Looking Back, Without Bias

What with the way things turned out, it’s understandable that Bob Wagner wouldn’t much relish being grilled about what it was like coaching Len Bias in high school.

But since this month marks 10 years since Bias’ sudden and incredibly consequential death, Wagner will probably face that line of questioning several times over the next few weeks. In case you’ve forgotten, on June 19, 1986, Bias collapsed and died in his University of Maryland dorm room, which happens to be located mere blocks from the Northwestern High School grounds where Wagner had him. It was eventually revealed that Bias suffered heart failure after ingesting silly amounts of cocaine his drug buddies had brought to the dorm to celebrate his having been drafted in the first round by the Boston Celtics.

If pressed, Wagner, who has coached several area prep teams in the past 26 years, will go beyond the headlines and talk about the local boy who would have made good from Northwestern High’s class of ’82.

“Looking back to those days is very painful for me,” says Wagner of his tenure at the Hyattsville school. “But when I think of Len, I don’t think of how great he was in games. It’s about watching him practice, because it was in practice that you could see how hard he worked to get to the level he did, and how much he loved the game. That enthusiasm—that incredible spirit—is what set him apart. Everybody around him, not just me, could see that Len was special. It sounds silly, but you could see it in his eyes. That’s what I choose to remember.”

The powers that be at Maryland have chosen to remember a tragically flawed Bias, an approach that has been a steady source of dismay, and even rage, for Wagner. The wondrous innocent blessed with the body of a greyhound and a jump shot from heaven isn’t the Len Bias the school keeps throwing out for public consumption. The way Wagner sees things, Maryland, strictly in the interest of covering its ass, would much rather pump up the shortcomings of Bias, a kid who brought so much shame to the campus simply by dying before leaving school.

“The university still loves dropping Len Bias’ name, but only so it can blame him for everything that ever went wrong at the school,” rails Wagner, himself a Maryland alum. “And it’s been that way for a while. Go watch an ACC basketball game on TV, and look at the old Maryland highlights they show. You never see any of Len Bias. You can’t tell me that’s an accident. They’ve tried to erase the tape of that Len Bias. It’s like the Len Bias who did so many great things for the school didn’t even exist.” (Indeed, it was the darker side of Bias that was featured at College Park last week during a press conference called by school administrators to prate about how the Terps’ athletic programs have cleaned up in the last decade.)

The image of a street-smart, reckless Bias that emerged in the days following his death had little to do with the persona he’d cultivated among the locals since he starred at Northwestern. It was hard to mesh the genteel youngster from a good suburban home with the guy fellow partiers alleged had at one point in the last hours of his life plunged his face into a preposterously large pile of the contraband on a dorm table, writhed in it, and exclaimed, “I’m a horse!” as white powder fell from his nostrils.

“I always assumed cocaine was just a rich man’s drug,” sighs Wagner. “I don’t think I’m the only one who thought that way, before this happened.”

Because the greatest athlete the University of Maryland ever produced was also the first major sports figure to die of a cocaine overdose, the Bias tale became national news. Photos of his extraordinarily long corpse being dragged toward a hearse tarted up front pages everywhere. Network newscasts proclaimed the death proof that college athletes were out of control, nowhere more so than in College Park. Shock jocks in all major markets told the same joke about how there’s no room in the NBA for a player whose height is “six feet under.”

The school’s basketball program still hasn’t recovered from the beating it took while in the media glare. Lefty Driesell, who pledged to make Maryland the “UCLA of the East” when he took over the Terps’ coaching duties, lost the job he coveted without ever attaining that goal and now toils in relative obscurity at James Madison University. In damage-control mode, the NCAA quickly instituted a package of rules designed to repair the image of its “student athletes”: Practice times were cut, admissions standards were toughened, and college jocks had to start exhibiting “progress toward a degree” to retain eligibility. All because of Bias’ demise. (Since any hoopster able to dribble with his left hand opts for the NBA over college nowadays, the myth of the academically inclined basketball star is already hopelessly anachronistic.)

The Celtics never got over the loss of their top pick, either. Bias was drafted just weeks after Boston won yet another NBA championship. To fans and management, Bias was the Man Who Would Be Jordan, somebody to keep Bird and McHale and Parrish young, a player who would keep the team in the upper echelon of the league, right where it seemingly always had been. There haven’t been any titles since 1986. In the years after his death, however, the Celtics have known tragedies—the most notable being Reggie Lewis’ fatal bout with an allegedly drug-related heart disease. Buffoonish towel-waver M.L. Carr now runs the show in Beantown, and with the team no longer playing on the Boston Garden parquet, there is depressingly little to link these Celtics with the glorious team that ruled the roost in 1986.

Wagner left Northwestern after Bias died but stayed in coaching. (A stint at St. John’s in the District ended after the 1995-96 season.) He says he’s worked with “a lot of great kids” and a few very talented athletes in recent years, though he doesn’t really keep close tabs on former players the way he used to. Many have expressed an interest in staying in touch with their ex-coach, but he says he’s not much into returning their phone calls anymore.

When asked why he doesn’t stay connected to kids he worked with in the past, Wagner pauses for several seconds.

“I don’t really know,” he finally offers up. “I guess you’ve got to move on.”—Dave McKenna

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