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Neither Len Bias nor Jeff Baxter are in the University of Maryland’s Athletics Hall of Fame. But if you ask Baxter, one of them belongs there.
And it’s not him.
Baxter and Bias were All-Met high school players their senior seasons in 1982, Baxter at Archbishop Carroll High School and Bias at Northwestern High School. Both players entered Maryland with lofty aspirations, and they were roommates throughout college.
Bias, considered as good as the one-year-older Michael Jordan, infamously died of complications of cocaine intoxication two days after the Boston Celtics selected him No. 2 in the 1986 NBA draft. Baxter did not start a game for Maryland until his senior season, and he claims the fallout from Bias’ death made him an “unapproachable commodity” for the NBA. He never played pro ball.
Baxter understands why he never made the hall of fame: Unlike Bias, he was never a college All-American, not even all-conference. But he thinks Bias should be in.
“I’ve always been totally against drugs,” says Baxter, who grew up near the Southwest waterfront, attended St. Peter School, and learned his game at Turkey Thicket Park and Candy Cane Park. “But Lenny’s [death] was accidental. And everyone has made a mistake in life. He should be in the Hall of Fame based on his body of work and as a person.”
The controversy surrounding Bias’ death has kept him out of the hall of fame, which honored its 2012 inductees at a dinner on Oct. 5. For the 16th consecutive year since he’s been eligible, Bias didn’t make the cut.
The hall of fame’s selection committee has used one of its bylaws to exclude Bias: “Nominees must have good character and reputation, and not have been a source of embarrassment in any way to the University.”
Each year, the committee starts with about 15 candidates for inclusion. Those who receive the most votes make it; the others don’t. Usually, only six get in, but this year, seven were chosen, because the school was switching from inducting a group every year to one every two years. Bias has been eligible since 1996, and gets at least some votes every year. Now, arguably the greatest basketball player in the University of Maryland’s history will remain shut out until at least 2014.
There’s little debate that the death of Bias crippled College Park more profoundly than any other athletic event in Maryland’s history. Athletic Director Dick Dull, men’s head coach Lefty Driesell, and head football coach Bobby Ross all departed within six months. Actions by Bob Wade, Driesell’s successor, placed an already dispirited program on probation. Due to a loss of revenue in the years after Bias’ death, Maryland athletics was restructured, and dozens of employees lost their jobs. Some teams operated with no scholarships for four years.
For years, there’s been a rift about Bias within the selection committee. The committee has 13 members, most chosen by the athletic department and the M-Club of former athletes. Several members, including former wrestler Steve Hayleck and former three-sport athlete Laura LeMire, say some “old guard” members are reluctant to support Bias’ selection, while younger, more recent additions to the committee support him.
Hayleck, who stepped down from the committee this year after serving since 2005, calls Bias “the 600-pound gorilla in the room.” He says the committee discussed Bias for about an hour while debating selections this year. He supports letting Bias in.
“Some on the committee say that if we put Len in the hall of fame, some athletes might not come to Maryland,” Hayleck says. “But I feel there’s a wonderful lesson for current athletes. They think they are immortal at that age, and they are not.”
Older members include All-American quarterback Jack Scarbath from the early 1950s, All-Southern Conference baseball and basketball player Jack Flynn from the late 1940s, and Jack Zane, a Maryland athletic department employee since the early 1960s. None have publicly expressed their opinions about Bias’ selection, but Zane’s reaction when I called him in 2010 to discuss Bias for a recent book was telling. I’ve known Zane since I ran track and played soccer at Maryland in the late 1970s, and I respect him immensely. He wrote the foreword for my second book on Maryland athletics, Legends of Maryland Basketball. But when I spoke with him, he vehemently questioned why I wanted to get people talking about Bias’ death again.
LeMire, who was inducted into the hall of fame in 2004, has been a member of the committee for about five years. She recalls discussions about how Bias’ selection would tarnish the image of others in Maryland’s athletic hall of fame and reflect badly on the university. LeMire compares a Bias selection to Babe Ruth being inducted into the baseball hall of fame. Ruth was known for his boorish and abusive behavior off the field, but he made it to Cooperstown on the strength of his playing feats.
“Should we really be paying tribute and honor to someone of [Ruth’s] character?” she says. “With Bias, some are looking at after his death. You have to look at his career and what he accomplished. It’s a shame he made such a bad decision.”
Could the committee eventually come around on Bias? Jerry Bechtle, who played basketball at Maryland in the late 1950s and early 1960s, thinks Bias will make it, someday.
“It would not surprise me that sooner or later he will get in there,” says Bechtle, a member of the selection committee. “There are enough people talking about it. Len is a good example of why some kids now are not using drugs.”
But the best chance Bias had may have already come and gone. In 2002, the university won its first men’s national basketball championship, marking an end to the program’s recovery from Bias’ death. That same year, Driesell was inducted to the hall of fame. Bias was still left out.
Bias remains Maryland’s only two-time ACC Player of the Year and was a two-time All-American. He was Maryland’s all-time leading scorer for 16 years and now ranks second, behind only Juan Dixon (who was selected for the hall this year, his first year of eligibility). Dixon recently tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs as a pro in Europe. If that didn’t disqualify him, why should Bias’ death keep him out? No other Maryland player since he died has matched his combination of athleticism, intensity and skill.
Last March, Bias was inducted into the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Basketball Hall of Fame, his first such selection. No one would accept the award on his behalf. Family members, friends and teammates all refused to come forward.
The image of every inductee was displayed on a placard during the ceremony. Someone removed the photo of Bias as a souvenir without permission, and it was later returned to event organizers upon request. Honoring Len Bias, unfortunately, still requires unconventional methods.