As the NBA Draft approaches Thursday, there is the usual anticipation over what the top teams will do and where the top players will go. The University of Alabama’s long draft drought will continue (Richard Hendrix in 2008 was the last Crimson Tide player drafted) for at least one more year, although chances are that ends next June. Players will be overhyped and under-appreciated.
And, of course, the Len Bias story will be told.
Bias, the great Maryland forward who died two nights after the Boston Celtics chose him No. 2 in the 1986 draft, has become a cautionary fable for our times. Stories are always more complicated than simple, but if the basic facts present in every retelling have saved a life, that’s the sole positive. Surely someone else has reflected about the possibility that too much cocaine (or cocaine that was unexpectedly pure and potent) could stop their heart and take away a promising future. We can’t ever know if that happened, but one can logically believe that somewhere, someone else made a wiser, more cautious decision.
Len Bias wasn’t just a fable, of course. He was a star basketball player, an explosive talent that might very well have extended the Celtics’ dynasty. Many of those who saw him play — including the Alabama coaches and players that faced him in 1984 and 1985 — felt that.
Legends grow with time, of course. I covered both of those games — the first at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center and the return trip to Cole Field House. The memories are vivid of the muscular, high-flying Bias, perhaps tinged by his powerful charisma as by the way the games transpired.
“I don’t remember how those games got scheduled, but I thought we’d win at least one of them or I wouldn’t have scheduled them,” former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “Of course, I had known Lefty (Dreisell) forever. We had played against him when I was an assistant and Lefty was the head coach at Davidson, a game we played in Florence so I guess Coach (Hayden) Riley set it up.
“I remember in that first game in Birmingham (the Terrapins won 59-56 on Dec. 8, 1984), they had Bias and the other guy (Adrian Branch) that were really hard to guard,” Sanderson said. “Plus, we got a technical foul that hurt us and we didn’t make our free throws.
“But my first impression of Bias was that he was an active, powerful guy and so athletic, almost like a Bernard King. He was hard to defend because you didn’t know how to defend him — big guy, quick guy — and if he got a mismatch, Lefty would make sure he got the ball.”
In the 1985 rematch in Maryland, Alabama knew what to do, playing a tight zone, surrounding Bias with lengthy defenders Derrick McKey and Buck Johnson. The Maryland star was actually held scoreless in the first half, and Alabama was leading by five points with 10 minutes to play. Bias did assert himself down the stretch, a couple of calls went Maryland’s way — a goaltending on McKey and a travel on Johnson with 45 seconds left.
“Tough loss,” Sanderson said succinctly.
“What happened to him was awful,” Sanderson said. “Like everyone, I think he’d have been a great pro. And ultimately, the whole situation cost Lefty his career and cost a young man his life.
“That’s something you fear as a coach. You’d try to monitor them as much as you can, but you never know. I had to suspend some guys for smoking marijuana but thankfully I never had a situation where someone lost their life. That’s the worst thing you can imagine.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.