Former Maryland basketball star Len Bias was 22 when he died of a cocaine overdose. The world will never know what he might have done in the NBA, but the repercussions of what he did before he died are far-reaching.
After watching an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary on Bias, author Dave Ungrady, who was also an athlete at the University of Maryland, decided to write about what Bias left behind.
“[The book is] an in-depth look at his complex legacy,” Ungrady said. “The title of the book really is foretelling in a sense because he has a mixed legacy. A lot of people still look at Len as an iconic figure with whom they emulate as a basketball player and as a person, but there are quite a few people who still struggle with the way he died and are upset with the way he died and can’t get over it. It disrupted a lot of lives but it also conversely saved lives.”
Ungrady will be a featured author at this year’s Gaithersburg Book Festival from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Saturday.
One of the positives that came out of Bias’ passing was that people began to look at drug use differently.
“I write anecdotally in the book about how people say that when Len died using cocaine, they stopped using cocaine or told themselves that was the big stop sign that they should never use drugs,” Ungrady said. “I go to a lot of youth tournaments now and sell the book. It blows me away how many people still have strong feelings about him. They have a lot of passion for him as a player, they remember where they were when he died — vividly, they remember where they were. It’s very compelling stuff.”
Most sports fans, especially Terrapin fans, know what Bias did on the court. He was drafted second overall by the then-World Champion Boston Celtics back in 1986. At Bias’ funeral, Boston president, general manager and former coach Red Auerbach said he had planned for three years to draft Bias. What most people don’t know is what he was like off the court.
“Len was, by all accounts, silly,” Ungrady said. “He was a bit of a prankster. He didn’t go overboard on it, but he liked to have fun. He liked music, he liked fashion. He was quite an accomplished graphic illustrator. He drew pictures — black and white sketches of objects that he liked to [sketch].
“Lefty [Driesell, Bias’ coach at Maryland] tells a good story about one time he stopped by to see him in high school and he was sitting out front of the high school and drawing an illustration of the school sitting there by himself. He also had a quiet side.”
Ungrady said Bias had a sensitive side as well. In his final year at Maryland, according to Ungrady, Bias told a friend he was unhappy at Maryland because he wasn’t having the fun he thought he would because of the pressure to perform and the team just not having a very good season. Regardless, he still gave all he had on the court.
“The title of the book is symbolic because Lefty would look for him the day of games, hours before the game, and he’d say ‘Len, how are you feeling?’” Ungrady said. “He’d say, ‘Coach, I’m born ready.’ Meaning he was born ready to play the game — he was born ready to be a great basketball player. The irony is he wasn’t born ready for the other things in his life, for example how to handle drugs and be smart about it and it killed him.”
For his part, Ungrady is doing what he can to help spread the message of making sound choices to teens and young adults. He started the Born Ready Project, which teaches youth how to make good life decisions.
“[The Born Ready Project was] something that I didn’t have initial plans for,” Ungrady said. “After the book came out, I was signing books at places and people would tell me, ‘Boy, there’s a message here in this book.’ … I started the Born Ready Project, focusing on life skills, decision-making and resilience. I go to schools and talk with groups and offer tips on how to do as well as possible in those situations.”
Through all the sadness and loss, Ungrady said the fault lies squarely on Bias and the one bad decision that cost him his life. And that’s what he hopes readers take away from his book.
“My target audience is teenagers and young adults because that’s when they need to learn about how to make good decisions,” Ungrady said. “Len made a bad decision. A lot of people blame Coach Driesell or the athletic department at Maryland for not having perhaps more strict rules against the athletes with grades and/or drug use, but Coach Driesell told me a great thing and I agree with him. He said, ‘You can’t watch these kids 24 hours a day.’
“Len was a 22-year-old. He was a full-on adult. He was responsible for his own decisions at that point, most of them. And that’s a decision that he made. So one bad decision can impact not only your life, but other lives more so than you can probably imagine. It’s a hard thing for teenagers and young adults to accept, but that’s what Len’s book is all about. He was a flawed man, most of us are in some way — all of us are in some ways. His flaws just killed him.”