Posts Tagged ‘University of Maryland’

Embracing the Len Bias Legacy Challenge

March 10, 2014

A University of Maryland Challenge Coin

I anticipated that some dynamic moments might occur when NCAA president Dr. Mark Emmert spoke last week about the state of college athletics at the University of Maryland’s Riggs Alumni Center in College Park. The Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce organized a breakfast and town-hall type gathering, highlighted by Dr. Emmert’s speech. Among those in attendance was Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, who joined other athletic officials and those tied to the local business and educational communities. Anderson provided some early sparks.

As a member of a chamber committee that hosted the event, I volunteered to help manage the media. I also brought along copies of my latest book, Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias, 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 has unsurprisingly greeted the book with a consistent chill. They’ve blocked any attempt to promote it at a department-related event. The death of Bias, after all, is not considered one of the more fond 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 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.”

Surprise number one. “Ah, I read that book,” he said engagingly. When an author hears those words, the next thing they hope to hear is something similar to, ‘greatest book I ever read’, or “I’d like to buy one for every Maryland student athlete, their parents, and their siblings.” To my disappointment, neither happened. To my pleasant surprise, however, Anderson said something with conviction that stunned me. “We’ve got to get Len Bias in the Hall of Fame.”

Maryland’s Athletic Hall of Fame committee has so far shunned Bias. I’ve been told Maryland’s reluctance is due to a few members on the committee who refuse to forget the trauma Bias’ death caused the university. I have written repeatedly about my support of his Hall of Fame bid.

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

challenge_coin_backI soon noticed that one side of the coin–about two inches in diameter and heavy enough to function as a paperweight–featured Testudo, the Terps mascot, posed strongly and proudly and capped by the words “Go Terps”. On the other side of the coin, the following words circled a large letter M: “Presented by the Athletic Director. For Excellence.”

Later, I approached Anderson and asked him about the coin’s significance. I expected an inspirational, serious response. Rather, he tossed me a humorous aside. “It’s a challenge coin,” he said. “If I see you somewhere and you don’t have it with you, that means you have to buy all the drinks.” A weak smile tweaked his lips, and I chuckled, still unsure of the coin’s meaning.

“We did this at Army,” added Anderson, who was athletic director at the U.S. Military Academy before taking the Maryland job in 2010.

Challenge coins symbolize support of an organization represented on the coin. They also promote unity, boost morale and command respect within that group. They are also used to recognize a special achievement. Showing it to someone can also initiate a challenge. Military groups started using the coins around the time of World War II.

I was never able to ask Anderson that day why he gave me the coin. This allowed me to theorize about his motive. Perhaps he wanted to develop a bond with a former Terps athlete and promote a sense of unity. Or perhaps it represents how he felt about the book. Maybe it reflected our shared interest in helping Bias earn his just due at a Maryland Athletics Hall of Fame member.

The next day I reached out to Anderson’s office, asking for clarification on his intent for giving me the coin. An assistant told me Anderson rarely distributes the coin. He’s handed them to athletes on senior night and to other athletes who have shown excellence as well as to military veterans at halftime of football games. In an email from the assistant, Anderson said he gave me the coin “…for the work you are doing for Len Bias.”

I own few remaining symbols of my days as a Terps athlete. I lost my varsity letter jacket decades ago. Medals won at track meets are stored unceremoniously in a box. A rarely used, but highly cherished, varsity letter sweater hangs in a closet. A couple of track and field pictures are displayed on a wall in my office.

Receiving the challenge coin revived a faded sense of pride in being a University of Maryland athlete. Receiving it from the school’s current athletic director only enhances the feeling. And If Anderson is challenging me to properly recognize the mixed legacy of Bias, consider it a challenge eagerly embraced.

Release: Born Ready Project Makes Stop Where Len Bias Learned Basketball

January 29, 2014


Xtreme Teens Speech Set for Columbia Park Recreation Center

Teens in Prince George’s County will soon have a chance to learn about the rich legacy of Len Bias where he learned how to play basketball.  A Born Ready Project speech for the Xtreme Teens program in Prince George’s County, MD, will take place at the Columbia Park Recreation Center on February 7. It’s at that center where Bias, the former University of Maryland basketball star, developed his game while a teenager.

Dave Ungrady, author of the book, Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias  and developer of the Born Ready Project, will speak about decision making to members of the Xtreme Teens Program. The speech begins at 8 p.m.

Bias grew up in Columbia Park a few blocks from the recreation center and started playing basketball there while in middle school. Bias famously was not selected for his middle school team twice, and he used those disappointments as motivation to become a dominant player.

“When he was young, kids used to laugh at him when he played basketball,” says Lee Madkins, the director of the Columbia Park Recreation Center during Bias’s youth. “They never picked him on a team. Then he ended up with everyone wanting him on their team.”

During the speech, the teens will learn leadership tools that help them increase their confidence in decision making. These lessons are drawn from the legacy of Bias, whose choices resulted in superb athletic performances on the court but tragic consequences off the court, when he died of a cocaine overdose in 1986.

The speech is one of six scheduled for Xtreme Teens through March at MNCPPC facilities. They began in early January. Xtreme Teens, managed by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, provides programs, classes, facilities and other fun things to do for teens ages 13-17 and pre-teens 10-12 in Prince Georges County.

The Born Ready Project helps teenagers and adults achieve their greatness, by teaching them life skills and leadership skills to make good decisions and act resilient. Decision making and resilience are important to achieving success.

For more information about the Born Ready Project, contact Dave Ungrady, or 703-282-5259. For more information about Xtreme Teens, contact Stephen Makle, or 301-446-3408.

Michael Leonard Bias

November 18, 2013

Blood Legacy?

Michael Leonard Bias was born in the summer of 1986, some two weeks after Len Bias died. A DNA test has never been done, and the Bias family has not responded to requests for interviews. But Derrick Curry, a friend of the Bias family and a teammate of Jay Bias at Northwestern High School, says someone close to the family told him about five years ago that they know Len has a son.

Michael Leonard Bias potentially represents the most intimate element of the mixed legacy of Len Bias, a connection that extends beyond a similar bloodline and shared genes. The life of Michael Bias, like that of Len Bias, has been greatly affected by drugs, which have contributed to Michael Bias accumulating a lengthy criminal record and living a misdirected life. He spoke calmly as he sat in a chair on the secured side of the visitors area at the Anne Arundel County Detention Center during a conversation in July 2011. Through a window, his face looked eager as he talked about Len Bias as his father. Michael made it clear that the most important thing he wants from the Bias family is recognition.

He has spent much of his adulthood so far incarcerated for crimes that range from driving without a license in 2004 to an incident in February 2008 when he was charged with armed robbery and reckless endangerment. He was sentenced to probation on the condition that he enter therapy. Michael says that he wants to try to enter a therapy program for the second time. “Everything has been a struggle, financially, emotionally,” he says. “It’s been a tough break for me all my life. It’s been a jinx from when I was born because he died.”

Bias_cover_pngExcerpted from the book, Born Ready: the Mixed Legacy of Len Bias

Learn about the Born Ready Project that teaches life skills, using Len’s legacy as a teaching tool.

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Johnnie Walker

November 17, 2013

A Mentor Mourns, and Wonders

After Bias died, his mentor Johnnie Walker, who taught Bias how to play at a young age, could not bring himself to return to The Rec, where he was still volunteering, and work with the players. “It kept me away from a lot of things,” he says. “I didn’t go to The Rec for a long time after that.”

The death of Bias affected how Walker’s coworkers perceived him as a police officer. Many of his fellow officers knew Bias, having seen him play basketball with Walker at the police-academy courts, and wondered how Walker could be unaware that Bias used drugs since Bias was spending a lot of time with Brian Tribble, whose activities were already suspicious. “It seemed like maybe people looked at me as if I should have known more than what I knew,” says Walker. “People who knew me said ‘How didn’t you know, because you usually don’t miss anything?’ People were like ‘How do you know he wasn’t using drugs? He was with a drug dealer. You didn’t know [Tribble] was a drug dealer? You didn’t know he was using drugs?’ It created a problem for me. People perceived me different after that for a very long time.”

Prosecutors in Prince George’s County investigating the death of Bias wanted to know why Walker had removed items from Bias’s dorm room the day Bias died. Walker testified before a grand jury, but no charges were brought against him. He says he took Bias’s personal belongings from the room only after receiving permission from police to do so and because the Bias family had asked him to remove the items. He placed the items in the van of Bias’s high school coach, Bob Wagner. “Once the police said everything could be taken out, I cleaned the whole room out,” he says.

Most often Walker has been left to wonder why Bias would fall prey to the temptations of drug abuse. “I think the drug thing with Leonard to this day was his perception that no matter what he did, he was just better and stronger, and it wouldn’t have that effect on him,” Walker says. Walker became the girls’ varsity head coach at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. in 1996. In 2001, he left the D.C. police force and took a job as a registrar for the city’s public schools. He moved to Dunbar High School in D.C. as its attendance counselor in 2006, the same year he became the head coach for the boys’ basketball team at the school. In the summer of 2010, Walker was named the athletic director at Dunbar. He still wonders what more he could have done to prevent his friend’s death. “It may not be true, but I felt like even when I was around his mom and dad, that they blamed me, that I should have protected him better,” he says, his voice quiet and his tear-filled eyes staring at a television showing sports. “I felt for a long time like it was my fault. Still feel that way.”


Excerpted from the book, Born Ready: the Mixed Legacy of Len Bias

Learn about the Born Ready Project that teaches life skills, using Len’s legacy as a teaching tool.

BornReadyLogo_Finalv2b (1)

Brian Waller

November 16, 2013

A Best Friend Sadly Remembers

Brian Waller grew up with Len Bias in Columbia Park and to two were teammates on the Northwestern High School basketball team. Waller, a year older than Bias, had talked with Bias on Sunday and again on Monday, the day before the draft. Bias hadn’t said he would stop by that night, but Waller and Walker still held out hope that he would surprise them. They were so excited about Bias being selected by the Celtics that they cut their game short and talked most of the night about his good fortune. “We were just hanging out talking and waiting for him to walk through the door,” says Waller. “Every time the door opened, we looked to see who was gonna walk through, thinking and hoping it was him.” Bias’s buoyant presence never materialized. Waller was left to wonder: Could he have saved his best friend’s life if only Bias had walked through those doors at The Rec that night? “I can remember, long after he passed away, I would come home from work, I would sit in the basement in the dark, for a couple of months,” he says. “No TV, no radio. If I was there, he’d still be here.” Waller says Bias never used cocaine around him.

Waller’s eyes widened and filled with tears when he talked about Bias. “It was probably more sadness, not really guilt,” he says, staring into space. “Man, if I was there, I could have done something. I don’t think he would have been comfortable …” Waller pauses and takes a deep breath, “doing any kind of drugs around me. I would have been, ‘What are you doing?’ I would have been totally against it. He probably wouldn’t have brought that foolishness around me.”

Bias_cover_pngExcerpted from the book, Born Ready: the Mixed Legacy of Len Bias

Learn about the Born Ready Project that teaches life skills, using Len’s legacy as a teaching tool.

BornReadyLogo_Finalv2b (1)

Walt Williams

November 15, 2013

A Dynasty Crumbles

Bias was the reason Walt Williams, a Washington, D.C., native who grew up watching Bias play, enrolled at Maryland two years after the star died. Williams, who helped keep Maryland basketball viable during the down years following Bias’s death, confirmed Driesell’s theory. “I was a very big Len Bias fan,” says the man who would break Bias’s Maryland single-season scoring record and is now a broadcaster on Maryland’s basketball games. “It was a big thing for me to go to Maryland and follow in his footsteps. That was a part of me staying at Maryland.  Maryland had gone through so many things with [the death of] Bias. People forget all the good he did. He made me feel like I can do well in basketball because I saw him do it.”

Bias_cover_pngExcerpted from the book, Born Ready: the Mixed Legacy of Len Bias

Learn about the Born Ready Project that teaches life skills, using Len’s legacy as a teaching tool.

BornReadyLogo_Finalv2b (1)

Keith Booth

November 14, 2013

A Reminder to Stay Focused

In April 2011, Booth talked excitedly about the day he met Bias, his hero. It happened during a promotional appearance by Bias and teammate Keith Gatlin at a sandwich shop in East Baltimore. Booth, an impressionable 10-year-old, arrived three hours early to secure a spot at the front of the line for the 11 a.m. event. When he met Bias, he told him that he would play hard and one day be a Terrapin just like his idol, and, yup, that he would at least tie Bias’s scoring record. Booth knew the owner of the sub shop and was given close access to Bias and Gatlin once the signing ended. He says the moment is recorded in a picture of Booth with Bias and Gatlin and several others, which hung on a wall in the shop for almost a decade.

When his older sister woke him on the morning of June 19, 1986, after hearing on the news that Bias had died, Booth grew hysterical. He cried uncontrollably as he called his mother at work to tell her the tragic news. Booth was 11 years old. He saw the kinds of people where he grew up in his East Baltimore neighborhood who used drugs. They weren’t like Bias. Before Bias died, the thought never crossed the boy’s mind that elite athletes used drugs. He used Bias’s death as a reminder to stay focused on basketball and his grades, and to continue a lifestyle that avoided drug use. “Once I understood what it was and how it happened that he died, it made me never want to touch a drug ever or abuse my body,” he says. “It affected my life to help me become the person and man I am today.”

Bias_cover_pngExcerpted from the book, Born Ready: the Mixed Legacy of Len Bias

Learn about the Born Ready Project that teaches life skills, using Len’s legacy as a teaching tool.

BornReadyLogo_Finalv2b (1)

The Great Traffic Light

November 13, 2013

“Leonard Saved My Life”

Lefty Driesell, Len Bias’ coach at Maryland, finds solace in Len’s legacy when he tells the following story. During the early summer of 2010, a man approached Driesell as they walked out of church near Driesell’s home in Virginia Beach. “Someone said, ‘Aren’t you Lefty Driesell? I was always a big Maryland fan, and Leonard was one of my favorite players,’ ” says Driesell.

The man explained that shortly before Bias’s death, he had reached a personal low, losing his job and his family due to a cocaine addiction. When friends told the man that Bias had died, he immediately stopped abusing cocaine. Says Driesell: “He said Leonard saved his life.”

Who knows how many lives have been saved, and how many more will be for decades to come? Brian Straus had no connection to Bias other than growing up in the Washington area and watching him play on TV and was not a rabid fan of either the Terrapins or the Celtics. He was raised in white upper-middle-class suburbia. But when I told Straus, a longtime friend and an accomplished soccer journalist, that I was writing a book about the legacy of Bias, his immediate reaction surprised me.

“He was the reason I never used cocaine,” Straus says. “He was exactly the reason when I was at parties in college at [the University of Pennsylvania] and saw people do cocaine and I didn’t try it. He was the great traffic light, the devil on your shoulder saying don’t do it. It wasn’t an essay question. It was just like a punch in the gut that told you don’t touch this ever.”

Bias_cover_pngExcerpted from the book, Born Ready: the Mixed Legacy of Len Bias

Learn about the Born Ready Project that teaches life skills, using Len’s legacy as a teaching tool.

BornReadyLogo_Finalv2b (1)Find out about the Born Ready Hoops Festival  Nov. 22-24, that will honor Len’s legacy as a basketball player.

50 for 50 – Len Bias’ Golden Moments #44…High School Coach Bob Wagner

November 12, 2013

Through Nov. 18, Len Bias’ 50th birthday, the Born Ready Blog will provide each day a new item that helped define Len’s legacy, 50 in total.

Part of him died when Len died.

For a year and a half after Len Bias died, Bob Wagner fought a deep depression. He stopped coaching and teaching and returned to school, taking computer-technician classes. In the evenings, he worked as a night manager at College Park Towers, an apartment complex that catered to students who attended his alma mater, the University of Maryland. “That’s where I disappeared,” says Wagner, Bias’s head coach at Northwestern High School. When not at work or in school, Wagner retreated to his house in Hyattsville as much as possible. “I wanted to get away from [high-school] kids,” he says. “I didn’t want anything to do with basketball. I didn’t answer the phone. I didn’t have much of a life at all. I was sleeping, studying and working. … There wasn’t anything I could do.”

Wagner says he still thinks about Bias every day. Sometimes, he cries. After Bias died, he endured typical stages that accompany a loss. “Depression. I questioned myself, what did I not see, what really transpired,” he says. “Not knowing any of that side of him partying. In those days, I was the big brother to all the kids. We had a unifying spirit around basketball. It gave us a positive identity within the community. That’s what hurt a lot of people with the tragedy. Here was a P.G. County public-school kid who did just as much if not more than a kid that might have gone to DeMatha or St. John’s or some other top D.C.-area program. He wasn’t given anything along the way. He had to work for what he got. It hurt the whole community. He was part of us. Most of us were part of him. So when he died, part of us died with him. The pain of his loss and the death of hope. He represented hope for a lot of kids.”

Bias_cover_pngExcerpted from the book, Born Ready: the Mixed Legacy of Len Bias

Learn about the Born Ready Project that teaches life skills, using Len’s legacy as a teaching tool.

BornReadyLogo_Finalv2b (1)Find out about the Born Ready Hoops Festival  Nov. 22-24, that will honor Len’s legacy as a basketball player.

Bob Wade

November 11, 2013

The Wade Experiment Fades

Bob Wade’s legacy at Maryland as its basketball coach for three years, following the death of Bias, is mixed. His NCAA violations will be remembered for setting back the basketball program for years. Wade called the group of men’s basketball coaches in the conference an “old boy’s network” in a Charlotte Observer report and added that his time in the ACC was difficult. But as the first black head coach of a men’s basketball team in the conference he can be considered a cultural pioneer, despite appearing uncomfortable in that role.

Even Robert Slaughter, who hired Wade, ultimately questioned the wisdom of the move. “In retrospect, it might have been an impossible situation for Bob,” he told the Washington Post in January 1990. “Bob followed a coaching legend. He was black. He was appointed by a black chancellor. He’s from a high school. He’s hired one day before practice begins. And the players had gone through hell after Leonard’s death. Throwing Bob in the middle of that was like throwing a piece of raw meat to a pack of lions. You’re going to get chewed up if you don’t do things perfectly. I don’t think Bob got the support he needed from many people. There were people within the athletic department as well as outside the department who did not want him to succeed.”

Bob Wade’s legacy as a beloved high-school basketball coach, however, continues to grow. In 2008 some of Wade’s former players at Dunbar honored the coach at a roast in Greenbelt, Maryland, a town about five miles from College Park. Those attending included former NBA player Muggsy Bogues and former Maryland star Graham. As of the fall of 2011 Wade worked as the athletic director with Baltimore City Public Schools. “He loved all of us,” Graham said in a Baltimore Sun report promoting the event. “He cared about us. He made a difference in the lives of a lot of young men in more ways than just coaching basketball.”

Bias_cover_pngExcerpted from the book, Born Ready: the Mixed Legacy of Len Bias

Learn about the Born Ready Project that teaches life skills, using Len’s legacy as a teaching tool.

BornReadyLogo_Finalv2b (1)