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Lonise Bias Builds on Sons' Legacies

Written by Barrington M. Salmon on 02 September 2011.

Most people would not blame Lonise Bias if she climbed into a shell and never emerged after experiencing every parent's nightmare – not once, but twice – with the untimely deaths of her sons.

But during a recent visit to her Lanham, Md. office, Bias focused more on the present and future than on the past.  She has been so busy developing plans for a foundation, lecturing and consulting, building her businesses and keeping the memories of her sons alive that she scarcely noticed her son Len has been gone for 25 years.

June 19th is not a date that Bias has to remember or needs to be reminded about.  As she speaks, Bias illustrates the depth and breadth of her faith.  It is what gives her strength, what powers her as she moves beyond anger and self-pity.  Faith is the source of her message of hope and personal responsibility.

"I never thought about it that way (that 25 years had passed)," Bias said reflectively.  "It is 25 years.  I have been busy; it just snuck up on me.  There have been a lot of observances and remembrances.  People still have an interest for the 25th anniversary.  I really didn't know how many people knew and appreciated him as an athlete."

Leonard Kevin 'Len' Bias, 22, was set to become a key member of the Boston Celtics professional basketball team.

When he thinks of Len Bias, said LaPlata resident James Fleming, he cannot help but think of potential and promise lost.

"I was devastated when I heard he died, said Fleming, 48.   "I was a big Celtics fan but they got rid of all of the Black fellows.  When they traded Cedric 'Cornbread' Maxwell to Houston, I became a fan of the 'twin towers.'  Len's selection was going to bring me back to the Celtics."

"I saw him play and he was awesome.  Michael Jordan had the athleticism and consistency on the outside shot which came from hard work.  Bias had a 6'8" body and the shot to go with it.  He was a dynamite player.  It was heartbreaking to see Bias die.  It took more than a decade for the Celtics to recover," said Fleming, a division head at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

Ken Harris, a research analyst for the South Carolina Senate and an ardent admirer of Bias, agrees.

"I think the one thing that sticks out in my mind is that he could have been better than (Michael) Jordan," said Harris, 46.  "Physically, he had the size, stature and pure talent and skills certainly that I don't think Jordan had at that stage of his career.  He was "baaad" man.  I was a Lakers fan and hated Boston.  But, Bias made me want to think about becoming a Celtics fan.  He was just that type of game changer.  Who knows how many titles the Celtics would have contended for?"

"We lamented the loss for his family to the sport and to the game."

Lonise Bias, a deeply religious wife, mother and grandmother, described her son Len as "a lovely person, a fine young man."  She said she has two grandsons, both of whom play sports. One plays basketball and "everyone says he reminds them of Jay," she said.  "These kids love sports and they are beasts."

Bias, a native Washingtonian, recalls being in bed on the morning of June 19, 1986, when she and husband James, received a telephone call that her son Len was dead.  The 22-year-old basketball phenom collapsed in his dorm room at the University of Maryland a mere two days after being drafted by the Celtics.  He is said to have suffered a heart attack after ingesting cocaine.

Then 4 ½ years later, her younger son James Stanley 'Jay' Bias, 20, was shot and killed after what police described as a chance encounter between Jay Bias and a man who claimed he was flirting with his wife, a jewelry store clerk at Prince George's Plaza in Hyattsville, Md.  He also had a distinguished basketball career, and many saw him as the one who would replace his older brother.

"Whatever you think (about how it feels to lose a child), it's 1,000 times worse, but our faith sustained us," said Lonise Bias.  "I asked, 'why me' but also asked 'why not me?'  When Len died, no one came and gave us money.  We just pressed through the hardship to find peace."

Following the University of Maryland superstar's death, his mother began lecturing widely in the U.S. and abroad, carrying an anti-drug, pro-youth message to anyone who would listen.

In a motivational speech in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands in the early 1990s, Lonise Bias spoke to students at several schools on the island about the dangers of drugs.  She discussed the devastation of losing her sons and reminded the young people that life is a gift and not a given. Too often, she has said, teenagers believe they're invulnerable and she reminded them to be smart, careful and aware.  If she has learned nothing else, Lonise Bias told students, it's not to take life for granted.

These days, she said she still lectures from time-to-time but has focused most of her energy on laying the groundwork for the Len and Jay Bias Foundation, as well as the Bias Family Center, both of which will be located in Prince George's County.

Lonise Bias' eyes lit up and she became increasingly animated as she showed a reporter the architectural blueprints for the buildings and as she described her work for much of the past quarter century.  She has used her sons' deaths as a catalyst to save children she said face myriad dangers and challenges.

"I tell parents that it's time to step our game up.  It is most important to cover, assist and protect your child," she explained.  "They're reachable, teachable, loveable and savable but we must change our approach.  Children are like gardens which need to be tended.  We need to turn the soil and nurture them ... we have to buy into this notion that healing for this community comes through us. We are the medication."

Lonise Bias said it is heartbreaking to see children and young people hungry, homeless, lacking parent's guidance, sometimes dabbling in drugs.  Often, adults throw up their hands but she said she is confident that the dire situation can and will be turned around.

"A lot of people speak to me and say it's hopeless," she said.  "There is hope, especially if adults and parents are willing to increase their energy and involvement.  Parents can't wait until their children are 15 to start this process."

Lonise Bias said she has seen the problems afflicting the African American and wider communities from up close and characterized the present as "the best of times and the worst of times."

"All this chaos is going on where children lie, cheat, steal and disrespect their mommas," she said.  "I have never seen a time when young people have been so disrespectful.  Yet they are respectful and responsive to authority."

She said the intentions of those seeking to help children and teens must be pure and authentic, and she cited the need for an infusion of character education in whatever young people are being taught.

"Increasing character education will have the desired effect," she said. "You need to be of good character because if not, the blind leads the blind and they all will fall into a ditch.  We have to assess why we are in this situation."

"With character education, a young person will know how to act toward responsible authority, and know what's acceptable.  Life has times and seasons.  Beyonce will fade too."

In all her dealing with young people, Lonise Bias said, she seeks 'to deal with the heart not the mind.'

"I am dealing with the tender parts," she said softly as she pulled a bag of acorn seeds from a desk drawer. "... I plant the seed for them when they make a decision.  The big problem is that the wrong seeds are being planted.  If you give negative, you get negative.  You cannot fool senior citizens, children or dogs.  They'll spot a phony a mile away.  Good advice with poor examples is confusing.  Who we are really, really counts in the development of men, women, boys and girls."

"I have the love, faith and belief that they can make it in the midst of hardship.  You can make it. This is a seed that can bring forth fruit.  My seed is a gentle reminder of who they are."

Bias said her attempts and those of others like her to rescue and turn around the lives of young people is being undertaken against the backdrop of extreme pressure and stress on families.

"People are juggling (tasks and responsibilities), afraid of losing substantive things and want to have all these material things but we do not embrace the things money can't buy," she said.

"That's where the real power is.  Hardship is good for us.  Our great-grandfathers, grandmothers and our ancestors set the foundation for us.  The things we deal with today cannot compare with what our ancestors went through."

She said she grieves when she sees "babies coming back in body bags" from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, she said Americans are involved in a war right here on our shores.

"We're dealing with two types of wars, internationally and within our community," she explained.  "There will always be casualties of war.  We have always had this but I believe change is coming.  We have to come out of denial."

For years, Bias said, social workers, law enforcement and others focused on intervention, when instead, there would have been greater results if that same energy was concentrated on prevention.

"I have been talking about prevention but it hasn't taken place so we see teddy bears and shoes thrown over the wires after the fact (of someone's death).  If we were realistic about prevention (after a child died) and we started working with 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds like crazy, in the next five years, we wouldn't be producing the same corruptible fruit."

As she has applied herself to developing the building blocks for the foundation, Lonise Bias said she has been 'really getting into community service.'  Her desire now is to help children and families through the foundation and to continue to bring a message of change and responsibility to listeners.

She has no desire in reinventing the wheel she says, and consequently, she will support community programs and projects with a track record of success.  She said she also plans to tap into senior citizens and young people who she considers 'untapped reservoirs when everyone is scrambling in the middle.'

"They are vital to help us turn this around," said Bias.

She envisions a facility of at least 100,000 square-feet that houses an auditorium; breakout rooms; computer labs; classrooms; six to eight kitchens to teach culinary classes; areas for fashion, design and hair care; eight boxing rings; men's and women's locker rooms; arts and crafts classrooms; and an art gallery.

Specialists and professionals will train parents and youth and also offer mentoring, community orientation, peer training and other courses and program.

"I'm excited with this vision," she gushed.  "We want space.  I want everything to be elegant and first-class.  I want people who come here to be treated respectfully and professionally.  If you come to work here and don't want to do that, don't bother to come."

She said there has been some interest from the University of Maryland and others in the community about supporting and working to bring the foundation to fruition.

"We'll see," she said.  "I have spent 25 years putting my time in.  Now is the time ... I'm not playing."

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