Cumberland Times-News

Mike Burke - Sports

July 17, 2014

Opposition and inclusion understood

— Those of you who have been here before know how I feel about the late great Len Bias, who I will remember foremost as Leonard Bias, the polite, spindly Bambi-eyed kid from Hyattsville’s Northwestern High School, who could throw a dunk through the floor, yet had the most beautiful jump shot I have ever seen.

We all know about Leonard Bias. He went up the road to the University of Maryland to become Len Bias, two-time All-American basketball player and two-time ACC Player of the Year. He was selected in the first round of the 1986 NBA Draft by the world champion Boston Celtics, then died of cocaine intoxication two nights later.

His death, rather, the way his death came about, rocked the university and college athletics, leading to sweeping changes at the school and costing a lot of folks, most notably basketball coach Lefty Driesell, their jobs. It took Maryland basketball 16 years to make it all the way back when Gary Williams’ Terps won the national championship. Despite their NBA championship of 2008, it set the Celtics franchise back to this very day, as they easily would have 20 championships now rather than 17.

On Wednesday, the Maryland athletics department and the M Club announced the selection of eight former Terrapin athletes for induction into the University of Maryland Athletics Hall of Fame, led by Len Bias. It took 18 years of eligibility for the greatest basketball player in school history to be inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame. Even now, does he deserve it? There are a lot of people who do not believe so.

On his skills and accomplishments alone, of course he should be in the Maryland Hall of Fame, for I believe, had he lived, Len Bias would have been better than any basketball player of his time, including you know who. And I believe history would have remembered him as one of a handful of the greatest players of any time. But then, I’m bias.

There are those, however, those who absolutely loved Len Bias (it was impossible not to love Len Bias) and admired him as a basketball player who still do not believe he should be in this Hall of Fame, pointing out a bylaw of the selection committee that says any candidate can be rejected for bringing “embarrassment or disrepute” to the university, regardless of his or her athletic accomplishments or contributions.

He was the greatest basketball player in Maryland history. Yet there can be no denying his death brought embarrassment and disrepute to the university.

Another Prince George’s County kid from that era, Kevin Glover, former Maryland football and NFL star, who is the executive director of the M Club, but who does not have a Hall of Fame vote, told the Baltimore Sun, “We all know it’s a very sensitive issue. A lot of changes were made to the university back in the day because of (Bias' death). Once we discussed it and the votes came in, we decided it was time to move forward and honor one of our greatest student-athletes ever.”

In fact, Maryland had honored Bias from the beginning, as his number 34 went into the rafters of Cole Field House almost immediately after his death. And it now hangs in the rafters of Comcast Center with the rest of the “honored numbers” of Terrapin greats.

Maryland has never retired numbers; it honors numbers, which is wise. And personally, even though they can prove invaluable for scholarship fundraising, I don’t believe schools — colleges or high schools — should have halls of fame. It’s too subjective, too personal and too political. For invariably, somebody who is most certainly worthy of induction will be left out, and somebody who is deemed to be unworthy will be put in.

Through the coldest and most objective eyes, Len Bias could be viewed as being both. What he accomplished on the court will remain unmatched. What the circumstances of his death cost the university was as dire as the NCAA death penalty, as for six years, until Williams single-handedly brought it back, Maryland basketball did not exist, when, clearly, it continued to exist. But merely as a carcass.

The ramifications of Bias’ death also led to the dim-witted and ill-fated hiring of Bob Wade, as university chancellor John B. Slaughter deftly took a horrible situation and made it immediately worse. This must never be forgotten in College Park. But neither should Len Bias.

Driesell told the Sun about the last time the two ever talked, the night Bias signed his endorsement deal with Reebok.

“He said, ‘Coach, this is Lenny, I couldn’t have done it without you, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me’,” Driesell said. “I had about eight or nine players go high in the first round that I can recall, but he was the only one who called to thank me right after the draft. That was the kind of kid he was.”

“... He wasn’t a drug addict,” Driesell continued. “He had come back from celebrating becoming a multi-millionaire and he didn’t know what he was doing and it killed him.

“If he had died in an auto accident or drowned swimming, he would have been a hero. He was one of the greatest kids I ever coached.”

I don’t blame those who oppose Len Bias’ induction to the Maryland Athletics Hall of Fame. I respect their feelings on the matter, just as I would hope they respect mine. And as you know, those feelings are bias. I will be Bias to my final day.

That truly was the kind of kid he was.

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

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Mike Burke - Sports
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