An Unfitting End for Bias

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. 

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