Since a memorial service at a sweltering, standing-room only Cole Field House was held a few days after Len Bias' death in June 1986, there has been little official connection between the former basketball All-American and the University of Maryland.
But nearly three decades after his fatal cocaine overdose, and the fallout that led to significant changes at the school, Bias will formally be recognized by Maryland when he is inducted posthumously into the Terps’ athletics Hall of Fame.
Bias and seven others will be honored at a ceremony Oct. 3.
“It’s great to hear about Lenny,” said his former coach Lefty Driesell, who was forced to resign after 17 seasons in the tumult that followed Bias’ death. “I was elated that he got in. It’s a long time coming.”
Wednesday’s announcement ends more than a decade of heated debate, much of it centered on one of the bylaws of the selection committee which stipulates that any candidate can be rejected for bringing “embarrassment or disrepute” to the university, regardless of his or her athletic accomplishments or contributions.
Kevin Glover, executive director of the M Club, which oversees the selection process, said that it came down to the committee of about a dozen former athletes and current coaches looking more at what the muscular 6-8 power forward did on the court than what happened to him on the last night of his life after a party in his campus dormitory.
“I just think the selection committee took a lot of time and effort to look at his stats, to look at his accomplishments while he was here as a student-athlete and we just felt like the time was right,” said Glover, a former Maryland football star who does not have a vote on the committee.
“We all know it’s a very sensitive issue. A lot of changes were made to the university back in the day because of this situation [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.”
Bias left Maryland as the school’s all-time scorer with 2,147 points. (He has since been passed by both Juan Dixon, who now ranks first on the list, and Greivis Vasquez.) Bias led the Terps to the 1984 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title, the school’s first in 26 years. He was a two-time ACC Player of the Year.
His death, two days after he was drafted second overall by the reigning NBA champion Boston Celtics, caused an upheaval in both the athletic department and the university as a whole.
Several high-profile members of the athletic department, including athletic director Dick Dull and football coach Bobby Ross, left within months of Bias’ death.
University chancellor John B. Slaughter also departed while changes were being made regarding drug testing, special admission of athletes and academic support for athletes.
Even as the Terps’ men’s basketball program rebounded, and eventually won a national championship in 2002 under Gary Williams, Bias was rarely mentioned in the celebration.
But athletic director Kevin Anderson took a small step this winter by featuring Bias’ picture on a basketball game ticket.
The reaction to the gesture was positive, Anderson said later. He wasn’t involved in the process to elect Bias to the Hall of Fame but said Wednesday that he was pleased with the result.
“Everyone’s excited about this,” Anderson said. “I’m very excited about that day, and I can’t wait for the induction ceremony.”
An athletic department spokesman said that the response on social media has been “very positive.”
Along with Bias, Bob Boniello (men’s lacrosse), Edward G. Cooke (track and football), Maureen Scott Dupcak (field hockey and lacrosse), Alex Kehoe (women’s lacrosse), Debbie Lytle (women’s basketball), Charlie Wysocki (football) and longtime athletic trainer Sandy Worth will be inducted.
Efforts to reach Bias’ family for reaction were unsuccessful.
Dave Ungrady, a 1980 Maryland graduate and former Terps athlete, helped keep the discussion about Bias going with his 2011 book “Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias.”
Ungrady, who was a proponent of Bias getting into the Hall of Fame, said that those on the selection committee who had voiced opposition to Bias' candidacy are likely to have either left the group or do not have as much influence as they did before.
“About four years ago, I was told by a couple of members, ‘He’ll be in, just give it time,’” said Ungrady, who played soccer and was the captain of Maryland’s track team as a senior.
Bias has been eligible for induction since 1996, 10 years after his death. Ungrady said the bylaw about athletes who brought “embarrassment or disrepute” to the university could be used to keep candidates out, but it was not a guarantee for exclusion.
“A [former] chairman of the committee told me that it could be interpreted any way,” Ungrady said. “There was some subjectivity to it. It didn't automatically exclude him, but it made it harder for people to embrace it.”
Former longtime sports information director Jack Zane, who had served in both voting and non-voting capacities on the committee, said he opposed Bias’ candidacy simply because of the bylaw regarding off-court issues but added, “I think he deserves it based on what he did on the court.”
A simple majority of the committee is needed for a candidate to be selected. A longtime member of the committee who asked not to be identified said that there were still opponents to Bias’ selection when the group met a few weeks ago to vote.
“It was not a done deal,” said the committee member, a former Maryland athlete, who voted for Bias to be inducted. “There was still a lot of healthy debate about it.”
Keith Gatlin, who played three years with Bias and is now a high school boys basketball coach in North Carolina, called Wednesday’s announcement “outstanding news and well-deserved.”
“Lenny was a fabulous guy and a great player, so I’m very happy for the Bias family,” Gatlin continued.
Adrian Branch, who teamed with Bias in leading the Terps to the 1984 ACC tournament championship and is now an ESPN college basketball analyst, said he was also proud to learn of Bias’ acknowledgement.
Branch and Gatlin recall a certain demeanor that allowed Bias to go from a lightly recruited high school player to a superstar whose picture-perfect jumper and highlight-reel dunks made him difficult to stop.
“He came in as a heck of an athlete, but he had a mean streak also,” Branch said. “He was so competitive and so talented. He was as good as the legacy they talk about. I say he would have been right up there in the conversation with Michael Jordan.”
Driesell also remembers a softer side. On the night that Bias was drafted, he called his coach to share the news that he also was on the verge of signing his first 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 recalled Wednesday. “I had about eight or nine players go high in 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.”
It was the last time Driesell ever spoke to Bias.
Calling Bias' death at age 22 a “tragic accident,” Driesell noted that, had his former star died under different circumstances, he would have been recognized by Maryland a long time ago.
“He wasn’t a drug addict,” Driesell said. “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.”