Archive for March, 2021

A Len Bias Fan Remembers His Hero

March 28, 2021

By Lauren Rosh

When he was around 15 years old, George Assimakopoulos walked into Cole Field House and saw his fellow basketball campers gathered for University of Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell’s summer camp, sitting in the stands staring at one of the baskets. When Assimakopoulos asked what was going on, they all pointed to Maryland star Len Bias. Bias, who has just completed his junior season, appeared to be running a drill.

“He’s up to about a buck-25,” a friend said to Assimakopoulos.

When his friend motioned for him to look at the court, Assimakopoulos could not believe what he saw.    

“I started watching and [Bias] was taking this running start and competing with either a teammate or a friend to see how many quarters they could stack on the top of the backboard,” Assimakopoulos said. “Most of us would love to even reach the rim. Here’s someone who’s reaching the top of the backboard. That was the athlete he was.”

When asked if he was sure about what he saw,  Assimakopoulos added, “Maybe he was taking quarters off of the backboard. And maybe they lowered the basket.  But who cares? It was amazing to see.” 

That moment is one of many that Assimakopoulos remembers about Bias. Another memory is also painfully vivid, nearly 35 years later.

Assimakopoulos was still in high school when his older sister, who attended Maryland and worked in the health center on the College Park campus, called him early in the morning on June 19, 1986, to share the news of Bias’ death. His sister told him that there were reports that “there there was an incident, an accident in his dorm, there’s drugs being talked about and there’s misuse and he had heart failure and he died immediately.”

Assimakopoulos was shocked.

“I leapt out of bed and I turned on the news and sure enough it’s everywhere and I’m being exposed to something that was beyond devastating because, for me at that age at that time, he was like a hero,” Assimakopoulos said. “He was someone that we all looked up to and to see that and to hear that news, I can’t even begin to express the grief that we were all experiencing.”

A few weeks later, it was time for Assimakopoulos and his friends to make their way back to Cole Field House for basketball camp. But this time, Bias was not there to coach them or provide magical moments. 

When the campers arrived, Driesell sat them down in the middle of the court and introduced former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach, who had first met Bias when he was a camper himself at Auerbach’s summer camp in Washington. As the team’s president and general manager, Auerbach had made a trade that had given the Celtics the No. 2 pick in the 1986 to help secure the Maryland star.

Two days before his death, Bias became a Celtic.       

“[Auerbach] talked to us about choices and decisions in life,” Assimakopoulos said. “He [told] us about how Len just got away from his decision making and one decision had caused his life, and was kind of a really, really difficult lesson to learn at the time.”

As the 35th year from Bias’ death approaches, Assimakopoulos reflects on what Bias meant to him and how his passing affects him even today.

“People do make mistakes” he said.  “That one was tragic, but because of the single choice that he made, his legacy will always be marred with that. I think if there’s anything I learned personally from Len Bias, … be sure you’re making the right choices in life because a single decision can ruin all the hard work that you put forth. So, I don’t look at it as just a tragic story, I look at it as a life that taught many others, a lesson to remember. ”    

Lauren is a junior majoring in Journalism at the University of Maryland and an intern for the 34+1 Campaign.

An Unfitting End for Bias

March 16, 2021

By Don Markus

Covering the NCAA basketball tournament over a span of nearly 40 years can create a blur, a highlight reel in one’s mind filled with memorable plays by soon-to-be legendary players and down-to-the-buzzer endings with big shots and big misses. 

The first Final Four of the 20 or so I covered was in 1982, and coincided with Michael Jordan, then a North Carolina freshman, hitting the go-ahead jumper to beat Georgetown at the Superdome in New Orleans.

A decade later, there was Duke moving on to the Final Four, where it would win its second straight national championship. But first the Blue Devils survived Kentucky in Philadelphia on Christian Laettner’s last-second jumper in the Elite 8.

And a decade after that, there was Maryland – the team I wound up covering for around 20 of my 35 years at the Baltimore Sun  – winning its first (and still only) national men’s title over Indiana behind an indomitable guard named Juan Dixon..

So please forgive me if I don’t quite remember much about the last game Len Bias ever played, a desultory second-round defeat for the Terps to UNLV in Long Beach, Calif. It happened 35 years ago today.

Still, I certainly recall some things about that trip. 

The media hotel was the Queen Mary, the iconic luxury ocean liner that had seen its better days. I also remember tooling around in a convertible that ESPN broadcaster Michael Wilbon had rented during the trip, and how my esteemed Washington Post colleague was forced to put the top up because of torrential rain.

More related to the games themselves, I have a vague memory of Bias sitting in the team’s dressing room at the Long Beach Arena with a towel covering his head after a 70-64 loss to the Runnin’ Rebels. Bias had already stopped talking to the media late in what had been an up-and-down season for the Terps.

But the game itself and what Bias did on the court for more than 39 minutes before fouling out in the waning seconds had largely been forgotten, mainly because his 31-point, 12 rebound performance was far from the best I had seen from this wondrous athlete. 

That happens when you score 35 points to help Maryland upset then No. 1 North Carolina to give the Tar Heels their first defeat in the newly-open Dean E. Smith Center. That happens when you pour in 41 against then second ranked Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

I went back and watched the UNLV game on You Tube one day earlier this month and what I saw actually surprised me. Bias looked human, not the 6-8, 220-pound Superman I remember for so many of those games that season, the only one in which I covered him.

Jerry Tarknian’s “amoeba  defense”- a 1-3-1 zone with a variety of wrinkles- did its best to    frustrate Bias, limiting his touches early on and then often throwing an extra defender at him whenever he was ready to shoot.

Bias missed 12 of the first 16 shots he took and only began to heat up, after the Runnin’ Rebels erased a 41-33 lead for the Terps by following Maryland’s 14-0 run with a 13-0 run of their own. Bias carried the Terps in the final minutes, scoring 19 of Maryland’s last 21 points. Still, a breakaway reverse dunk in the second half was the only time Bias resembled Jordan.

Or even looked like himself.  

Bias guards Anthony Jones, who led UNLV with 25 points.

Just as Jordan wasn’t the best player on the court in his last college game two years earlier – coming against Indiana in the Sweet 16 – neither was Bias that day. Anthony Jones, a transfer from Georgetown, scored 25 and pulled down 10 rebounds for UNLV in victory.

While watching the game, I saw a player who tried to use his athleticism to beat UNLV and forced more than a few shots and passes. I saw a player who seemed more detached than I could recall, that effervescent smile or intimidating sneer nowhere to be found.

As was my custom covering college hoops for the Sun, I went on to the Final Four after Bias and the Terps went home. I remember a freshman named Pervis Ellison – Never Nervous Pervis – frustrating Duke in the title game in Dallas.

A little over two months later, two days after being drafted No 2 overall by the Boston Celtics, Bias was dead from what the medical examiner called cocaine intoxication. And we are, 35 years later, left with memories of many games Bias dominated.

Sadly, the last game he played wasn’t one of them. 

Embracing the Len Bias Legacy Challenge

March 10, 2021

by Dave Ungrady

An exclusive excerpt from an update of the book, Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias. The update will be published by the end of 2021.

In early March of 2014, The Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce organized a town hall event on the University of Maryland – College Park campus highlighted by a speech by Dr. Mark Emmert, the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Among those in attendance was Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, other athletic officials from Maryland and those tied to the local business and educational communities.

As a member of a chamber committee that hosted the event, I volunteered to help manage the media. I also brought along copies of the earlier version of this book, hoping to promote it on site. I was wary, though, about how Maryland athletic officials might react it to its presence.

Since the book was released in December 2011, the department had unsurprisingly greeted it with a consistent chill. Any attempt to promote it at a department-related event had been blocked. The death of Bias, after all, was  considered one of the more traumatic moments in the school’s rich athletic history.

When I saw Anderson near the check-in area, I reached out my hand and introduced myself, saying I was a former Terps athlete and author of the book on Bias. I had sent Anderson a copy of the book soon after its release but heard nothing in response, and I wondered if he had read it. I expected a standard response, with little more than a “nice to meet you.”

His response surprised me. “Ah, I read that book,” he said engagingly. 

I was further surprised when Anderson added with conviction, “We’ve got to get Len Bias in the Hall of Fame.”

“I agree with you,” I replied, and then offered assistance to help make it happen. 

Maryland’s Athletic Hall of Fame selection committee had shunned Bias since he was first eligible for selection in 1996. I had been told by some committee members that the reluctance came from a few other members who were stuck on a bylaw that stated a candidate could be rejected for bringing “embarrassment or disrepute” to the university regardless of their athletic accomplishments.        

Anderson pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to me saying, “take this.” No explanation or reason followed. I thanked him, not knowing what it was. In the midst of a brief crush to register members of the media, I was unable to engage Anderson further, and placed the object in a pocket. 

Later I discovered that it was a large coin emblazoned with the Terps mascot on one side and on the other side a large letter M surrounded by the words: “Presented by the Athletic Director. For Excellence.”

Anderson had given me a challenge coin. The coins symbolize support of an organization represented on the coin. They are also used, among others, to recognize a special achievement.

The next day I asked Anderson’s office for clarification about his intent for giving me the coin. An assistant responded in an email that Anderson said he gave me the coin “…for the work you are doing for Len Bias.”

After I completed the first edition of this book, I thought little about the chances of Bias earning induction into Maryland’s athletics hall of fame due to the book’s publishing. But as time passed, momentum moved towards an impending induction for Bias. Perhaps the book created awareness of Bias’ omission from the Hall, or perhaps it was more a matter of the passage of time, and eventual acceptance of the full legacy of Bias.

Either way, I embraced Anderson’s challenge to properly recognize the mixed legacy of Bias. And with Anderson’s support, momentum was clearly moving toward a Terps Hall of Fame induction. In July, 2014, Maryland’s athletic department announced that Bias the following October would in fact receive his long-awaited induction.

A Glimpse of a Great Rivalry: Michael Jordan Faces Len Bias at Cole Field House in 1984

March 5, 2021

After his freshman year, Bias realized he needed to work on his main weakness – dribbling the basketball – if he wanted to be a dominant force in the NBA, so he asked incoming freshman guard Keith Gatlin for help. Gatlin and Bias worked together all that summer, playing one-on-one in Cole Field House, with Bias wearing special dribble glasses that didn’t allow him to look down at the ball. At times, they started their sessions near midnight after getting back from a movie. 

With improved ball-handling skills and a renewed sense of purpose, Bias would help Maryland to one of its most rewarding seasons. Maryland began the season ranked No. 8 in the country. By the time the Terrapins met top-ranked North Carolina on January 12, they were 10-1 and had moved up to No. 5. Thanks in large part to Bias, who scored a career-high 24 points while helping to hold Michael Jordan to 21, Maryland trailed by just one point with about two minutes remaining before Jordan and fellow All-America Sam Perkins led Carolina to a 12-point victory. It was one of Bias’s best games of the season. Further, it showcased a potential and dynamic rivalry between Jordan and Bias for years to come, but it was one that never materialized.

A Historic Game and a New Superstar: Bias named MVP of ’84 ACC Tournament

March 3, 2021

By Don Markus

Maryland’s 74-62 victory over Duke in the 1984 ACC tournament championship game at the Greensboro Coliseum was historic on many levels, highlighted at the time for being the first title for the Terps since 1958 and the first for their head coach, Lefty Driesell, in six appearances in the finals since coming to College Park in 1969.

Yet in the context of what transpired that March afternoon in North Carolina, and what happened afterwards, it also became known as the coronation of the ACC’s next star. With North Carolina’s Michael Jordan leaving Chapel Hill that spring for the NBA and the transcendent career that awaited him in Chicago, the crown had been passed to Maryland sophomore forward Len Bias.

Bias had certainly displayed flashes before of what was to happen in Greensboro. 

As a freshman, and not yet in Maryland’s starting lineup, Bias had helped the Terps overwhelm the Tar Heels, the reigning national champions and ranked No. 3 in the country, even famously posterizing North Carolina center Brad Daugherty on one dunk. In his first NCAA tournament game, his 17-foot jump shot with a second remaining helped unranked Maryland to beat No. 15 Tennessee-Chattanooga.

As a sophomore and finally entrenched in a starting lineup that featured senior forward Ben Coleman and junior guard Adrian Branch, Bias had outscored Jordan, 24-21, in their matchup at Cole Field House. But the Tar Heels pulled away and Jordan’s breakaway reverse dunk right before the final buzzer became the game’s enduring memory. It infuriated Jordan’s own coach, the legendary Dean Smith, and inspired Bias. 

While another Bias-Jordan matchup in the ACC tournament was ruined when Duke upset the then top-ranked Tar Heels, 77-75, in the 1984 tournament semifinals, Bias had his own motivation for the championship game. Coleman was the only Maryland player named all-conference for the second-place Terps that season, and Bias had shared honors as the team’s leading scorer with 15.3 points a game.

After the 1984 regular season ended, Bias had been snubbed by the largely North Carolina-based media who chose seven players from within the state among the 10 who were named.

“I didn’t get named to any of the all-ACC teams, first or second-team,” said Bias. “I wanted people to know I could play and that I could do it in big games.” He further told his friend Brian Waller, a teammate at Northwestern High School who later played at Providence, that he would win the Most Valuable Player award at the ACC tournament and that Maryland would win.

Those not that familiar with a player whose jump shot was as feathery as his dunks were ferocious had to take notice. After scoring 15 points in each of the first two tournament games, Bias overcame a shaky first half in which he committed six turnovers and dominated the Blue Devils. Bias finished with a career-high 26 points and was named the tournament’s MVP.

While he had many other memorable performances during his junior and senior seasons, both of which ended with Bias being named the ACC’s player of the year, it was what he did at the 1984 ACC tournament that might have been his greatest achievement as a Terp when the crown was passed and the coronation began.