On June 19, 1986 we were all shocked and saddened by the news that University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias – a Prince George’s County product – had passed away from a drug overdose at age 22.
Just two days earlier, Bias had been selected by the Boston Celtics with the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. He was destined for NBA stardom until tragedy struck on that fateful June morning.
Former Maryland guard Jeff Baxter, who was Bias’s roommate at the time of his death, described the chiseled 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward as a naturally defined physical specimen with no body fat. “He was a docile person yet extremely aggressive on the court,” Baxter said.
Baxter was awakened by the news that Bias had fainted so he returned to their room to find his friend and teammate on the ground, motionless.
“He was laying on the floor and he had this gold necklace on,” Baxter recalled. “My thoughts were that the necklace was choking him.”
Paramedics were soon called to the scene and they tried to revive the basketball star but were unsuccessful. “I stepped back,” said Baxter, “because I was in shock.”
Bias had spent the hours before his death hanging out with teammates David Gregg and Terry Long and friend Brian Tribble. An autopsy later revealed that Bias had died from cardiac arrhythmia caused by a cocaine overdose.
“I didn’t know that they had been using drugs,” said Baxter. “I knew they had been drinking but drugs were the farthest thing from my mind.”
Among those who considered Bias a friend was D.C. basketball guru Lyndon DeBellotte who operates Kids First Basketball Inc. which gives exposure to local inner city kids through summer league competition.
He remembers driving a friend to work and listening on the car radio when news of Bias’s untimely death came across the dial. DeBellotte pulled over and cried for two hours.
DeBellotte was once a star at Cardozo High in the District of Columbia where he earned All-Met honors and played in the 1983 Capital Classic High School All-Star Game alongside future ACC standouts such as Tommy Amaker and Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues.
DeBellotte, who grew up in Northwest Washington but has an office in Montgomery County, was a Division II All-American at the University of the District of Columbia. He described Bias as “a good dude” who was humble. “Lenny was a star among stars,” DeBellotte recalled.
DeBellotte remembers working out with Bias and other rising basketball stars on the American University campus during the summertime. Bias also played in pick-up games with locals at the Takoma-Langley Recreation Center in Takoma Park and soon developed into a college All-American. “From freshman to sophomore year that transformation was Wow,” said DeBellotte. “Leonard stayed in the gym.”
Bias was a prep standout at Northwestern High in Hyattsville where he played for Bob Wagner before signing with the Maryland basketball program and their legendary head coach, Charles “Lefty” Driesell.
Bias played in the 1982 Capital Classic, scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds to earn Co-MVP honors along with Johnny Dawkins in the Capital All-Stars’ 82-79 victory over the United States All-Stars.
Baxter was an All-Met player at Archbishop Carroll High in Northeast Washington who was also a teammate of Bias in the 1982 Capital Classic before playing with him at Maryland.
Baxter had some fond memories of Bias during their tenure together in College Park.
“We would be playing and he would do something,” Baxter recalled, “and you would say ‘Did he just do that?’”
There was the time, Baxter said, when Maryland played Georgia Tech with Celtics legend Red Auerbach in attendance. Bias went up for a shot and switched hands in mid-air to prevent Georgia Tech’s John Salley from blocking the shot.
“They stopped the game for half a second,” said Baxter, “because they had to get Red Auerbach’s hat off the floor.”
There was also the time Maryland played North Carolina in Chapel Hill’s Dean Smith Center against legendary head coach Dean Smith and future NBA players Kenny Smith and Brad Daugherty.
“That whole Dean Dome experience was crazy,” said Baxter.
At halftime, Bias gave his roommate a pep talk in an attempt to motivate Baxter. “He said you need to get some baskets,” Baxter recalled.
Bias, however, scored 35 points in Maryland’s 77-72 overtime victory, a win that marked North Carolina’s first loss in the Dean Dome and helped the Terrapins secure an NCAA Tournament bid.
“He lifted me up off the floor and said ‘that’s what I’m talking about,” Baxter said.
That win over the Tar Heels was highlighted by a signature play from Bias. After sinking a mid-range jump shot, Bias stole the inbounds pass and scored on a reverse dunk. “The amazing thing about that [play],” said Baxter, “was that he never turned around.”
Bias also drew comparisons to former NBA superstar Michael Jordan who spent three seasons in Chapel Hill before leaving early for the 1984 NBA Draft. The two players crossed paths during intertwining college careers.
“I thought his jump shot was much better than Mike’s coming out of college,” said Baxter. “It would have been very interesting to see how that whole thing would have panned out.”
Charlie Thomas, a former Seneca Valley standout who played collegiately at Wake Forest and New Mexico, also remembered encounters with Bias on the hardwood during summer league competition at the Urban Coalition and in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“You couldn’t stop him,” said Thomas. “Lenny was the best player I personally played against by far.”
Although Bias is no longer with us, his memory has stayed entrenched in the minds of the scores of people who loved and admired the Landover native. “The world lost not only a great basketball player,” said DeBellotte, “but a great human being.”