Before Michael Jordan was making Bryon Russell fall with a killer crossover and draining the go ahead jumper to win his sixth NBA title with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan was a skinny, determined athlete dominating the competition at Laney High (Wilmington, N.C.).
Before Adrian Peterson was trucking opposing defenses and racking up 2,097 yards in a single season for the Minnesota Vikings he was shining bright under the Friday night lights at Palestine High (Palestine, Texas), averaging 12 yards a carry and scoring 32 touchdowns.
Before any athlete can become legendary they have to lay their foundation in the high school ranks.
Each week I’ll chat with a high-profile athlete’s former coach, mentor, family member, etc., and reminisce about their high school playing days; everything from the greatest moment to the wackiest story.
Today, on the 28th anniversary of Len Bias’ death, I caught up with Bias’ former teammate at Maryland Keith Gatlin, now the head coach at Wesleyan Christian Academy (High Point, N.C.) to reminisce about the player some say could have been the best to ever play the game.
Jason Jordan: What’s your best memory of Len on the court?
Keith Gatlin: I’d have to say it was the game at North Carolina; we were the first team to beat them in the Dean Dome and he had 35 points. He was just incredible! This is without the three-point line mind you. We were down 15 in the second half and we forced overtime. He was just amazing; it was unreal! That’s my best memory in a game, but my best memory in practice was when we were doing skill development one time and he wanted me to help him with his ball handling. So we started playing 1-on-1 to 11 and I’d always start out ahead of him. He’d always say, “Don’t miss because you’ll never get the ball back.” He was right too! I’d miss and that was it. He was just too strong and too good.
JJ: What’s your best off-the-court memory of Len?
KG: Probably just his personality; he was really a great guy. He was a big go-go fan too! I remember I first moved up there to start school from North Carolina and I’m in summer school and I hear this go-go music every morning at about 7:30 a.m. I mean it’s the same sound over and over! It was Chuck Brown, Rare Essence, EU… He loved that music man!
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JJ: Some say Len had the potential to be the greatest; what do you think?
KG: I think the difference between him and Michael Jordan was that Michael could get the ball off the rim and go with it. Lenny was the type of player that could get the rebound and he could push it, but he didn’t push it to get to his spots. Lenny needed a guard to get it and he’d fill the lane; once you gave it to him when he was filling the lane the rest was history. Michael had that over him. But once you cross halfcourt and gave it to Lenny; oh, it was over! I think he would’ve been one of the best ever no question; with his skill-set and the fact that he was the ultimate competitor.
JJ: Coming out of high school how excited were you to have the chance to play with him?
KG: Oh man, I was very excited! One of the selling points from Lefty (Driesell) was that he loved eastern North Carolina guys and I followed in on that. I would watch Lenny a lot my senior year and I knew we would be perfect for each other on the floor. Then I get there and we won the ACC Tournament my freshman year. It was so exciting to play with him. He was so skilled and such a great competitor. He was the guy that would make you raise your level of play. That’s why I loved playing with him. He was special.
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JJ: Do you still remember everything about the day that he passed?
KG: I remember it every day. We were having a celebration after he’d got drafted and he said he was going to see his family and that he’d see me in the morning. I woke up that next morning and it was just chaotic. I remember it every day.
JJ: What’s the biggest lesson you took from that situation?
KG: Well, there are so many things that you can take from that and learn from, but I use it as teaching tool to help young players out. I tell my kids in my program all the time that you can be guilty by association. Unfortunately, the way Lenny lost his life, Lefty lost his job, the chancellor lost his job, the president lost his job, myself and the other guys were outcast as being bad kids and drug users and drinkers and I’d never taken a drink in my life or smoked anything, but because of his death all of us were thrown in this “you can’t touch Maryland guys” category. I tell my guys all the time to be careful about everything that they do and to think about everything because you just never know.
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