The story of how former Maryland basketball star Len Bias died and the legacy he has left behind has meaning to some current college basketball players. Bias died in June 1986 from cocaine intoxication two days after the Boston Celtics made him the number two pick in the NBA draft. Bias was destined for greatness. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke's head coach since 1980, says this about Bias: "During my years as an ACC coach, the two most dominant players we've faced were Michael Jordan and Len Bias. They did things no one else can do."
One ACC player uses the memory of Bias as a motivating tool to guide his already prolific career and his approach to life. C.J. Leslie, a sophomore forward at N.C. State who was second on the team in scoring and rebounding through the end of January, found out about Bias from his father, Clinton, in 2008. The father and son were talking about great basketball players and when C.J. brought up Michael Jordan's name, Clinton said, "If you think Jordan is good, you should see Len Bias."
Clinton Leslie remembered watching Bias play as a 16-year old, and noticed that Bias was an all-around player who was a good scorer and rebounder. He showed C.J. video clips of Bias. C.J. soon formed a bold opinion about Bias. "I saw that he could have been better than [Michael] Jordan," Leslie told me in late 2010. Leslie stands at 6-8, the same height as Bias. He paid close attention to how high Bias rose on his jump shot. "I definitely try to make sure I elevate on my jump shot," he says. "I'd like to take a couple of his moves and I like how hard he played the game. And he wasn't that good at first and then got much better."
When he was in 10th grade, C.J. tried to find a poster of Bias to hang in his room. When his efforts failed, he displayed a wallpaper photo of Bias on his cell phone. "Anytime anyone saw the number 34 jersey, they pretty much knew who it was," he says.
In high school Leslie was a McDonald's All-America and made Parade All-America second team, achievements Bias did not accomplish. He's been described as a great jumper who has a quality perimeter shot from about 15 feet, traits very similar to Bias.
And similar to Bias, Leslie attended college close to home, within about 15 miles of Holly Springs, N.C., his hometown. Like Bias, Leslie is a forward who is as comfortable scoring away from the basket as he is near the basket, and he runs the floor easily. He was named to the ACC-All Freshman team, led N.C. State in rebounding and was second in scoring as a freshman. In his first college game in College Park in February 2011, Leslie reminded fans of Bias' range. He scored N.C. State's first basket from beyond the three point line, and later was on the end of a couple of profound alley-oops.
During a shoot around before the game, he noticed Bias's banner hanging from the rafters and embraced the feeling. "I was kind of impressed," he said in a phone interview a few weeks after the game. "It was kind of like, 'wow, he played here, and I'm getting a chance to play on the same court he played on.' "
Clinton Leslie and his wife Lisa traveled to watch C.J. and N.C. State play Maryland in College Park in early 2011. They talk about Bias to C.J. because the Bias story offers a lesson they felt their son should understand.
"One thing we told C.J. was even the people you think you can trust you really can't trust," she said sitting court side before the Maryland-N.C. State game. "You just have to keep your focus on you and keep your circle small."
Leslie adheres to his parents' request to choose his friends wisely. The adjustment has forced Leslie into an isolationist existence. "I was more of a goofy guy when I was in high school," he says. "I was more of a people's person. Now in college I'm to myself a lot. I don't hang around everybody like I used to. In college you almost have to be mean and rude. At first it takes some getting used to, I guess it's kind of easier now. If I can stay away from drugs than I can be a lot better than I am," he says.
That's something Bias was unable to do.
Dave Ungrady is the author of "Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias." He will be signing books at Caddies on Cordell in Bethesda, MD on February 1 and Tobacco Road Sports Cafe in Durham, NC on February 11. For more information, go to daveungrady.com