VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. ——In 2009, former Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell received a puzzling phone call.
C.J. Leslie — a high school player recruited by Kentucky, Connecticut and other powerhouse programs — introduced himself and said he wanted to learn all he could about Len Bias, the Driesell-coached basketball prodigy
Driesell paused for a moment. "I thought, 'Wait, this kid wasn't even born when Leonard passed away.' But Leonard was his favorite player. He had copied his game after Leonard's."
Sunday marks 25 years since Bias was pronounced dead of a cocaine overdose after his body began to shake uncontrollably in his College Park dorm room. His almost unfathomable death lingers as a cocaine deterrent. He also maintains the power to rivet players and fans despite being from a wholly different basketball generation. He would have turned 48 this year.
People are drawn to YouTube images of a youthful talent so imposing that he seemed almost invincible. Leslie, who ended up at North Carolina State, "was obsessed with the guy — he had pictures of him and old footage," said The Citadel coach Chuck Driesell, a former Maryland assistant and Lefty's son. "Somebody from that era had told him to check Lenny out."
The Bias highlight videos, seared into consciousness like reruns of classic television shows, remind those who knew him of what a commanding presence Bias was on the court. Which is why his death — particularly as a victim of his own out-of-control behavior — was so startling.
"Len's death bothered me a great deal," said Mike Sumner, a North Carolina marketing executive who met the player in April 1986 while organizing an Atlantic Coast Conference "barnstorming" tour featuring Bias and other stars. Sumner said Bias stayed at his North Carolina home and left him his Maryland practice jersey as a gift when he returned to College Park.
A few months ago, Sumner pulled the old jersey from a frame in his den and brought it to a gym in Galax, Va., site of another barnstorming exhibition game. He presented it to Duke star Nolan Smith — the ACC Player of the Year — who slipped the No. 34 jersey on over a T-shirt for the charity game.
While the rest of his team wore dark blue, Smith — who, like Bias, is from Prince George's County — wore the bright-red Maryland top. "Nolan was truly overwhelmed but a bit anxious," Sumner said.
Bias's influence goes beyond the court. His mother, Lonise Bias, a motivational speaker, has said she is pleased her son was able to do "more in death than he did in life" because his unwitting example helped educate people about the dangers of drugs.
Earlier this year, a man of about 50 stopped Driesell at his church and asked if he could discuss Bias. "He said that Leonard was his favorite player and that he'd been strung up on drugs — cocaine, you name it. But he said when he heard Leonard had died, he hadn't touched drugs since," Driesell said.
Driesell was interviewed in his Virginia Beach condo that offers a view of barges floating down the Chesapeake Bay. The walls of his study are filled with photos and framed clippings, many from the Bias era. He spoke reverentially of Bias ("one of the nicest young men I ever coached") but also seemed frustrated that he was blamed for many of the Maryland basketball program's issues — for example, problems with academics — after the player's death.
The coach, who walks haltingly but is still sharp at 79, become acquainted with Bias at Driesell's basketball camp. He recalls showing up at Northwestern High in Hyattsville to recruit Bias — who had attracted little attention — and finding him "in front drawing the school. He was going to be majoring in interior design."
To Driesell, the 6-foot-8 Bias was an artist, a born-again Christian and a basketball player who could bench press 300 pounds and was so talented that "he would dominate my practices. I used to say, 'Get out of here, Leonard.' I've got to let these other guys learn how to play."
Driesell had been jogging around a track when a nurse called to ask if any of his players were allergic to medications. "She may not have even told me who it was in the hospital. She called back and said, 'Leonard's parents want you to come over here.' That's the way I found out," Driesell said.
Bias died two days after the Boston Celtics made him the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.
After the player's death, Driesell said he was forced out as the university examined drugs on campus and academic and admissions practices for athletes. Driesell - who took Maryland, Davidson, James Madison and Georgia State to the NCAA tournament — said he can't help but wonder if the case's aftermath is the reason he's not in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. He has a printed list of about a dozen other halls into which he's been inducted — most recently the Southern Conference Hall of Fame.
A grand jury investigated whether Driesell obstructed the investigation by trying to have Bias' room cleaned up. But Driesell was not charged, and he says: "I didn't do anything wrong with Len Bias. If somebody says it's because of Leonard, then they need to know the whole story."
A photo of Bias — in a gold uniform with arms raised — is displayed in Comcast Center's lobby with those of other top Terps athletes.
"When we give the tour of the arena, he's up there," said Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. "I do think that people associate Len Bias with Maryland basketball."
Turgeon, a former Kansas point guard, played against Bias in the Great Alaska Shootout in 1984. Kansas beat the Terps, 58-56, but Bias had 18 points. Turgeon remembers exactly where he was when he heard Bias had died — on a boat on Clinton Lake in Lawrence, Kan., with the radio on.
Chuck Driesell, who played on the team with Bias, said it's difficult to avoid posing an unanswerable question.
"I'll always wonder, how good would he have been? Would he have been doing what the Jordans or LeBrons are doing? I think he would have, but you never know."