Cumberland Times-News

Columns

June 18, 2011

Of course, I’m biased; we were all Biased

Thirty years ago I met a shy, gangly youngster with Bambi eyes who loved to draw and, had he not died 25 years ago today, would have been the greatest basketball player of all time.

To this day, the world knows that young man to have been Len Bias, but to those of us who were there even before the legend began to take life, he will forever be remembered as Leonard Bias.

Michael Jordan, without question, is the greatest basketball player who ever lived. Sadly, the most telling words of that statement are “who ever lived.” Leonard Bias, 6-feet, 8-inches of muscle, touch, art and furious flying splendor, was well on his way to equaling, then surpassing, his former rival from North Carolina when he died of cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose two days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics. If you could have caught Red Auerbach just before he went to the Great Beyond, he would have assured you of that. Better yet, get Dean Smith on the phone right now and ask him how his first loss in the shiny new Dean Smith Center came about 25 years ago.

If he’s unable to take your call, go to YouTube, where the Bias legend continues to grow with each click.

LeBron James? Please. Bias would have made a meal out of him. But Leonard Bias never wanted to be The Chosen One. He never wanted to be known as King Bias. His friends knew him as Frosty.

When I met him he was entering his junior year at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, and as far as I knew, outside of his family and friends, the only people in the world who knew about him were my sports editor at the Prince George's Sentinel, Dave Ginsburg, Northwestern basketball coach Bob Wagner, and the head basketball coach at the University of Maryland, Mr. Charles G. “Lefty” Driesell.

Because of those three men, I met Leonard Bias and my life changed forever. I saw things I never dreamed were possible, and I saw things that summer of 1981 that I've never seen since. On the basketball court? Of course. But, most importantly, in the spector of human behavior and genuine emotional care.

Everybody loved Leonard Bias, almost in a protecting way. And once he felt comfortable enough around you to lift his soft eyes and his warm face away from his shoes, you grew to understand why.

It was the summer of 1981, and it was the most miserable time of my life. For I, as a first-year season-ticket holder for my beloved Baltimore Orioles, was in the painful process of watching my hard-earned investment be washed away by the baseball players strike that cost the season 50 regular-season games.

As my roommates at the time would tell you, I was a miserable s.o.b. that summer (not like I am now), until Ginsburg called me with a question that would soon end my pain.

“What are you doing tomorrow night?” he asked.

“Burning two more tickets for section 41, row 3, seats 4 and 5," I said. “Unless you want to buy them.”

“The Northwestern Summer League is going on,” he said, “and Northwestern’s got some hot shot named Bias who has Lefty’s attention. He’s there every night watching him. Might be a story there.”

I arrived at the humid little Northwestern gym as ordered, and the first person I met was Wagner, who looked every bit the part of the 1980’s high school coach: weight-room toned, busy dark hair with a bushy dark mustache, polyester Bike coaching shorts and an enormous ring of keys that could conceivably open any door in Prince George’s County.

“You here to see Leonard or Lefty?” Wagner said as he crushed my right hand on the first handshake. “Or are you here to see Lefty watch Leonard?”

“Huh?”

“Either way,” Wagner said, “you’re in for a treat.”

I soon saw what Wagner was talking about as Lefty sneaked into the gym about five minutes after Northwestern's game began. I had never seen a human being fly before that night. Nor had I seen a human being devour as much popcorn as Lefty did without washing a bite of it down with something.

“Look at him,” Wagner laughed as he nodded in Lefty’s direction. “I don’t know if he’s more hungry for the popcorn or for Leonard. It’s like this every night. He’s the only (college) coach here, and he’s here every night. We’ll cover half the cost of our league with the popcorn that he eats.”

“You’re kidding?” I said.

“Yeah,” Wagner said. “We don’t charge him.”

“No,” I said, “about his being the only coach here every night.”

“He’s the only one,” Wagner said. “Leonard went to his basketball camp and Lefty’s been here ever since.”

Lefty couldn’t talk about Bias because NCAA recruiting rules prohibited him from doing so. But he would talk about everything else under the sun, from that dang loss to N.C. State seven years prior, to how he could still “whup” his former All-American John Lucas, who was also an All-American tennis player, “in straight sets.”

Bias? He didn’t say much. In fact, he talked more about his drawing than he did about his basketball. Although he once — accidentally, I believe — admitted Lefty’s nightly presence motivated him to improve his game if just to show all of the coaches who weren’t there just what they were about to miss.

The world soon found out, and in November of 1983, Ginsburg assigned me to the Maryland basketball beat — at least for games he couldn't attend when he worked nights at Giant Food.

In fact, the first Maryland game I covered was over the Thanksgiving weekend, and Ginsburg somehow found me back here in Cumberland just as I was sitting down to eat Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s and uncle’s.

“Maryland’s playing Penn State Saturday at the Baltimore Civic Center,” he said. “It’s Bias’ first game. I know it’s short notice, but can you make it?”

“Do you have to work?”

“No,” said Dave. “But I know you took to the kid (I had gone to over a dozen of Bias’ games by that time). And given what you've written, I know he’ll talk to you.”

“I’ll be there,” I said. “And Dave?

“Thanks a lot.”

 For the better part of the next two Maryland basketball seasons, I covered another dozen or so of Leonard Bias’ games, and the polite young mama's boy from Hyattsville indeed recognized my face to be a familiar one. And in time he grew comfortable enough to talk more about his game than his drawing, not only to me, but to the growing swarm of reporters who believed, just as I had, that they had discovered him.

 But there was actually very little for him to say about his game. The words still don’t exist to describe it. Let’s just say Bias was the most magnificent athlete and basketball player I have ever seen, and he was one of the nicest young men I will ever know.

 Often, of course, I think about what could have been. Today, though, I will appreciate what once was. The legend of Len Bias took life and grew before my very eyes. The wonder of knowing Leonard Bias grows more in my memory with each passing day.

 So particulary on this day, I am grateful for that baseball players strike of 1981. And most particularly, I say once more, “Dave? Thanks a lot.”

 Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at mburke@times-news.com

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