City Paper is not for tourists
When Len Bias entered Northwestern High School as a sophomore in 1979, Bob Wagner was beginning his second year as the school’s head basketball coach. Wagner admittedly was still learning how to coach the game and Bias, who had been cut from his junior high school team, was learning ways to tap his full potential.
“I told him I need to learn, that we were going to share the educational journey together,” Wagner said in 2010.
Wagner molded the raw talents of Bias into a more mature basketball machine, a warrior ready for any basketball battle. When Bias chose to play for the University of Maryland, located about a mile and a half from his high school, Wagner attended Maryland’s practices and games, and Bias stopped by the high school and walked the halls with Wagner. Bias mostly talked, while Wagner, who considered Bias like a son, mostly listened.
The two developed a lingering bond. When I talked with Wagner for a book I wrote about Bias, he recalled a recurring dream. In it, Bias is practicing, preparing and waiting to play Michael Jordan in a one-one game in their after-lives. The play is fierce, but nobody wins.
Wagner is not alone dreaming, if not wondering, how a Jordan-Bias duel could have evolved in the NBA had Bias not died on June 19, 1986 after a cocaine overdose. Two days earlier, the Celtics selected Bias second overall in the NBA draft. The Celtics had just won its third NBA title of the 1980s and featured an aging collection of future Hall of Famers: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, Dennis Johnson, and Robert Parish.
By 1986, the Bird-Magic Johnson rivalry that energized a floundering NBA had passed its peak. Both players joined the league in 1979 and when Bird retired in 1992, Jordan had no equal, or foil, in the NBA.
But what if Bias had played in the league?
Some credible basketball minds have offered insightful perspectives.
“In the 40 years I’ve [coached] at Duke, the two opponents that were the most talented were Michael and Len Bias.” Mike Krzyzewski said on the The Herd With Colin Cowherd in April. “They had the ‘it’.”
“Back in the 80s there were three guys that stood out above the crowd,” adds ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who played against Bias for four years as a Duke center. “Jordan, Ralph Sampson, and Bias. Bias was a complete player. There was really nothing he couldn’t do.”
“I saw great players from both the ACC and Big East every night,” says ESPN’s Michael Wilbon. “Jordan, Ewing. Mullin. Sampson. But Bias was the most awesome collegiate player of that bunch. That jumper was so pure. Michael Jordan, at that time, would have killed for that jumper.”
— Five-Star Basketball (@5starbasketball) April 26, 2020
Bias and Jordan were friendly rivals. One of the first people Bias met at the prestigious Five-Star Basketball Camp near Pittsburgh in 1981 was Jordan. Camp counselor and eventual NBA player Larry Spriggs knew Bias and Brian Waller, a high-school teammate of Bias who also attended the camp, and introduced them to Jordan. “Larry introduced me as my nickname, ‘Ice.’” says Waller. “Jordan said, ‘They call me ‘black Ice.’”
Waller and Bias spent time with Jordan and his roommate Buzz Peterson, Jordan’s North Carolina teammate and now the assistant general manager for the Charlotte Hornets, of which Jordan is the majority owner. Waller says Jordan gave them some North Carolina gear, and Bias gave Jordan Maryland basketball camp apparel.
Peterson does not recall exchanging gear, but he vividly remembers how Bias and Jordan shined at the camp. “You could see the drive in each other,” he says. “And Bias had this smile, and would put his arm around you. He was easy to approach.”
While seniors in high school, Waller and Bias saw Jordan and a friend at a University of Maryland football game, and the four left the game to play two-on-two games in Cole Field House for about an hour. “We beat them,” Waller says proudly.
Bias and Jordan played against each other four times in college. The best game for Bias happened on January 12, 1984 in College Park. Maryland entered the game 10-1 and ranked fifth in the country. Bias scored a then career-high 24 points but top-ranked Carolina, with Jordan scoring 21 points, won by 12 points. Maryland won the ACC tournament later that season with Bias earning the most valuable player award, while Jordan was voted the player of the year in the conference.
With Jordan in the NBA, Bias saw an opportunity to be a dominant force in the Atlantic Coast Conference the next year. “Leonard was so happy,” says Johnnie Walker, who coached Bias and Waller when they were young players at the Columbia Park Recreation Center in Landover. “I said, “So what are you going to do? You could be the man in the ACC.’ He said, ‘I’m ready for it.’ ”
Bias earned ACC Player of the Year honors his junior and senior season. No other Maryland player has won the award twice.
In 1984, Jordan signed a sponsorship deal with Nike that has helped make him arguably the most iconic sports figure in history. Bias visited the Reebok headquarters near Boston, Massachusetts a day after the Celtics picked him in the NBA draft. Reebok wanted to sign a new, young talent, and Bias was the target. “He was our number one choice,” says Joanne Borzakian Ouellette, an associate manager in Reebok’s basketball division at the time who guided Bias during the visit.
Bias never signed a deal with Reebok and died the next day. Jordan had already begun what would become the most celebrated brand in NBA history. Would he have done so if Bias had played in the NBA? Would Jordan have won six NBA titles with the Bulls? Would Bias have helped the Celtics maintain their dominance through the 1990s, and made Reebok the leading basketball shoe brand? Would Bias-Jordan have been more memorable than Bird-Johnson?
“It’s tragic we never got to see Len show [his skills] with the Celtics,” said Krzyzewski.
“To put him with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics, [it could] have been a 15-20 year career, NBA All-Star games and probably one of the greatest players that ever played this game,” says NBA broadcaster Kenny Smith, who played against Bias while at North Carolina.
“You could see that he belonged there with those pros,” Jan Volk, the Celtics general manager in 1986, said in the Boston Globe in 2003. “He was flat-out mean on the floor. Larry [Bird] played against him [at a Celtics camp] and was ecstatic about him playing in Boston.”
ESPN sportscaster Scott Van Pelt, a Brookeville, Maryland native, played pickup basketball games with Bias when they were both students at Maryland. His thoughts about Bias in the NBA focus on the impact on not only the Bulls but also the Detroit Pistons, which won NBA titles in 1989 and 1990. “Boston would never have been knocked aside to let Chicago and Detroit duke it out if Len Bias was there,” he says. “The Celtics had all they needed and then they were going to add this dude?”
One can only wonder, or dream, about what could have been.
Dave Ungrady is the author of three books on athletic history at the University of Maryland, including, Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias and the founder of the Born Ready Project. Some comments for this story were taken from the Bias book as well as from interviews done for an upcoming documentary about Bias’ legacy.