We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
It’s been more than two decades since Len Bias, a University of Maryland basketball star, died of a drug overdose. Since then, the memories of Bias’ achievements on the court have been pushed aside by those of his tragic death – an event that scarred both his school and the Washington region. But Bias is among those being honored this year by a local basketball hall of fame – a tribute some feel is long overdue. We explore Bias’ often controversial legacy.
- Johnny Holliday Sportscaster, Author, "Johnny Holliday: From Rock to Jock"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFew athletes have ever left behind legacies that compare to the one Len Bias left at the University of Maryland. More than 25 years after his record-breaking career ended in College Park, the mere mention of his name still triggers an instant and emotional response, even among those who care little about college basketball or about sports in general. Some predicted that Len Bias was going to be an even bigger star than Michael Jordan.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut he died of a cocaine overdose in a dorm room only two days after he was drafted by the Boston Celtics. He never did play in a professional game. He became a cautionary tale for young people, a story parents and teachers used to scare a generation of kids straight about the dangers of drugs. And he left deep scars on a college campus that's still so sensitive about his story that it's tough to find any recognition of his achievements there.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut one group in the Washington region says it's finally time to honor Bias for what he did on the court. He'll be inducted next month into the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Basketball Hall of Fame. And here to talk about that is Johnny Holliday, sportscaster and the radio voice of Maryland basketball and football. He also will be inducted next month into the Washington Metropolitan Basketball Hall of Fame. Johnny, good to see you again.
MR. JOHNNY HOLLIDAYKojo, Great to be with you. My pleasure.
NNAMDIGlad you could join us. Also in studio with us is David Ungrady. He is the author of "Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias." He attended the University of Maryland where he was captain of the school's track team. Dave, thank you for joining us.
MR. DAVE UNGRADYGood to be here, Kojo. It's been a while.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. How do you feel about honoring Len Bias solely based on his achievements as a basketball player? Do you think it's possible to separate his basketball career from the scandal that surrounded his death? 800-433-8850. Dave, it's tough for a lot of people to look at the Len Bias story and see a man who they feel is worth honoring. He was a person blessed with out-of-this-world talent.
NNAMDIHe was about to make millions of dollars in the NBA. It seemed like he had everything and that he threw it all away. But you've been arguing for years that it's time people stepped back to honor his achievements as a player. Why?
UNGRADYIf you look at what he did as a basketball player and that's what attracted people to him when he was at Maryland as a basketball player and as a person -- and Johnny can talk a lot about that 'cause he knew Len much better I did -- he was a personable guy. He was a silly guy. But on the court, he was pretty much unmatched. Mike Krzyzewski who has coached at Duke since 1980 says that there are two people in the ACC who have done things that no other players have done. That's Michael Jordan and Len Bias.
UNGRADYThe comparisons to Michael Jordan are fair. A lot of people think he would've been better than Jordan, and I think that that's not too big of a statement. If you base -- if you honor Len on what he did on the court, he deserves to be in any hall of fame that would consider him. Maryland's hall of fame has a by-law that says if you brought any disrepute to the University, you cannot be inducted. It's a subjective -- there was some subjectivity to that. So there's a bit of a struggle to get past that, and the university has not done that yet. The athletic department (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWell, you know that he's far -- so far been excluded from the Maryland Hall of Fame because of a qualification that honorees have good character and reputation.
UNGRADYYes. And, again, that's, in a sense, subjective. You can -- what college athlete has not done a stupid thing? On the level of Len Bias, very few people have. Len made a very bad mistake. Nobody is going to argue that. But I would like to see -- and as a former Maryland athlete, I would like to see Len honored for what he did on the court. Let's take away from what he did. It's hard to separate the two 'cause of how it affected the university and the athletic department, the school and many other people. But I think it's just time to let that go.
NNAMDIJohnny, you have been calling Maryland basketball games more than 30 years. Purely from a basketball perspective, where does Len Bias stand among the players you've gotten a chance to witness?
HOLLIDAYWell, I think, like Dave said, Kojo, one of the greatest players to ever play in College Park. And I always go back, and I look at, as Dave mentioned, the comparison with Michael Jordan. He would have -- I think the head-to-head games that Maryland played against Carolina, he always outscored Jordan, out-rebounded Jordan. But what he did for that basketball program was incredible. He could jump with the best of him. He was quick as a cat. He could hit jump shots. He could take it to the rim.
HOLLIDAYHe could do everything that a coach was looking for. And that combined with a -- what I thought to be a terrific personality. I think -- like Dave, I think he ought to be a in a hall of fame, and I think he's -- this thing in a couple of weeks, on May 5, that they will honor him is long overdue. And I think that -- I think in due time, how much time it's going to be, I don't know.
HOLLIDAYBut I think, in due time, you're going to find maybe the people of Maryland will somehow, someway see fit to have him in their athletic hall of fame, even though they have certain rules and regulations. But I think what he did for the university as a player, you can't deny any of those things.
NNAMDIYou know, as you get older you have to admit your biases. I have a pro-Bias bias if you will, and that was 'cause I only saw him in person twice, once at the McDonald's All-American Classic when he made bigger players, like Brad Daugherty, look smaller than he was in that game.
HOLLIDAYThat's right. And Daugherty's a big guy.
NNAMDIAnd Daugherty was seven feet tall. And once I ran into him at a Chinese restaurant on Rhode Island Avenue in Northeast where he was having dinner with a friend and he had no idea who I was. I just went over and said hello. He stood up, shook my hand...
NNAMDI...called me sir, three or four times. And so I can't help feeling that that one mistake in his life -- and it was a terrible mistake -- should not be allowed to scar him for life. But that's my bias. Johnny, what sense do you have for what the university and its athletic department are still scarred by what happened in that dorm room decades ago?
HOLLIDAYWell, it takes a long time to heal things, Kojo. And I think over the years that, you know, things have been a little better. You're never going to forget what he did as a basketball player. And one thing I always like to point out is we know what a great player he would have been in the NBA, what he would have done for the Boston Celtics. But I think his tragic passing and death with this one incident maybe had a positive effect on young people saying...
UNGRADYOh, it did. No doubt.
HOLLIDAY...let's -- when go out talking about Len, don't even take a chance with drugs. Don't roll the dice because, no matter who you are, how big a player you are, how big a name you are, it comes up the right number, or it could come up the wrong number. In his case, here's a young guy with everything going for him -- gone like that. Maybe, hopefully, it's been a message to young people. I'm not going to try it. Look what happened to Len Bias. I'm staying away from it.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, do you have strong memories of Len Bias's death? How does it affect you, or how you view drugs like cocaine? 800-433-8850. Dave, I was intrigued by a comparison you drew between Bias and Pete Rose, who was basically banned from Baseball's Hall of Fame because he gambled on the sport, even though he holds the all time record for hits. But you say Bias' disgrace is different because he did not disgrace the game, only himself.
UNGRADYMaybe peripherally he disgraced the game if people want to think that far and reach that far enough. I don't think he did. It was a decision that he made on his own to consume too much cocaine that night, and it killed him. Johnny makes the point that -- or he brings up the point a lot -- young kids are staying away from cocaine right now because of that.
HOLLIDAYIt scares them.
UNGRADYKeith Booth, I write about in the book. I talked to Keith about this, an All-American in the mid-'90s at Maryland. He was 10 or 11 years old, met Len Bias. Len was his idol. He had his poster on his wall. And when Len died, he says that is the reason he stayed away from drugs. I write about anecdotally in the book that many people who never knew him but knew of him -- that was the red light. That was the traffic signal that said stay away from drugs.
UNGRADYI'm not going to do it. Look what it did to Len Bias.
HOLLIDAYYou hate to say bigger in death than in life, but he was. He is.
UNGRADYIn many ways.
UNGRADYAnd to get back to the comparison to Pete Rose, I think, Len's decision that really affected him, his family, his friends -- it affected the university, but it didn't affect how people played the game, or it didn't have any direct affect on game results like what Pete Rose did, potentially, what Pete Rose did.
NNAMDIDave Ungrady's book is called "Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias." He attended the University of Maryland where he was a captain of the school's track team. Johnny Holliday joins us in studio. He's going to be inducted next month into the Washington Metropolitan Basketball Hall of Fame. One can only say, hey, what took so long? He's a sportscaster and the radio voice...
HOLLIDAYThey're running out of names, Kojo. That's why.
NNAMDI...of Maryland basketball. On to the telephones. Here is Tina in Bethesda, Md. Tina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TINAGood afternoon. I was just calling, listening to the story, and I have very, very vivid recollections of the event. I was a teenager and grew up in D.C. and was a little bit on the wild side. And I definitely remember thinking at the time, I will never do this, and thinking of Len Bias. And it has stuck with me for 30-some years. So it was very, very impactful at the time.
NNAMDIAs Johnny said, that was an experience that led a whole lot of young people, like Tina, away from drugs. Johnny, it's my understanding that you were actually asked by the Bias family to sing at Len's funeral. What do you remember about that moment and where you were emotionally at the time?
HOLLIDAYToughest thing I ever had to do. I've done theater for a lot of years. Theater is a lot different when you're doing musical comedy than you're singing at someone's funeral. But when his -- when Lonise asked me if I could sing "The Lord's Prayer," and I said, absolutely, and I was in the -- up in the balcony at the chapel at the University of Maryland. And all I could think of -- I was -- it was so emotional, seeing everybody in the same frame of mind that I was in.
HOLLIDAYI had to think of something other than what was going on just to get through "The Lord's Prayer." And I'll never forget, as soon as I finished, I was a basket case upstairs. And when they were walking down the aisle and the family behind the casket of Len and his mom blew a kiss to me upstairs, that's when it was all over right there.
HOLLIDAYBut I was honored to do it, honored to do it. And I still found it very difficult to believe that -- I know there have been some things written about this wasn't the first time that Len had been experiencing. And I found that very difficult to believe because I knew him in a different way, and I just didn't think he would get into something like that. But you never know.
NNAMDIYou never indeed know. If you've called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. We have to take a short break. Tina, thank you very much for your call. The number is 800-433-8850. What lessons do you think can be taken out of Len Bias' death more than 25 years after it happened? Or what memories do you have of watching Len Bias? Len Bias is a basketball player. 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the 1986 death from cocaine overdose of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, its aftereffects and whether or not it should affect whether Len Bias' talents and whether his accomplishments on the basketball court should, in fact, be recognized. We're talking with Johnny Holliday. He is a sportscaster and the radio voice of Maryland basketball and football. He will be inducted next month into the Washington Metropolitan Basketball Hall of Fame.
NNAMDIDave Ungrady is the author of "Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias." Dave attended the University of Maryland where he was captain of the school's track team. Dave, to what degree do you think the story was amplified, if you will, by the moment? Washington is a place that was torn apart by crack cocaine, particularly during that decade, starting around 1984, 1985.
UNGRADYIt was complete hysteria. And I'm sure Johnny remembers this. I was a journalist at the time, a young journalist and starting to get my roots in that and following the story in that capacity and as a sports fan and a Maryland alumnus -- complete, complete hysteria. It was a daily story for three to six months here. It was immediately a national story. And I think one of the reasons was, as you mentioned, Kojo, there was becoming more awareness about the perils of drug abuse.
UNGRADYCocaine was then considered a recreational drug. Len's death changed that. Robert DuPont, who was the drug czar in the 1970s and has worked with anti-drug groups and through the years, he said, that -- Len's death and Alcoholics Anonymous were two things in the last century that were the most prominent factors changing perceptions about drug use. Len's death changed a lot of thoughts about what you could do, what you could get away with.
UNGRADYAnd, of course, you had the '86 Anti-Drug Abuse Act that Congress passed soon after his death, three or four months after his death, in complete direct reaction to his death. That was part of the hysteria that was engulfing the country.
NNAMDIWell, what do you feel that has -- or why do you feel, Johnny, that his death hurt the athletic department across the board at Maryland so much? And where can you still see the scars that it left on Maryland sports?
HOLLIDAYWell, I think it certainly -- I think it's just completely related to you take an athlete and you take the school. If he does something out of line or something wrong, it's going to reflect back on that school, whether it's Maryland or any other school in the country. I think that's just going to be a natural reaction of people. You want the student athletes, because they are supposed to be student athletes, to represent your school in the best possible way.
HOLLIDAYAnd when something like that happens, the red flag goes up, and people go a little bit ballistic and say, well, now, wait a minute now. How did this happen? This is not a good thing for this university. This is not the way to teach our young people. And thus it takes a long time to bounce back. I remember a couple of years ago when Gary Williams was the coach -- we're down at Wake Forest getting set to do a ballgame, and we're getting ready to tape his pre-game interview with me.
HOLLIDAYAnd the people from the television outlet -- the network were getting set to do their opening. The first thing they talked about was, this is the anniversary, OK, of Len, blah, blah, blah, and Gary said, wait a minute. Got up and went all the way down across the floor and said, why don't you give it up? This is 20 years after the fact. OK? We're trying to move forward. Give it up. A mistake was made, and we're going to try to correct that mistake and do everything we -- well -- and they backed off a little bit.
HOLLIDAYSo I think it's natural for people to carry on and remember -- same with Pete Rose, right, Dave? The same exact thing are now Roger Clemens or Jose Canseco. It goes on and on. If you do anything out of line, you're going to pay for it, and whoever you're playing for is going to pay for it.
NNAMDIDave Ungrady, you make the point that the death of Len Bias may have hurt the Maryland men's track team more than most other sports. How come?
UNGRADYSoon after Len died, it was 1990 and 1991, then-athletic director Andy Geiger instituted -- they had to restructure -- I'm sorry. It was Mr. Perkins. They had to restructure the athletic department because they losing revenue. He established a four-tier system. Lew Perkins, this was. He established a four-tier system. And Maryland was put in the bottom tier where you could have no scholarships for the men's program. The women's program still had the scholarships.
UNGRADYPeople who were Maryland track fans remember that through the late '70s, they were the dominant track program in the ACC and won 26 -- 25 consecutive ACC titles outdoors or indoors. The team started to slip a little bit. When that happened, when they started to lose scholarships, it was the death -- sort of death sentence for that team, hard to compete. That made the team susceptible to be one of the teams proposed for cuts now in the athletic department, six programs, eight teams.
UNGRADYMen's indoor track, men's outdoor track and men's cross-country had been proposed for -- to be cut. Now, there -- there's the Save the Maryland Track Campaign. We're trying to raise month to keep them around, but that, I think, is a direct result of Len's death. It still affects the track program today.
NNAMDIOn to the phones again. David in University Park, Md. David, your turn.
DAVIDHi, Kojo, I'm glad to be on. It sounds like Dave's book is really interesting. And you've touched on some of the things I wanted to comment on. His life really kind of profoundly affected me. He's kind of the biggest absent basketball player or any sports star. I was living in Shaw at the time. It was a miserable time as far as drugs. I was working as a functionary on the floor of the House of Representatives. And they were considering this drug bill that Dave mentioned.
DAVIDAnd they -- because Tip O'Neill and other basketball fans, they knew how gifted he was, and he was going to, you know, bring back the Celtics, they went over -- they went crazy with the drug bill passing, Draconian sentences, kind of one-upping each other. And these liberal Democrats just piled on, and they made the distinction between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. It was kind of legislation by panic, and it was a horrible unforeseen consequence of his legacy. And on the other side of it...
NNAMDILegislation that has only recently been reversed, one might add.
DAVIDRight, right. And my daughter was born -- my only child, my daughter, was born a few months later. She went K through 12 in Prince George's County schools, and I live, you know, like, a mile-and-a-half from where he died. And so every year, she was constantly, you know, reminded of his death as this object lesson, you know, from kindergarten all the way through. And it's just hearing about it -- and I'm glad you wrote the book, but, yeah, it's really profound. I'm glad you...
NNAMDIYou got to remember that Tip O'Neill was the House speaker who made famous the phrase, all politics is local. And so since he represented the district in Massachusetts, he bled Celtic green. OK. So...
DAVIDOh, yeah. And anybody that was a basketball fan, you know?
DAVIDIt was one of those things then. It was like, oh, my God, we lost perhaps the greatest player of all time here, needlessly.
UNGRADYIf I could add something to that, Kojo, I write in the book that Tip O'Neill had a son who had a drug and alcohol problem. And that was part of the reason that he wanted to push this legislation through. The caller mentioned the political reasons, and the Democrats wanted to maintain hold, their dominance, their prominence and the advantage they had in the House and Senate.
UNGRADYBut there was a personal reason he pushed as well. And his son told me that for the book and his other -- his living son. So there were some -- a lot of reasons that Tip O'Neill pushed that through, also personal.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call, David. We move on now to Jem (sp?) in Washington, D.C. Jem, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEMHi. Thank you so much for taking my call. I just wanted to say -- and you all alluded to it earlier -- that, you know, outside of the political influences and the larger issues, I am a native Washingtonian, and I remember being in junior high school when Lenny Bias died. And the narrative at the time -- I don't know what the final story ended up being. But the prominent narrative was that it was his first time ever trying cocaine, and he died.
JEMAnd I can just tell you this, that incident stopped more people in my peer group and myself from trying drugs than any Just Say No campaign. And, unfortunately, it's a black mark on Maryland, and it's a tragedy. But it was a huge moment in terms of a lot of young people's consciousness and their relationship with drugs from that point on.
NNAMDIAnd, Johnny, I suspect that a lot of people believed that it might have been the first time that Len Bias tried it because he was celebrating a really, really big event, being drafted by the Boston Celtics. And what sense did you get for how well people knew this guy? All they knew was the athlete they saw on the court. The people you have known -- and I'll ask you this question, Dave, also -- who knew him over the years seem to subscribe to the notion that that was not the Len they knew.
HOLLIDAYYeah, and that bothered me a lot, Kojo. I was not one of his dear, close friends, but I had a four-year relationship with Len since he came out of Northwestern. And I didn't want to believe that. When I heard that -- and later on, some of his teammates had alluded that maybe this wasn't the first time -- and I -- my image of him would always be, and still is to this day, that, you know, I was hoping it would be the first time he tried it.
HOLLIDAYHe made a tragic, terrible mistake, but the young people, as the caller just mentioned there, will learn from that, not to take a chance, even once, with any kind of drugs. And then I find out later on that it wasn't perhaps the first time he'd done that, and that was disappointing to me.
NNAMDIWell, I checked this morning. One of my own favorite athletes was tennis star John McEnroe, and Johnny Mac is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, even though he admitted publicly in books that he did try cocaine on several occasions.
UNGRADYOf course, he hasn't -- he's still alive, and that makes a big difference, I would imagine.
NNAMDIThis is true.
UNGRADYYeah. A couple of things I'd like to say about his previous drug use, doing research for the book -- and there's public record of testimony at Brian Tribble's trial by Terry Long and David Gregg, who were in the room with Len at the time he died. They were his teammates. They testified under oath that they had used cocaine with Len previously. So there was public record, and that had been reported quite a bit then. You all may remember Chris Washburn, who was a sophomore at N.C. State...
UNGRADY...when Len was a senior. And I called Chris 'cause I knew he had had drug problems with cocaine around about the time Len died. And I called him to ask him if Len's death had affected his drug use. And he said, no, you know, when you're addicted, it doesn't matter. It made me back off for maybe two or three months, and then I got back into it heavy. And he said, you know, Len introduced me to cocaine. And it just threw -- it threw me.
UNGRADYI said, well, please, explain. There's something called a Barnstorming Tour, as Johnny's aware of. The ACC athletes go along through Carolina, play all-star games. They have to get their eligibilities up, or if they're going to declare they're professional due to the draft. He said, during the Barnstorming Tour in April of '86, Len knocked on Chris' door at 3 o'clock one morning and said, you're getting high with me.
UNGRADYAnd Chris said, it's Len Bias. How can you turn down Len Bias? And that started his spiral. Chris lasted two years in the NBA. He was the number three pick in the draft, one after Len, as a sophomore. He declared his eligibility. So he had severe cocaine problems really up through the early 2000s.
NNAMDIOne of the things that Johnny said that struck a responsive chord with me is when he said, I knew him for four years after he came out of Northwestern. People in the Washington area always remember what high school their favorite stars went to.
NNAMDIAnd Northwestern was the school that Len Bias went to. Here's Dan in Fort Washington, Md. Dan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DANYeah. Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I was an elementary school counselor at -- near Northeast Washington during the drug wars in the '80s and '90s. And when Len Bias died, of course, it was very bad news, but his mother became a motivational speaker in elementary schools.
HOLLIDAYI think she still is, too, still talking.
UNGRADYYeah. She's very prominent still. Yep.
DANShe was fabulous. She was incredible. Children were in tears when she got finished at the graduation ceremony. But she used it, of course, as therapy for herself after the emotional distress she was going through. And she's still doing it. Yeah.
NNAMDIThank you very much for reminding us about Lonise's Bias ongoing campaign, Dan. On now to Lewis in Bethesda, Md., Lewis, your turn.
LEWISYes. Hello. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I'm going to present a different perspective. I was a faculty member at the university during this -- the time that you're discussing. And I want to say that the impact of Len Bias' death, although it was a personal tragedy for himself, his family and those who knew him, was also a tragedy for the scholastics at the university. For years afterwards, whenever I went to meetings out of town, the first thing I would be asked...
NNAMDIThis is the party school where people use cocaine.
LEWISYes. And the athletes' dormitory was well known for sex, drugs and rock and roll. It was a shame when we were there, and I think it's all brought on by the overemphasis of sports at the university. When...
NNAMDIA conversation that we have had before on this broadcast about college sports in general and basketball and football in particular, but we're out of time to have it right now. Lewis, thank you very much for your call. Johnny, what does the honor of making it to the Washington's local Basketball Hall of Fame mean for you?
HOLLIDAYVery humble, Kojo, and very surprised because I don't play the game. I mean, I was a pretty good shooter in high school, but I'm very thrilled that they would recognize me amongst Len Bias and Bob Ferry and Chenier and these other folks.
NNAMDICongratulations to you.
HOLLIDAYThank you very much.
NNAMDIJohnny Holliday is a sportscaster and the radio voice of Maryland basketball and football. He'll be inducted next month into the Washington Metropolitan Basketball Hall of Fame. Dave Ungrady is the author of "Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias." He attended the University of Maryland, where he was captain of the school's track team. He says he still has a marathon in his future.
UNGRADYI hope so. My body's got to heal up a little bit first.
NNAMDIDave Ungrady, good luck to you and thank you very much for joining us. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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