Just moments before Len Bias would realize the dream of a lifetime — an achievement beyond almost all grasp — an NBA official walked over and whispered in his ear: “You all packed for Boston?”
Yes, Len Bias was packed for Boston.
The 6-foot-8-inch forward for the University of Maryland had been the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. He was Maryland’s all-time leading scorer with 2,149 points.
Yes, he had game. Now, he was on the doorstep to fame — and to the riches that awaited the elite of American sport. The Boston Celtics, fresh from another NBA championship, had come calling.
That was in 1986. Thirty-two spring seasons removed from this year’s Celtics NBA title bid, which has electrified Boston once again.
But in her mind’s eye — and somewhere deep in her soul — it seems like yesterday to Lonise Bias.
The events that would follow would shatter and then remake Len Bias’s mother’s life.
“We had an above-average family — not in wealth but in the closeness we had as a family,’’ she told me the other day. “We were very close-knit. The kids were raised together. The boys enjoyed sports. And we rallied around them.’’
Students of basketball can recite Len Bias’s vital statistics. They knew about his indomitable drive to win. Perhaps they remember what his college coach, Lefty Driesell, said about him just after he was drafted by the Celtics that day in June a long time ago.
“Leonard’s only vice is ice cream,’’ Driesell told a local radio station.
That’s precisely the kind of kid his mother knew: The sweet kid who found beauty in nature. The loving son who wrote beautiful poetry to the grandmother he loved beyond all words. A creative boy who happened to have a million-dollar aptitude for basketball.
“We found out that Len had this ability and desire to play basketball,’’ Lonise Bias said. “And then for him to finish at the University of Maryland and to be considered for the NBA Draft, well, it just didn’t seem real. When it actually came to pass, it was still like a dream.’’
That was before the nightmare.
“I was in bed that morning, June 19th, and my phone rang and someone on the other end said Len was sick and had been taken to the hospital,’’ Lonise Bias recalled. “And I told my husband. And he got up and we went to the hospital. Once we arrived at the hospital, we were waiting for a doctor to arrive to really establish what the situation was. And once the doctor came in, they pronounced him dead.’’
Len Bias died from cocaine intoxication. Just 42 months later, his younger brother, Jay, was killed in a drive-by shooting. And then, with a mother’s fractured heart, Lonise Bias found a voice that has never quieted, delivering a message of hope and inspiration to anyone ready to listen.
“This June will be 32 years since [Len’s] death,’’ she said. “It’s not anything that you’ve forgotten about. It’s something that you have learned to live with. You embrace the realities of life and move forward.’’
A drug and a gun have robbed her of two of her four children.
It has earned her a mantle of genuineness — a sort of street credibility — that no one would seek and few could bear.
It began before 11,000 mourners at her son’s memorial service at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House. The parents of other players presented her with flowers. She gave a speech. Then another. Her appearance last Thursday at a substance-abuse program at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science in Roxbury was her latest.
A drug abuse epidemic rages. The number of confirmed and estimated opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts last year was down from the year before, but was still more than 200 greater than those reported for 2015. Hardly comforting.
“Hope is not extinct,’’ Bias told me before the Roxbury event. “I’m a firm believer that every young person is reachable, teachable, lovable, savable. We have to change our approach to adapting to their needs. In 1986, Nancy Reagan said, ‘Just say no.’ That won’t work today. We’re going to have to change our approach of dealing with them with prevention measures that will help preserve their lives. I believe that with all of my heart.’’
As she preached with resounding words of hope, courage, and endurance from the stage inside Roland Hayes Auditorium at the O’Bryant School, you could see the reflected power of that message in the eyes and faces of her young audience.
“I begged to die,’’ she told the students about her struggles in the aftermath of her sons’ deaths. “I did not want to live.’’
Patrolling the stage with the unwavering voice and fervent message of an evangelist, she told her young audience: “Re-think! Re-think! This is not a game! Don’t believe the nonsense of the hour.’’
The high school students sat rapt in the pin-drop-silence auditorium.
One of them was Kimberly Sepulveda, an 18-year-old senior who is on her way this fall to study psychology at Bunker Hill Community College.
“It’s very inspiring that someone can go through such traumatic events and be able to become someone even better than they were when these events happened,’’ she said after Bias had left the stage. “She really meant every word of it. You know how sometimes when you hear someone speak it’s like they’re reading off a script? Everything she said was coming from her heart.’’
When I asked Lonise Bias whether the Celtics, again the toast of the town, again competing for an NBA championship, had won a special place in her heart, her answer was immediate: “Not really.’’
Still, it’s clear she’s been watching.
“My family and I, we enjoy sports,’’ she said. “It’s not that every time I see them play I say, ‘Oh, Len could have been there.’ We enjoy the sport. We enjoy the game. One thing that my husband and I talked about is how far this young team will go. This is the first time I can remember where you see a young team with the Celtics.
“They seem to be doing pretty good. That’s the bottom line.’’
Doing pretty good. That’s where Lonise Bias is today.
She has a special appreciation for how difficult it was and how much courage it has taken to overcome the heartbreak to get there.
That’s the bottom line.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.