Seven Hours Later: My Memories of Meeting Len Bias on the Night He Died
As the years go by, the pictures begin to get grainier. Yet the sting never quite wears off. In the 30 seasons prior to the night of Len Bias dying, the Boston Celtics won 16 titles. Tonight marks the 28th anniversary of his death. They've won 1 title in those 28 years.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Now imagine being a college student and being one of the final people to see him alive. How surreal is that? Ask Amy Masterman. She was working at Town Hall Liquor in College Park the night of Len's death. You know the story: that's the place Len stopped by to pick up some alcohol before heading out to celebrate with his friends.
In memory of that tragic event 28 years ago tonight, that forever helped change the fate of our beloved Celtics in NBA annals, Amy took some time to walk us through it from her perspective. Her moment in time that epitomizes the fragility of life. Because just 7 hours after walking in, brimming with confidence, Len Bias was dead.
CelticsLife: Tell us about yourself at the time. Were you from Maryland originally? What year were you in at the University of Maryland? What was your major at the time?
Amy Masterman: In June of 1986, I had just finished my junior year at Maryland. I’m originally from Easton, PA, and I chose Maryland because there were about 42,000 students and I figured more was better. The reality was that I felt totally lost in the shuffle for my first two years there. It was a big party school and there were lots of groups and cliques, but I wasn’t sure where I fit in. It would take me five years to graduate (9/83 – 6/88) because I switched my major several times – communications, journalism, Radio/TV/Film – and finally landed on Art History in my junior year.
CL: Did you follow sports at all?
AM: I lived in LaPlata dorm from fall ’83 to December ’84 (my first three semesters at school), which was right next to the stadium where they played football. I didn’t care about football at all, but every Saturday turned into a huge party because everyone went to the games, so of course I went too. Those were the years that Boomer Esiason was at the top of his game as quarterback. The games were exhilarating because the team was so good - I was attracted to the buzz that seemed to overtake the whole campus and come to a head in the stadium.
Boomer was the star quarterback at Maryland at the time
Boomer dated the girl in the dorm room next to mine so sometimes I’d see him in the morning in our hallway trying to brush his teeth in the water fountain. I’d be walking by in my pajamas carrying my little plastic bucket full of soap and shampoo and just awkwardly say, “Hi Boomer.” I cringe about it now, but he was very polite.
CL:How did you start working at Town Hall Liquor?
AM: In the middle of my sophomore year I moved from the dorms into an apartment and met some girls who became very good friends. Around April of ’86, one of those friends and I went into Town Hall to buy some beer. We started talking to the manager, Mike Cogburn, who was behind the counter. I’m not sure I was even actively looking for a job, but on a whim I filled out an application to work there. Mike hired me on the spot.
In early June, I started dating one of the bartenders and we became a couple instantly. He and several of the other bartenders had completed their first couple years of college at U. MD in Germany because their parents were stationed at military bases over there. All of them were smart and funny, and my girlfriends and I would hang out with them and Mike – we kind of became a family. We worked the late shift – 6:00 pm to 2:00 am – so often we’d all go out and party afterward and stay up till about 5 am. Not every night, but now and then. The night Len died was one of those nights.
CL: Did you know who Len Bias was and ever see him around on campus?
AM: Around the time I moved into that first apartment, the basketball team started getting lots of attention. My roommate was into sports so she and I starting going to the games. The indoor stadium was packed for every game and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anything so loud. Again, it was more the Zeitgeist that attracted me – it was like going to a rock concert. The team – including Len Bias – had become campus superstars.
Watching them play was like seeing a modern dance performance because they were so highly skilled yet their interaction appeared spontaneous and fluid. Sweeping across the court, flying in the air, it was quite beautiful. With every point they scored the crowd would erupt. When Len made one of his air-defying shots, we all roared. It was almost scary at times because the energy was just so high and it felt a little out of control. My ears would ring for hours after every game because of the crowd noise.
CL: Town Hall Liquor, tell us more about the place itself. They sold alcohol but was there also a separate bar there?
AM: There was a bar area – what I’d call a dive bar – very dark with foul smells. There were “regulars,” not students but older people, who’d come in after work and stay till we closed. Sometimes students would come in to play pool or video games and drink cheap pitchers before going to a party. It turns my stomach to think about it now, but there was actually a food area where either the bartenders or I would fill orders for nachos (stale chips, fake liquid cheese and sliced jalapenos), or worse, hot dogs (brown and crusty).
The bar was connected via a large doorway opening to the liquor store, which is where I worked. I think it may have had something to do with the liquor laws and being open on Sunday – if you served food (or “food”), you could sell package goods on Sunday, but I’m not sure about that.
The package store was crammed with shelves full of liquor bottles and stacks of warm cases of beer. One whole wall was lined with cooler doors that opened into slots of six packs. You could walk into the cooler for cold cases, and I’m sure there was wine in there too. A couple guys worked the floor, carrying cases out for people or wheeling kegs on hand-trucks. It was a party school and we sold tons of alcohol.
I worked behind the counter – people would pick out what they wanted and I’d ring it up, or they’d place orders for kegs. We kept the pints and half pints of liquor behind the counter along with single cans of beer, packages of nuts, cigarettes, soda and the popcorn maker. There was a pistol under the counter, which scared the shit out of me just knowing it was there.
Town Hall Liquor
CL: Len apparently came into the store in the early morning hours of June 19th. There’s a rumor that he actually visited the store two separate times, the first to buy some malt liquor and then, returned 15 minutes later when he was assisted by store manager Mike Cogburn in purchasing some cognac. Is that indeed how it happened? Why did he leave and come back?
AM: I don’t remember him being there twice. I remember him walking in and asking for a pint of Hennessy. It was such a big deal that he was there in the first place, I can’t believe he could’ve been in earlier and I didn’t know. The place wasn’t that big and surely someone would have told me if I’d been on a break or something.
CL: Take us through that night. When you saw him, what kind of condition was he in? Was he by himself or with anyone else? Did you speak with him at all?
AM: He walked in wearing a dark suit and came right up to the counter. He was immaculately groomed and I could smell his nice cologne. I was behind the counter with Marie, the other cashier, and Mike Cogburn was milling around. Marie and I kind of giggled and said congratulations to Len. He was very polite and gracious – smiling and friendly. He didn’t seem inebriated at all.
Mike started talking to him – I don’t remember the conversation exactly, but I remember Mike asking for his autograph. We all knew he’d gotten signed by the Celtics earlier that day. The whole campus knew. It was all anyone was talking about, and here he was standing right in front of me.
I watched Len sign his name on a blank sheet from one of the pads where we’d write down the keg orders, a sales slip. He paused for a minute after writing and then he smiled and said he knew his new number: 30. He wrote it below his name.
That's the autograph Len signed
I have to say, he was very calm, but there was clearly a humble sense of pride – it was a huge deal and he knew it. In that moment, of watching him write that signature and number – I really felt like I was witnessing an important part of history.
He came in alone and left alone.
CL: What time did you stop working that night? And when did you first hear the news about Len’s passing?
AM: We closed up at 2:00 am like usual. I went with my boyfriend, our bartender friends and some of their girlfriends back to one guy’s apartment. We sat around watching TV and drinking beer. The story of Len’s appearance at the store was rehashed many times. I remember Mike repeatedly imitating a sports announcer’s voice: “It’s Bird passing to Bias… and score!”
We went to bed around 5:00 am. Around mid-morning I drove back to my apartment and found my roommate, the one who I’d gone to all the basketball games with, outside walking her dog. The sky was a dark grey and it was a little chilly, which was unusual for June. I was laughing and excited as I told her the story of Len coming into the store the night before, but she didn’t react at all. Her usually bubbly demeanor was grim, but I figured maybe she’d had a fight with her boyfriend or something so I just kept talking.
When I finally stopped she flatly said: “He’s dead.” I asked who. “Len,” she said. “No he’s not,” I said. “I just saw him.”
It was one of those times when you don’t know if you’re still experiencing reality or if you’ve spaced out for a minute. I had only slept for a couple hours and was hung-over. We didn’t say anything else. I walked into the apartment, scared and cold. It felt so close – I had just seen him, happy and proud.
CL: Were you questioned by police or other authorities? What was the fallout from that night? Tell us about the atmosphere at Town Hall Liquor in the days and weeks after?
AM: I was never questioned but I think Mike gave some interviews. A heavy feeling spread over the whole campus; it was more profound than just shock. It felt like a nightmare you couldn’t shake. Like something unnatural and unfair had happened.
Drugs were all over the place back then – at parties, bars, everywhere – and I bet lots of students got a temporary scare. But the drugs didn’t go away. People feel invincible, especially at that age.
As the days unfolded, there were several versions of what really happened, but the main story I heard was that it was the first time Len had ever done cocaine. He did a couple of lines to celebrate but because his body was such a finely-tuned machine, with only 1 – 2% body fat, it just couldn’t handle it. That was the version my friends and I could accept because we understood that sometimes you just need to celebrate a little. When other rumors surfaced, we rejected them. And with our version, he remained a hero. We fought hard to keep him in that hero status. He deserved it.
CL: Is there anything else you can share with us about the night? Anything he said, something that’s just permanently etched itself into your memory?
AM: I remember how sharp and dapper he looked. He looked like a star. Today you see professional basketball players in their tailored suits. Len was already there. But he didn’t seem at all jaded; his manner was quiet, not flashy or loud, and he seemed genuinely happy.
CL: You were one of the last people to see Len Bias alive, hours before he died, the #2 pick in the draft joining one of the strongest teams in NBA history. How surreal is that?
AM: It’s very surreal. I tell people the whole Maryland sports story – from Boomer to Len – and how I was part of that era. I was (and still am) the artsy type, not a typical sports fan at all, but I absolutely loved the way sports brought everyone together into a state of unity and positive energy. It was exciting and electrifying. I understand sports in a way I don’t think I ever would if I hadn’t experienced and engaged with them so directly back then.
Since my time at Maryland, what I’ve come to understand about sports in general is that they’re not just games and they’re not just players – it’s about the emotional expression of will. They show us how to pick ourselves up after a crushing defeat and go out and do it again, because we’re wired to persevere. We want them to win because we want to know it’s possible, and that one defeat doesn’t mean it’s over.
That night I encountered Len, the night he died, was the end of an era for Maryland sports. I had been there for the pinnacle. That one moment in time – his death – started a slow leak and eventually all the air was let out of this seemingly impenetrable balloon.
CL: Did that night have any type of effect on your life?
AM: Even after all these years, I still feel a sense of disbelief when I think about it. It was such a random moment in time. I wonder why I was there, why our lives touched briefly on that night. He died a little over seven hours after I saw him. That’s not even the length of a night shift at Town Hall.
Len was taking his best shot at life - he was succeeding by using his unique gifts. Everyone should at least try to do that, before it’s too late.
CL: Tell us about yourself today. What you’re up to, where do you live?
AM: I’m a writer and artist/photographer living in Philadelphia. My work helps people find meaning in their lives and do more of what makes them feel fulfilled. Lots of people “have it all” but still feel empty. I focus on beauty, nature and sensory experiences to create ways people can access their most authentic selves and get into alignment with what truly moves them.
CL: Is there anything else you’d like to share/promote?
AM: I’ve recently put out an e-book and workbook – 12 Essential Questions for Sacred Sensual Living – that gives people easy and beautiful ways to feel more satisfied with their lives. It includes lots of my own photographs and collages, and it shows people how to indulge in life’s pleasures to find their own version of spiritual peace. And coming soon is Sacred Sensual Travel – I think people are hungry for authentic experiences, so this will be a great way for people to immerse their senses and soul in the wonders of the world. More information is available at www.sacredsensualliving.com.
In the 4+ years I've written for this site, I've written my share of articles and conducted a number of interviews. They all always have had to do with basketball. But this one, it's more than that. It's from the vantage point of someone who never played a minute or scored a basket and up until now, you probably never heard of. But that's what makes this one so meaningful.
Amy's small part in that night, no matter how brief, is etched in history. And it's sort of a microcosm of the bigger story. Life is fleeting, it comes and goes. Just as quick as Len walked into that store, he walked out. And even though he was as young as he was, his whole future ahead of him, he was old enough to die and miss out on it completely.
Celticslife would like to thank Amy for all her time sharing her unique story and we wish her luck in all her future endeavors. Be sure to like her Facebook page too.