Twenty-five years ago tonight, the University of Maryland men’s basketball team played No. 1 North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, in the recently opened Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center. The Tar Heels had a record of 25-1 and had never lost a game in the building; the Terrapins were 14-11 and unranked.
Carolina was led by Brad Daugherty, a senior who stood seven feet tall and who would be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft later that year, and Kenny Smith, a junior who would go on to be an NBA champion point guard. But neither Daugherty nor Smith was the best player on the floor. The best player on the floor was Len Bias.
Len Bias was the reason for a Maryland fan to care what might happen in the game, even though it was a late tipoff, and it was not being carried on over-the-air television. That was what my family had at the time—four, maybe four and a half channels, usually, down in the woods 30 miles outside Baltimore. I tuned the game in on the radio, in my bedroom. I was 14 years old, and it was a school night. I would listen to the radio as long as the Terps were still in it.
Four months later—one day less than four months, exactly—I would wake up in my room to the radio, the clock radio playing the news. Before a single specific noun or name or fact came out, I understood from the bleakness in the announcer’s voice that the most glorious thing in the world was ruined, and I instantly knew who it had to mean.
Lots of people will talk about it, four months from now, the great tragedy, the great American morality tale. On Wikipedia, at the moment, the first 22 years and 7 months of Bias’ life (“considered one of the most dynamic players in the nation”) are consigned to three paragraphs ; 20 more paragraphs follow.
But this is still February 20. Basketball season. The game was on the radio. Rooting for Maryland, 25 years ago, meant accepting that there were limits to what you could hope for. Maryland was not better than North Carolina. North Carolina was royalty, with endless pro-grade depth and continuity and basketball savvy, while the Terps were forever consigned to a lower-ranking bastard nobility—they might have depth but no superstar, they might have superstars but no depth, or they might have both but with toxic game coaching and atrocious luck .
One didn’t follow the Terps expecting league championships and trips to the Final Four. You followed them believing that on any night, against anyone, there was a chance that their erratic brilliance would be more brilliant than it was erratic. With Len Bias representing their brilliant side in 1986, the chance was better than usual.
Even so, Carolina was clearly the superior team. Late in the first half, they stretched their lead to 11. As soon as the game got truly out of hand, I would shut it off and go to sleep. But Bias dunked on an alley-oop. He got fouled on a pump-fake and sank both free throws. Then he buried a baseline jump shot, rising over a double team, and Carolina’s lead at halftime was only 5. Bias had 17 points.
I kept listening. Maryland sagged back, pulled closer, sagged again. Carolina always had the lead. Bias kept scoring, but gradually, the Tar Heels pulled away again. With just under three minutes to go, Carolina extended the lead to nine points, 68-59. Maryland had given them a decent fight. Bias had scored 27 points. Realistically speaking, it was time to turn off the radio. I was tired. The next unanswered Carolina basket, and I’d call it a night for real.
What happened next was this:
A quarter-century later, you can watch the moment on the Internet, over and over, to savor how incredible it is—the steal and, of all things, a reverse jam. A reverse. In the clutch, in what should have been a desperate moment, against the No. 1 team, Len Bias took it to the rim backwards, because he could. Because he was that much better than anyone.
In real life, in 1986, there was no rewind button, only the incredible words being yelled—yelled softly, the volume hushed in the dimness of the bedroom—on the radio, which was not going to be turned off now. Five points, three points. Bias blocked a shot. Bias grabbed a rebound. The game was tied, going to overtime. It was in overtime, and Maryland was pulling away, and it was over. 77-72. Len Bias had 35 points. Down the stretch and in overtime, he had personally outscored the No. 1 team in the country, 8 to 4.
Today, a 14-year-old fan would be on Facebook or Twitter, in real time, would be texting and status-updating, play by play, awash in a collectively mediated consciousness. America would have experienced what Len Bias had accomplished in one simultaneous flash of attention.
Twenty-five years ago was another world. The game was over and I was by myself—my parents and brother presumably asleep—alone in the late night with the incredible fact that had just come into being. Len Bias beat Carolina. There was no one to shout it to, nothing to do with the joy but wrap it up and hold it, reverberating, inside the ribcage. Len Bias beat Carolina. It was true, and if you were lucky enough to know it, you would know it forever.