Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fallen Stars

Everyone associated with basketball has a tale about a talented player who lost his way on the path to greatness. These stories even have stock characters. There’s the childhood friend with ungodly amounts of natural skills — except the ability to follow authority. There’s the high-school star that couldn’t make it academically, bouncing around community colleges before fading into obscurity.

More often than not, the cautionary tales involve a star falling victim to drugs and/or alcohol. This was especially true in the 1980s. Two of the biggest hoops casualties met on Jan. 19, 1985, when Len Bias and the Maryland Terrapins took on Richie Adams and UNLV at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.

Just a passing glance at the court could identify the most talented players. Adams and Bias were just physically superior to their teammates.

Adams was 6 feet, 9 inches with long, sinewy arms and fast-twitch legs that allowed him to be a shot-blocking and rebounding force. He was a playground legend from the Bronx and earned the moniker “The Animal” because of his intensity on defense. Adams was also a deeply troubled soul. He barely attended classes in high school, and by the time he reached UNLV already had a burgeoning appetite for pot and cocaine.

But players with physical tools like Adams are always given a shot somewhere. UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian was famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for his reclamation projects. He accepted any washout, dropout or petty criminal — provided he still had some game. It was a modus operandi that infuriated coaching rivals in general and the NCAA in particular. As any social worker can attest, Tarkanian’s approach would warrant as many failures as success stories.

Adams appeared to have righted his sinking ship in his senior season after trying the seemingly endless patience of Tarkanian and his staff. He was averaging 18.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. Against Maryland, Adams flashed his skills early. During one stretch in the first half, he hit a sweeping hook on the left block, then stuck his long arm in the passing lane for a steal at and a breakaway layup to give UNLV a 26-24 lead.

Former UNLV teammate and nine-season NBA veteran Sidney Green once said Adams was “a small Bill Russell.” That’s a reach; he probably compares more favorably to Keon Clark, another demon-plagued Runnin’ Rebels player. Both were left-handed with springy hops and an inborn timing for the game.

For Maryland, Bias was like Dominique Wilkins with a jumper. He had the natural leaping ability like Adams, but it sprang forth from a compact body that had muscles on top of muscles. Late in the first half against UNLV, Bias quieted the crowd with a thunderous slam on a three-point play. It was the same strain of dunk that Dominique was famous for — a thrilling alloy of brute strength and balletic grace.

Whenever matched against each other, neither player could gain an edge because their skills were so evenly matched. The game was tied at halftime, 38-38, with Adams notching 10 points and Bias getting nine.

Adams showed how infuriating his talent could be in the second half. He sparked a 9-0 run coming out of the locker room, punctuating a three-point play by tossing the ball into the chest of Maryland’s Derrick Lewis. But Adams often looked lost on offense, drifting around the free-throw line and crowding his teammates’ spaces.

Meanwhile, Bias battled foul trouble early and lost his shooting touch. He ended up 6 for 14, but started powering to the basket to draw fouls. The Terrapins battled back from a 12-point deficit after the Runnin’ Rebels inconceivably went into slow-down mode.

Maryland got to within 77-76 after Adams threw a lazy pass that was picked off under the basket for a layup. Adams made up for it on the next possession, making 1 of 2 free throws for a 78-76 lead with eight seconds left that stood up after Maryland threw the ball away.

Bias (20 points) and Adams (21) had played evenly. The future seemed bright for the two stars. No one could have known that the most successful NBA players in that game would be UNLV’s Armen Gilliam and Maryland’s Adrian Branch.

Bias’ tragic end is well-trodden territory, examined most recently in ESPN’s excellent documentary “Without Bias.” He died of a cocaine overdose two days after getting picked second overall in the 1986 draft by the Boston Celtics. Fans never got the chance to see Bias catching backdoor lobs from Larry Bird.

Interestingly, Bias’ last game came against UNLV, when he scored 31 points in Maryland’s 70-64 loss in the second round of the 1986 NCAA tournament.

Adams’ fall wasn’t as sudden. He ended up being named Pacific Conference Athletic Association player of the year in 1985, the second time he won that honor. He played a few games for the Long Island Knights of the USBL before getting picked by the Washington Bullets in the fourth round of the 1985 NBA draft. The trouble was that on the same day he was drafted, Adams stole a car. Needless to say, he didn’t make it past training camp with the Bullets.

Tarkanian and others kept trying to help Adams, getting him on the rosters of professional teams in the U.S. and abroad. Inevitably, Adams ended up back on the streets of the Bronx. The drug habit escalated, and so did the crimes. He was sent to jail for more than four years on robbery charges in 1989. Ten years later, he was sentenced to 25 years on a manslaughter charge in the stomping death of a 15-year-old girl.

Adams had finally reached the bottom after wasting his seemingly limitless talent. Bias became the story that every athlete hears about the dangers of drugs. Both are among the countless lost souls that haunt old gyms everywhere.

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