A star on the University of Maryland's basketball team, Len Bias was the most talented, promising, and awe-inspiring athlete to ever come out of Maryland. On June 19, 1986 -- 34 years ago today -- Len died of acute cocaine intoxication. He left behind a community and country that admired and adored him. More importantly, Len left behind a family that loved and cherished him. Today, Second Chance pays tribute to Len.
Len's mother, Dr. Lonise Bias, a Second Chance Advisory Board Member, spoke with Second Chance Founder & CEO Dave Sidhu about Len's life and legacy, and about her tireless work on drug prevention.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DR. LONISE BIAS
Dave Sidhu: What would you like the youth to know about Len?
Dr. Lonise Bias: I believe that Len has done more for this country in death to save our youth than he could have in life, because in death he is still bringing attention to drug use. Because of Len’s death, my public speaking career was started. I have traveled for 34 years speaking to diverse audiences. In doing so, I became an advocate for our youth and the social ills they are confronted with daily, including drug use. I have received letters and emails from adults who are now teaching their children about the message of drug use and Len's death that I taught them in middle school and high school.
DS: Len was a fierce competitor on the basketball court. What was he like off the court?
DB: Len was a loving devoted son, brother, good student and he was known for having good manners. We taught our children to be respectful. His brothers and sister adored him because he was so much fun to be around. He was taught to respect authority. He was kind and gentle off court but he was a terror on the basketball court.
DS: The ESPN "Last Dance" documentary has drawn a lot of attention to Michael Jordan. Len and Michael played against each other. Do you recall anything about their interactions?
DB: What I do remember is when Len died Michael Jordan was the first person to send flowers to our home. I am told that conversations still go on today 34 years later, about who was the greater Len or MJ.
DS: Len's passing was a national tragedy. Could you describe the outpouring of support that you and your family received?
DB: When Len transitioned to collegiate basketball at the University of Maryland, I thought of the possibility of him receiving a degree and moving on with his professional life with the degree he would receive. I never dreamed that he would become a global superstar in the sports world. It wasn’t until his death that I understood the impact his death had globally. We received cards from the White House, President Ronald and Nancy Regan, Vice President Bush and his family, Tipp O’Neill, who was Speaker of the House of Representatives, and so many other dignitaries, plus cards and letters from people and sports fans around the world. At viewing of his body at our church, people were lined up for blocks. People were openly weeping and distraught over the death of my son. I saw the world mourning for the loss of my son, Len Bias.
DS: Shortly afterwards, Congress enacted tough drug penalties. Did anyone from Congress or elsewhere seek your input about how the country should respond to rising concerns about drugs?
DB: After Len’s death, there was a heightened awareness about drug use. Nancy Reagan had established her “Just Say No Program,” but it wasn’t until Len's death that the government started Drug Prevention Programs across the country. Len's death became the face for Drug Prevention. I can’t recall being contacted about laws being changed. The Bias Family was grieving so very hard at that time and for year afterwards.
DS: [On December 5, 1990, Len's brother, Jay Bias, was murdered.] How did you translate these two tragedies into love for all youth?
DB: I started speaking to America’s youth after Len’s death. Jay’s death was a shock to me. I thought it was so unfair and cruel for me to bury my two sons 42 months apart. I believe Len and Jay were two seeds that went down into the ground to bring forth life for youth. The love I had for my two sons was multiplied for the students. I would tell the students I loved them unconditionally and the love I had for them did not require them to know me or even like me. I loved them unconditionally because I loved them. The students were surprise that someone that did not know would say that they loved them.
DS: You've mentioned that our youth are "reachable, teachable, lovable and savable." What does this message mean to you?
DB: Yes, I believe our youth are reachable teachable lovable and savable. We must change or approach in adapting to their needs. What worked in 2019 won’t work in 2020. Our messages must be strong and relevant to reach them, but we have to change our methods and strategies of delivery to benefit today’s youth.
DS: Why do you think that drug prevention and intervention are the right approach to dealing with the national drug crisis?
DB: Drug prevention means stopping drug use from happening. We need to be intentional and authentic about helping our youth understand the real dangers of drug use and not using another person as an excuse to fail. Our Youth are this nation’s greatest natural resource.
DS: You are a popular and renowned public speaker. Could you recall one particular poignant question that you received from an audience member, and your response?
DB: I have spoken in schools in Maine many times. After my son Jay’s death, I received an invitation to return to a school to speak again. After my presentation two students on the schools wrestling team approached me with a poem “The Guy In The Glass.” They presented the poem to me to give me strength to carry on with my mission to help our youth. I have recited the poem for almost 30 years and I still recite it at the conclusion of my presentations wherever I speak.
DS: What was the most memorable or special speech that you have given, either because of the location or the audience?
DB: Before Jay’s death, during a visit to schools in North Carolina I was asked to speak to the 300 students at the North Carolina School for the Deaf. The administrators at the school had concerns about drug use among some of the students. I agreed to speak to the students. I had two people to sign for me. As I delivered the presentation verbally the signers signed what I was saying. The students applauded with their hands in the air. After my speech I was surrounded by them asking for autographs, some even asked questions via a signer. When Jay was murdered I received a cards, drawings and letters from the students at the school telling me not to forget what I had taught them. They had written quotes from my message I had delivered to them that day.
JUNE 19, 2020
Interview edited lightly for clarity and brevity.
HONORING LEN BIAS