It is the beautiful task of Advent to awaken in all of us memories of goodness and thus to open doors of hope." ~Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 1986
I love to be proven wrong. I like to think I am a sound judge of character and that my insights are typically well founded. I won’t go so far as to say it is rare thing for me to be wrong—it’s not. But when a person or a story I have preconceived notions about surprises me, I’m not afraid to admit it or concede that I am wrong. “Without Bias” the ESPN “30 for 30” special about University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias is my most recent case in point. I also think his story offers for me, great insight into Advent.
Len Bias, an All-American power forward for the Maryland basketball team, died from cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose at the young age of 22. He died the day after he signed with the Boston Celtics as the number two overall pick in the 1986 draft. Many sportswriters claim that Lenny is the greatest player who never played in the NBA. Jay Bilas, who played against Bias while at Duke, said: "For people of my parents' generation, they mark time by when President Kennedy was assassinated. For me, and I think for many people who are about this age, I mark time by the death of Len Bias."
I too remember when Len Bias died. I’m not sure why I do—I was 12 years old and lived 3,000 miles away, but the tragedy of this tale is significant. Still, I have often thought such fanfare and hoopla over his story was overblown. JFK’s death and Len Bias’ on equal footing? C’mon. Len Bias never played at the professional level. To say he would have been “the rival Michael Jordan never had” makes for a great story, but what sportswriter/sports fan doesn’t revel in such speculation?
I was reintroduced to his story this Advent for two reasons. Thanks to Netflix, I placed close to every one of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentaries in my queue (it’s ESPN’s version of the “Behind the Music”). I was curious what “Without Bias” would reveal about him. To be honest, I didn’t expect much. At the same time my coworker and friend, Bill, a big DC sports fan thought I might enjoy reading For Michael Wilbon, A fond farewell to The Post. As much as I did enjoy Wilbon’s reflection on his time with The Post, I was surprised that his farewell remarks included so much about Len Bias.
I rolled my eyes as I commented on how much attention the Len Bias story has gotten. I listed my claims and criticisms about how exaggerated this story was and still is. Bill listened thoughtfully and said “wow, Len Bias. Yeah, I remember that story. I haven’t thought about him for some time.” I said “well, check out 'Without Bias.' I’ll let you know if it’s any good.”
And there you have it. My famous last words. I take back my eye roll, I take back my know-it-all attitude. I take back my bias.
At 6’8” Bias impressed basketball fans with his amazing leaping ability, his physical stature and his ability to create plays. He was considered one of the most dynamic players in the nation. The documentary's footage reveals exactly that.
You also get a sense of this exciting era in the ACC. The Terrapins played eight miles from our nation’s capital while Ralph Sampson, Patrick Ewing, and Reggie Williams were playing in and around Washington DC. Many claim that Len Bias was the most exciting of those four who played for a combined total of 49 years in the NBA. You cannot help but wonder how his career would have played out.
And what is perhaps most impressive about Bias’ story is the testimony of faith given by his parents James and Lonise Bias. James Bias went to Boston with his son when he signed with the Celtics and a contract with Reebok. That night, James was unable to sleep; in fact, he was only able to pray. His mind was preoccupied with what seemed at the time an unfounded worry. He repeatedly told his son to “be careful.” Later, he remarks “I never put it together; it played itself out. I would not have had any control over it anyway. It played itself out. God in His infinite wisdom was preparing me for what would happen.” His own mother said, “It was difficult. I am telling you I know that to sit here and not to be out of my mind, there is a God in heaven. There is a God in heaven.”
It’s hard for me to imagine how the Bias family handled their loss (another son, Jay tragically died two years later due to Gang related violence). James said “when you raise this child to be a man and he’s achieved the goals he set out to do. And you’ve been to proud of all of it and to have it come down to this, to have it all melt away.” The man cannot even finish his thought. And yet, Lonise responds by saying “I believe he and Jay were seeds and are seeds that went down into the ground to bring forth life. They’re still bringing forth life.”
Len Bias’ story is a spiritual treasure—again of “aching pain” and “delicious hope.” Truly it invites deeper reflection on life and our journey of faith.
I think about my reaction to Len Bias’ story and wonder if that is for some reason why I am a Christian. Advent is a season that reminds us our God is a God of surprises. What we think and expect from God are often rearranged, even redefined and in my case—often wrong. Christ was born of a virgin, into an unusual relationship (like Mary and Joseph’s) and into the poverty of a makeshift stable. This reality defies what should be. And yet today is no different, Christ is in the poor and the marginalized. He is found in great talent and in tremendous tragedy. He is found in our “yes”, into what we are willing to do according to His will.
To look at Len Bias, I see his God-given talent and love for the game. To hear his parents, I understand that faith in God is the only hope that can sustain us through tremendous loss—the premature death of their two sons. His story still has meaning; his death was not in vain. During this holy season of Advent, I ask that God continue to prove me wrong.
On Signing Day
Dr. Lonise Bias