What if?  It’s the saddest sentence in the English language that says so much yet nothing of substance at the same time.  Thirty-one years ago today Len Bias died from a drug overdose, sending his school and his future employer into separate spirals that clouded both the University of Maryland and the Boston Celtics.  Three and a half years ago I imagined what Lenny’s 50th birthday extravaganza in College Park would have been like.  It was a pleasant distraction from another 50th anniversary–the JFK assassination.  So we’re always imagining a better world.

 

NOVEMBER 18, 2013—Len Bias turns 50.

 The University of Maryland honors its Basketball Hall of Famer with a star-studded evening…almost a “This is Your Life” at the Comcast Center (popularly called the “Driesell Dome”).

Lefty Driesell’s expected to make the trip up from Virginia Beach where he’s enjoyed retirement since stepping down in 2002.  After posting 696 wins over 32 seasons as Terps coach the longtime rival of Dean Smith left the game same time his constant nemesis did (Driesell joked that “Dean was done in ’97…but only stuck around so I wouldn’t have a crack at his record”).  Although Bias didn’t lead Lefty to the Final Four, he helped set the stage for the recruiting classes that finally did in 1991.  They’d lose to to Gary Williams’ Ohio State Buckeyes;  despite the disappointment it was something special to see Williams get the most out of top recruit Jimmy Jackson.  OSU would fall to Duke in the finals that year because the Blue Devils always got the calls then but the seeds were sown for an era of Terrapin dominance in the decade of the 90’s.  Lawrence Moten arrived on campus that fall and scored over 2,000 points (try imagine the unassuming guard with high socks pulling that act in the rough and tumble Big East)… and with Joe Smith dominating inside the Terps would reach the Final Four again in 1994 and ’95.  Smith and Moten would end their careers by beating UCLA for the championship in 1995.  This allowed Lefty to finally say that Maryland was in fact the “UCLA of the East”, to the surprise of absolutely no one.

Larry Bird’s supposed to fly in from Indianapolis…his back that gave him issues in the late 80’s after the Celtics’ third championship in a row needed more surgery this past summer.  Remember Boston coach KC Jones trademarking “Boston Three Party” and making a mint off the merchandising?  Savvy move.  Kevin McHale will be in town as well;  how about when as a rookie Bias stepped into the starting lineup so McHale could fully recover from foot surgery for the playoffs?  That not only allowed the Celtics to repeat as champs in 1987 but also kept McHale in prime shape for the ’88 and ’91 title runs.  Robert Parish may bring down the house with his deadpan wit (“the closest I came to smiling was watching Lenny play”).

Michael Jordan will be on hand as well.  The duo’s rivalry defined the decade like Bird & Magic or Russell & Wilt.  Jordan’s Bulls ended the Bird era by bouncing the defending champs in 1992…and although it took a while for the “Bias Bunch” to reload they were able to keep key cogs like Rick Fox and Brian Shaw on the roster to let the new talent know what it meant to be a true Celtic.  Titles in 1996, 98 and 2000 bookended Bias’ first three championships.  The last one was especially sweet as the Celtics beat a new generation of Lakers in Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant…especially with Larry Bird in the front office.  Bias probably kept Jordan from winning five or six rings.

And even though he coached a different sport, Bobby Ross will make an appearance…probably to bask in the 25th anniversary of the National Championship team that upset Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.  When Bias left College Park, Ross was fresh off guiding the Terps to a 9-3 season (with losses to eventual #2 Michigan, #3 Penn St. and #9 Miami)…and with a supportive Athletic Department Maryland was able to take things to the next level over the next decade.  Ross finally retired after the 2000 season, handing the program to Ralph Friedgen who promptly led the Terps to another ACC Title and an Orange Bowl in his first season.

What a celebration– and what a what-if.   It’s still too soon–31 years later.

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