By Matt Norlander
I never saw Len Bias play. Well, maybe I did, but if that happened, it was inadvertent and I have no memory of it.
Today's the 25th anniversary of the Maryland star's death, and in the interest of intellectual honesty, I can't speak to Bias' talent and potential and the landscape of the game, because I was 5 when he died. I was cheated out of watching No. 34 of the Terrapins electrify the college game on a level plenty said had never been reached prior. In an age when college basketball wasn't prevalent on TV (at least, nowhere near to the point it is today), Bias became a quickly ascending star (this is what the books and already-grayed commentators tell me), a symbol for the elite college basketball player of the future.
He was taken from his family, the game, the planet at a time when his potential likely could moved him toward matching Michael Jordan's stardom, almost stride for stride. They say he was that good. Could've altered NBA history, what with being drafted by the Celtics, who were coming off one of the most impressive single-season performances in NBA history when they drafted Bias in 1986 with the No. 2 pick.
I bring up Jordan not only because some believe Bias was truly the closest thing to 23, but because that's who and what I associate Bias with. Jordan and my father, really. I loved Jordan, and my dad was the one who first told me about Bias, compared the two players. From there on out, my visions of Bias were linked to the greatest of all-time.
The memories become clearer around 1990, when I couldn't explain why, but despite the fact that the Bears were still a viable NFL franchise, I began to favor the Bulls more. (These days, that devotion has heavily switched back to the navy and orange. You don't want to see me on Sundays in the fall. It's not prideful, it's embarrassing fanboi-ism.) My parents grew up in Chicago. They're responsible for the brainwashing, as they should be. But I remember really becoming like so many other 7-, 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds around the world. I was captivated by Jordan. His game, how he was marketed, it all influenced me tremendously.
A few weeks after I learned how Hank Gathers died, I remember my dad telling me about Bias. Funny how some of the smaller things stay in an easily accessible part of our brain, even two decades later. My dad told me how this player out of Maryland played for "a guy named Lefty" and was nearly as good as M.J. This excited me. I was getting into NBA basketball, beginning to collect cards and generally soaking up any and all hoop-related activity or propaganda I could shoot my eyes at.
So, upon hearing about Bias, I was eager to see more ... then I learned the truth. He was gone already. I didn't know how he died. I can't remember when I found out about his drug use, but it wasn't that day or any day soon thereafter. My dad did good shielding me from the really ugly stuff early on. Between the Gathers and Bias deaths, and discovering these things relatively close to each other, I was jolted into a reality pretty quickly. Stars were susceptible. That's a scary thing for a kid with too many heroes in the sporting world and innocent aspirations to one day get there.
About five years later, growing up in suburban Vermont, I entered into high school in the mid-'90s and developed a circle of friends who cared as much about basketball as I did. It was then that I realized how strong Bias' legacy was, and how for all of us, he was the basketball star we never had. For babies of the '80s, Bias was the mythical figure, the player our generation missed out on. The greatest hoops player we never saw. The phenom most of us heard about by way of stories from our dads.