Now 34 years since his tragic death, the legend of Len Bias has been well-told several times over: A generational talent at the University of Maryland, selected second overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA Draft, dies two days later of heart failure from cocaine ingestion. A cautionary tale for future generations of young basketball stars.
Often lost in stories of how great a player he was -- how he would’ve rivaled Michael Jordan in the NBA -- and how stunning his death was, are stories about the type of player Bias was before he arrived at College Park. Those stories paint a picture of a player not always viewed as a potential NBA star, a talented player who had to work very hard to discover every bit of potential he had.
Bias’ earliest days with a basketball in his hands took place at Columbia Park Recreation Center in Landover, Md. Located behind Columbia Park Elementary School, it was there Bias received his first coaching.
"When he was young, kids used to laugh at him when he played basketball,” Wharton Lee Madkins, one of Bias’ earliest coaches and director of the recreation center, told the Washington Post in 1986. “They never picked him on a team. Then he ended up with everyone wanting him on their team.”
This recreation center was pivotal in Bias’ young development. He often returned to give instruction to younger players, even after becoming a star player for the Terrapins. Also important was his family and their extended Prince George’s County community.
The Bias family lived just a few blocks from Columbia Park, on Columbia Ave. His father, James, was an electrical repairman, and his mother, Lonise, a bank employee. The family attended Sunday school at Pilgrim A.M.E. Church in Washington, the same church Bias joined as an adult with his Maryland teammates in attendance.
He became interested in basketball as more than a recreational sport as an eighth grader at Greenbelt Middle School. He took the raw skills he developed there to Northwestern High School, in Hyattsville, where he was a hard worker but not immediately an impact player.
"I remember how he was afraid of physical contact and how he couldn't shoot from the perimeter," Brian Waller, a sophomore at Northwestern during Bias’ freshman year, said in a Baltimore Sun story. Bias was a tall but skinny kid who had more talent than other players, but was mild-mannered and easily moved by stronger players. Over the years, he turned himself into a standout player through practice.
“When I think of Len, I don’t think of how great he was in games,” Bob Wagner, his coach at Northwestern, told the Washington City Paper. “It’s about watching him practice, because it was in practice that you could see how hard he worked to get to the level he did, and how much he loved the game. That enthusiasm -- that incredible spirit -- is what set him apart. Everybody around him, not just me, could see that Len was special. It sounds silly, but you could see it in his eyes.”
Northwestern didn’t win a state championship during Bias’ time in high school, but it did reach the 1982 Class AA state title game his senior season, where they would fall to High Point. Bias averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 68% from the field that season. He was a Washington Post First Team All-Met selection that year, and also won co-MVP of the Capital Classic All-Star Game after recording 18 points and 11 rebounds to help the Capital All-Stars beat the U.S. All-Stars.
“I just thought it was an opportunity for him to be involved in some type of sports activity that would keep him occupied and just have something to look forward to,” his mother said, in a Testudo Times story, of Bias’ early interest in basketball. “But it blossomed into something completely different. When we would attend the games from the 10th grade to the 12th grade, you could see the progression from this little lanky kid in middle school to an all-star athlete by the time he was in high school.”
Bias attracted attention from college programs across the country, but wasn’t recruited as heavy as one might expect for the caliber of player he would prove to be. According to a Baltimore Sun story, this may have been due to a quick temper. Regardless, Maryland stood a good chance at landing Bias due to his and his family’s desire for him to be close to home.
"I had known him since he came to my camp in eighth or ninth grade," Lefty Driesell, his coach at Maryland, said. "I think the only other schools he was considering [were] N.C. State and Oregon, and I didn't think he was going to go that far away. I figured I had to beat out [N.C. State coach Jim] Valvano. It was one of the easiest recruiting [battles] I ever had."
Ahead of his freshman year at Maryland, expectations for Bias grew after his performance in the Urban Coalition league in Washington. Made up of mostly college players, local NBA players and few older local players, the league was dominated by Bias that summer. His 36 points per game led the league in scoring, and Pete Holbert, who was going into his junior year as a Terp, told the Sun that Bias was better than Washington Bullets players in the league, Greg Ballard and Charles Davis.
"He was just killing these guys. These were grown men. He dunked on everybody," Holbert said.
Still, even with his increasingly obvious amount of talent, Bias arrived at Maryland as a raw, undisciplined prospect. The question wasn’t about how talented he was, it was about how long it would take for him to unlock it all. The same dedication to the game that he needed to reach College Park was again necessary once he arrived on campus.
Bias showed flashes during an otherwise inconsequential freshman season in 1982-83. He played in all 30 games with 13 starts, averaging 7.1 points on 48% shooting. But Driesell worked Bias harder than he ever had to work, and Bias hit the weight room like never before, and the following season was the start of him becoming the player we know today. Bias improved every season at Maryland and transformed himself into arguably the greatest player in school history.
In 2014, he was inducted into the Maryland Athletics Hall of Fame, and in 2018, he was named to the D.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.
MORE NCAA NEWS: