30 Years in 30 Days: Day 16- A Design All His Own

Guest post by Sally Jenkins (this article was first published February 7, 1986 four months before his death).

Len Bias got a fur coat the other day, which he wears with jeans when he is in his radical chic mood and is tired of the leather trench coat with the ermine collar. The overall effect is startling, so much so that Maryland Coach Charles G. Driesell stopped in the middle of Cole Field House and said: "Okay, so where did you get that one?"

That Maryland's 6-foot-8 forward is aesthetically inclined should not shock anyone who has witnessed the all-America on a basketball court, where a routine evening is just another elegant 20 points or so and the quelling of a shrieking gymnasium. Then he is into the quietly jazzy wardrobe -- usually it's a three-piece suit and tassled loafers -- and only a new wave haircut gives him away as something other than an investment counselor. No one would suspect that beneath all that oxford cloth is a talent that turns basketball into high art.

Things tend to come easily to Bias, whether he is wearing extra long clothing impeccably or sketching one of the insolent caricatures he creates when he is tired of drawing class. His long, curving fingers, more commonly known as the fluttering perpetrators of the unstoppable jump shot, are also those of an accomplished artist with a sometimes complicated nature.

But for all that complexity, Bias' needs and wants are small. Just a No. 1 NBA draft pick's salary, a flourishing career as an interior designer and a full closet, thank you.

"I'd like to play basketball, model clothes and draw, in that order," he said.

Nothing has come more easily to Bias than basketball, and nowhere is the style of a very stylish 22-year-old more marked. He possesses the defiant art of hang time that gives him his soft jumper, and also the power leap inside that makes him a near-certain No. 1 draft choice. Averaging 23.1 points, he leads the Atlantic Coast Conference, and with eight games remaining, he is threatening to pass Albert King (2,058 points) as the school's all-time leading scorer.

But, at the height of his powers in his senior year, Bias has found something he can't do. Maryland has lost eight of its last 10 games and, in what should be his finest season, the Terrapins are 11-10, 1-6 in the ACC and need resuscitating to make the NCAA tournament.

"Of course it takes something away," Bias said. "But you can't keep your head down. You just keep going. Myself, I'd rather score 10 points and win than 40 points and lose. Or no points even."

Bias also has suffered from relentless gang-up defenses. He has faced an endless stream of diamond-and-one or triangle-and-two schemes designed to stop him. He is posted up, double teamed, triple teamed and, when in doubt, fouled. It has been a long season in that respect for a strangely sensitive player who cried from growing pains as a child.

"I think Len has been frustrated by a combination of things," Maryland guard Jeff Baxter said. "He's frustrated because we aren't winning, and because they're killing him inside."

Bias' troubles have made an intimidating on-court personality into a fearsome one. He can be a glowering, even surly player with hurtful elbows. Pressure? Save the small talk and give him the ball. The elbows swing a little wider, the jaw is a Dirty Harry nightmare.

"Len feels that he was not put on this earth to be pushed around," guard Keith Gatlin said. "So he just goes out and takes no prisoners. If he gets 40 points and we lose, he feels that he hasn't accomplished anything."

Bias' on-court anger has been his greatest asset at times. Against Duke at Cameron Auditorium on Jan. 25, he gave the performance of his life, with a career-high 41 points. But he was the only Terrapin in double figures, and Maryland lost, 80-68. And more often than not, his frustration has hurt his play. Against 14th-ranked Notre Dame last week, he scored 25 points, but he had two offensive fouls and a technical in the last two minutes that halted a comeback, and Maryland lost, 69-62.

"I've been getting it the whole year," he said. "By now I'm used to it. Sometimes I do get knocked around. I know I have a lot of guys on me so I'm trying to be more controlled."

If Bias' temperament is a weakness, it is one he has made an effort to outgrow, with progress that has shown itself in new savvy on the court. He has come a long way since his senior year at Northwestern High School, when he went to Coach Bob Wagner with tears in his eyes and complained of the pressure of recruiting. "No one says hello to me anymore," he said. "They just want to know where I'm going." Wagner benched him for three games to help him regain his composure.

"He can be his own worst enemy," Wagner said. "He tries to do everything, and he wears himself down. It's just from trying too hard, and I'll take a kid like that anytime. He used to miss a shot and he'd go right in there and foul someone. It was a retaliation sort of thing. But he's getting better. He's a lot more under control."

Bias' intensity has earned him respect from his opponents, despite altercations that have arisen from the gang-up defenses. Against Duke last season, he was given a technical after a near fight with former forward Danny Meagher, but the Blue Devils are among his greatest admirers. In addition to the 41-point performance at Duke, he had 28 in the schools' meeting at Cole Field House on Jan. 4, an 81-75 Terrapins loss.

"He's about as good an athlete as I've ever played, and I include Michael Jordan," said Duke forward Mark Alarie, who also had a run-in with him at Cameron Jan. 25 over a savage slam dunk. "The only way he's going to have a tough time scoring is if you don't let him get the ball."

What makes Bias nearly unstoppable is his vertical leap that has become barely believable, a high wire act that enables him to simply jump over you and carry on a conversation before he comes down. Part of Bias' leaping ability comes from a 210-pound physique that he has labored over.

"You just can't even train for that," said Adrian Branch, Bias' former teammate at Maryland and a close friend. "Len knows how to jump in context. Some guys are great leapers, but they don't know what they're jumping for. Len knows."

If Bias is almost impossible to contain, it is staggering to think what he might accomplish in the zone-free NBA. His competition as first-round pick among other front-court players should be relatively slim: North Carolina's Brad Daugherty, Georgia Tech's John Salley, Michigan's Roy Tarpley and Kentucky's Kenny Walker among them.

"He'll be a high first-round pick," said Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry. "He's got all the qualities: he's explosive, he's got good range, and he can get his shot."

If Bias has any glaring shortcomings, they would be ball handling and rebounding. He is averaging 6.5 rebounds this season, but some say he could do better. The ball handling is a more controversial matter. While he is not required to handle the ball often in Maryland's offense, he will be in the NBA.

"He's less than spectacular in those two areas, and end-to-end ball handling is important," Ferry said. "It's something you can get better at, but he might never be great because it's an instinctive thing."

Others differ, like former Maryland assistant Sherman Dillard, now at Cal-Berkeley. "People say he isn't a great ball handler because he doesn't do all the whirling dervish stuff. He doesn't have to. He just dribbles one-two, and shoots over the top of you. He keeps it simple. But it looks great. In fact, if you could draw the perfect basketball body and demeanor, it would be Len's."

Bias' elegance on the court seems to come in part from the artist in him. He has a deft touch with a pen and sense of humor, as well. His caricatures are said to be hilarious, including one of Driesell, although Bias denies its existence. Bias' artistic leanings translate into a passion for interior design, which is what he intends to get a degree in. If there is a new maturity about him, it probably shows itself most in his determination to graduate.

"One thing I really want is a degree," he said. "I didn't used to want it that much. But now I do, badly. I'm not the greatest student, but I could be if I paid attention to it. I want people to know I went to Maryland and that I left with something. So they'll say, that's the school where Len Bias graduated from. That's an accomplishment."

16 Seasons Before: 1970-71, Celtics fail to qualify for playoffs
16 Seasons After: 2001-02, Celtics lose in Eastern Conference finals

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