked at me and said, 'You got it.' He was cocky. He owned the court like he owned this campus. Somebody would go up for a shot, and Lenny'd say, 'Gimme that thing' and go up and block it. He was talking all the time.

"Nonstop," grinned Habeeb.

"He'd be on the foul line," Tijerino remembered, "and you'd hear him say, 'Just a party. Nothing but cake and ice cream.' Didn't stop even when he was shooting." Tijerino shook his head in tribute: "He was The Man."

"I could see him as a Celtic," Habeeb said dreamily. "Bird getting him the ball. Lenny goes up and jams. Boston Garden freaks."

"I want to play basketball," Tijerino announced, getting up full of energy. "I want to play now, as a tribute to him."

There's nothing sadder in sports than an athlete dying young, dying before his race is fully run. To be a college all-America like Bias—like Ernie Davis, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1961 but died of leukemia before every playing pro football—is a wonderful, compelling achievement. But to perfect that skill in the crucible of professional competition, to realize full potentialand fill your cup is the finish line in sports like basketball and football. Bias spoke of being drafted by the Celtics as a dream within a dream, like it was all he'd ever lived for. We should celebrate the life we have, but the time we get never seems enough.

"We saw him for four years, you know," said Ron Shillman, who'd come with his friend, John Levy. "We just wanted to come back and look."

"Go to where he did his stuff," said Levy, who hung a full-length poster of Bias in his dorm room. "I can see him now," he said, gazing moonily out at the baseline, the point of attack for Bias, thinking about the alley-oops Bias used to take from Keith Gatlin, how he'd slam them vengefully, then bathe in the adoring gasps of the crowd. "I'm getting my memories while I can, while they're pure, before another team takes that court and colors them."

"This was his place," Darrin Armstrong, who did basketball color on campus radio, kept repeating. "This was his place."

"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 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.

Marcia Morris, a good friend of Bias', was here particularly early, before 10. She had heard the news on the radio and come to the basketball office to see if it was true. She knew it was when she saw Lefty Driesell hang up his telephone, slump into his chair and start to sob. She had herself been crying off and on, and she sat high up in the stands and stared at the court, imagining that none of this was true. "We used to sit around," she said, "and Lenny would tell me all the things he wanted to do if he made it, if he made it." She wiped at her eyes and continued half-smiling, half-crying: "The first thing he wanted was a car. I'd bought a used caur, and I remembered trying to tell him how to go to a bank and apply for a loan. He said no, he'd be buying his with cash. I said that was fine with a car, but what about a house? He smiled and said I shouldn't worry, he'd sleep in the car."

© 1986 The Washington Post Company

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