Living with Len Bias
Keith Gatlin recalls the joys and pain of life with and without Bias
Thirty years ago, Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose, just two days after he was selected by the reigning NBA champion Boston Celtics with the second pick of the 1986 draft. The league was recovering from its cocaine ’70s era and looking to maintain the momentum of Los Angeles Laker Earvin “Magic” Johnson or Boston Celtic Larry Bird appearing in seven straight Finals series. In Bias, the NBA saw a player as dynamic as Chicago Bull Michael Jordan, and Bias was heading to, perhaps, the greatest team ever. It was ideal. So, needless to say, his death and its nature rocked the league.
It changed the nation, as well, coming at a time of national paranoia over drug abuse. It was several years into first lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. The intense media attention surrounding Bias’ death shocked a nation of sports fans, and it has often been reported that his death led, at least in part, to severe sentencing guidelines for the possession of crack cocaine, which had an outsized impact on African-Americans.
Keith Gatlin, a teammate of Bias at the University of Maryland, was the starting point guard on the school’s 1985-1986 team and lived in the same suite with Bias when the All-American went into cardiac arrest. He was not, however, present in the room where the drugs were being consumed. Gatlin — who still keeps some of Bias’ beloved go-go CDs in his vehicle — is now the head basketball coach at Wesleyan Christian Academy in High Point, North Carolina. It’s one of the top high school programs in the state, recently producing top-10 prospect Harry Giles. He shared his memories of Bias with Jerry Bembry of The Undefeated.
“When I got the call from my athletic director that The Undefeated wanted to talk to me about Len Bias, the first thing I said to him was: ‘It must be that time of the year.’ I’ve long accepted that this is how it’s going to be forever. This annual connection with Lenny is going to stay with me until I go to my grave.
“Thirty years. It’s really incredible that 30 years have passed since Lenny died, because the memories are so fresh. I only knew Lenny for just over three years, but the way we connected and the lifelong bond that grew from that short period of time makes it seem like I’ve known him my entire life.
“Len Bias wasn’t just simply a teammate. Lenny was like a brother. I met him for the first time on my recruiting visit to Maryland and, immediately, we clicked. He, immediately, made me feel like family. He made me feel at home.
“He wasn’t a big star yet [he was in his freshman season when he averaged just 7.1 points], so when he took me around campus it wasn’t like people stopped in awe. But when I went to practice with him later that day, I saw his star potential. Watching him fly and control all the air space around the rim, I realized what his teammates already knew: this guy was on his way to being someone special.
“He was destined for greatness because Lenny worked hard. He wasn’t born with that jump shot that allowed him to dominate games. He modeled his post-up game after [2013 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee] Bernard King who had the ability to — with a defender on his back — turn in the post and shoot over the top. Easily. Once Lenny had that perfected, everybody was at his mercy.”
Better than Jordan?
“Over the years, you’ve heard a lot of people say it was that jumper that separated him from Michael Jordan — and could have potentially made him a better player than Jordan in the pros.
“I played with Lenny and against Michael, so here’s what I think …
“Lenny was unbelievably strong, had crazy athleticism and had that jumper that Jordan, at the college level, had yet to reveal.
“But Michael was a little further advanced because of his ability to get the rebound, push the ball and facilitate the game from the playmaker position. Michael had the ability to be an effective scorer without anyone’s help.
“Lenny needed to get the rebound, give it up and then fill a lane. Now, once you got it to him past half-court and either threw it up to him near the rim or down in the post, the rest was history. In college, Lenny couldn’t get it off the rim and go.
“Maybe he would have developed that skill if he played in a different system that would have let him play his natural ‘three’ position. But we were always an undersized team at Maryland and Lenny, who was 6-foot-8, often had to play the four or five. That meant he went up against guys, like, [North Carolina’s] Brad Daugherty, [Georgia Tech’s] John Salley and [N.C. State’s] Chris Washburn every night. It was a challenge, but his strength and jumping ability allowed him to excel.
“Lenny’s breakout year was as a sophomore. And from that point on, he wanted the ball. All the time! And that was hard because [Maryland teammates] Adrian Branch and Ben Coleman were already established scorers, and everybody wanted to be The Man.
“Here I was, a freshman point guard getting big minutes, driving the bus and trying not to wreck it. At the same time, I got everybody in my ear, and I’m trying to keep everybody happy.
“In Lenny’s mind, the ball always needed to be in his hands. And he made sure to let me know. Constantly. If I didn’t room with him on the road, Lenny would always find out where I was staying. And at night he’d call, always addressing me by my nickname:
‘Smooth, what’s up? I just wanted to ask before I go to bed — Can I get the ball tomorrow night?’
‘You got it, big fella.’
‘OK, that’s good to hear, Smooth. Have a good night.’ “
Before the draft
“I never smoked or drank, and Lenny would always joke, ‘Hey, Smooth, go get your Sprite or ginger ale.’ I never saw Lenny have nothing more than a drink. I never saw him in a situation where I felt I had to be concerned.
“Which makes everything that happened after the  draft a shock.
“Before the draft, he was good: He wasn’t nervous at all, but I’d say he was anxious. The talk was whether Lenny was a better player than Walter Berry from St. John’s, who won most of the 1986 player of the year awards.
“Berry was nice. Old-school nice. But those comparisons bugged Lenny. Every time he’d hear talk about him and Walter, he’d say, ‘Are you serious?’ The speculation that Walter could go higher than him in the draft fired him up. It got to the point where we’d be in the gym playing pickup before the draft, and he’d stop in the middle of the game and say, ‘They’d seriously pick Walter Berry over me?’ ”
“A lot of our guys were in summer school after the 1985-86 season, so we watched the draft from our dorm suite. I’m sure Lenny was happy he was picked second by the Boston Celtics [ahead of Walter Berry, who was selected 14th by the Portland Trail Blazers].
“He was back on campus the next night, and I hugged him and gave him some dap. I congratulated him, told him I was happy for him. In typical Lenny-style, he downplayed everything. He was excited about going to a team that had just won a title, and look like it had the chance to win many more.
“The biggest misconception about the night after the draft was that we had a big party in the suite. The guys were like, ‘Yo, Len – let’s celebrate.’ And Len said he was going out to meet a friend he hadn’t seen in a while. We both had a math class together the next day. The last thing he told me was, ‘I’ll see you in the morning, Smooth. We’ll grab some breakfast.’
“I heard some of the guys come back into the suite at about 3 a.m. They went into their room, and closed the door. I turned over and went to sleep.’
‘I saw Lenny on the floor’
“My mother called me, and I looked at the clock and it was 6:57 a.m. She asked if I was OK, and I told her I was fine. She said she had a dream that something was wrong, and she hung up the phone to call and check on my sister.
“When I opened the door to my room, I was rubbing the sleep out of my eyes when I saw Lenny on the floor and the other guys over him looking worried. They told me he was having a seizure. He didn’t have on a shirt, and he wasn’t moving. The paramedics came into the room, and they tried to revive him. And I was like, ‘Oh, boy.’
“I called Mrs. Bias and told her something was wrong with Lenny. I told her to go to Prince George’s Hospital. I was startled, and I wound up sending her to the wrong place — everything that was happening was overwhelming. They had actually taken Len to Leland Memorial Hospital, and we all followed in our cars. Our entire team was there, and the mood was somber. I just saw a man go from the highest of the highs in celebrating the day after being picked No. 2 in the NBA draft, to finding him unconscious and hoping he’d live just 12 hours later.”
“We waited. Reporters were starting to show up. The area was getting crowded. Everyone’s crying, and I look over and see some of the freshmen: John Johnson, Dave Dickerson, Tony Massenburg. They were having a really hard time. It was tough for us older guys, too. But those young guys … they just finished their first year at Maryland. They idolized Lenny. They were confused and completely devastated.
“Then Mrs. Bias came out. She’s such a strong lady. She put her arms around me and said, ‘We lost him. Promise me you’ll be strong.’
“We cried. We banged on walls. We collapsed. It was not a pretty sight. I kept on thinking, ‘Somebody’s playing a bad joke on me.’
“Then it went from Lenny died to Lenny died from a cocaine overdose. And from there, our entire world imploded.’
‘It was excruciating.’
“Lenny parked his car, a blue Nissan 300ZX, right next to the dorm. And, for a couple of weeks after he died, I walked by the car every single day.
“The news of a cocaine overdose turned the case into criminal investigation. And police were going through the car and the dorm. Imagine you’re a kid in college, your good friend has died and you’re forced to walk back to the dorm where it happened, and past that car that he drove — every day. That really messed with my mind.
“And almost immediately, it went from our friend dying to survival of the fittest.
“Lenny lost his life. The coach [Lefty Driesell], athletic director [Dick Dull] and chancellor [John Slaughter] lost their jobs. And this was us: a group of teenagers — not yet men — who are dealing with the loss of one of their own, and there’s no man around to help with the process.
“Everywhere we went, we got blamed. And labeled. The chatter was we were all druggies, despite the fact only couple of guys were involved. They whispered that none of us went to school, even though many of us were in good academic standing.
“I mostly stayed in my room for two weeks after Lenny died. I watched The Young and the Restless and ordered Domino’s Pizza. There were too many false accusations. The people who cheered for us during the season were now falsely blaming the entire Maryland basketball team for tarnishing the name of the university.
“It was excruciating.
“This is 1986, before TMZ. I can’t imagine how it would have all played out if it happened today: Someone would sell the story or photos to make money. Someone would have fabricated a story, to say they got high with him. And with the way social media is today, everybody would have eaten it all up.”
“I wound up sitting out the next year, and that really helped me grow. I became a stronger person, because, if you went through what we endured and didn’t have strength, you would have easily wilted.
“But it didn’t help me get over the bitterness of being betrayed by the people who blamed all of us for Len’s death. It was as if no one on any college campus had ever smoked weed or did cocaine before Lenny died, and no one has done it since.
“There were a lot of repercussions. Aside from the blame, Lenny’s death might have cost a couple of us a shot at playing in the NBA. I thought I had a chance, but I was told by an executive of a team that I won’t name: ‘I can’t have you on this team because it would be bad press because of what happened with Len Bias.’
“[Maryland teammate] Derrick Lewis ran into the same problems. We’re fortunate that we were able to play in Europe. But even over there, we had to answer to what happened in 1986. I remember reporting to my team in Greece, and my coach asking me, ‘Are you a druggie?’ By that time, I was a grown man. We had some choice words.
“When the 30 for 30 [Without Bias] came out, I think that finally changed the opinions of some people who blamed us. Everyone saw the entire story of what happened. So recently people come up to me and say, ‘I saw the show. I believe you guys.’ ”
“I’ve coached at Wesleyan Christian Academy in North Carolina for the past seven years, and when the season’s over I try to get up to my alma mater as much as possible.
“The passage of time has changed things. They always roll out the red carpet for me, and I’ve been able to establish some really solid relationships with the staff and alumni.
“In 2014, I was happy to attend the ceremony when Len Bias was inducted into the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame. I still don’t know why it took 28 years to give that honor to a guy who was a two-time ACC player of the year and, in my mind, the best basketball player to ever put on a Maryland uniform. I guess it was time for the school to say that all of the old wounds following his death have officially healed.
“I share Lenny’s story all the time with the kids I coach and the kids, after they watch the documentary on him, always have a ton of questions.
“I tell my players that Len Bias was that good. And I tell my players that what happened to him can happen to you if you don’t make the right decisions when it comes to using drugs.
“Whenever I return to Maryland, I make it a point to walk the campus. Earlier this year, the school began selling pieces of Cole Field House, which is being converted into an athletic and academic complex. After signing a few chairs that were going up for sale, I managed to obtain two of them for myself.
“Those chairs now sit in my house, right next to my pool table.
“When I sit on them, I often think of the good times we had in that building.
“The stories and memories I have of Lenny will stay with me forever.
“And, yes, I know I’ll have to continue to talk about him at this time of the year, until death do us part.”