t's true, what she says about the graves. I went to see them not long after I heard Lonise Bias tell an incredible story to a group of South Carolina high school students: While witnessing the burial of her son Jay, she looked down and realized she was standing on the grave of her eldest son, Leonard. I had assumed it was a rhetorical flourish, a metaphor crafted for effect by a guest speaker who was getting paid to whack some sobriety into a room of spaced-out pubescents with self-image issues. But then I drove to the cemetery, in a Maryland suburb of Washington called Suitland, and I trudged up a hill, and I found the markers, a couple of rectangles blotched with age, stamped into the dirt and rocks and tufts of grass. And it is true -- there is perhaps a foot of space between her boys. They are, quite literally, resting side by side.
The graves, tucked together like this, are a stark testimony to the complexity of Lonise Bias' grief. It is impossible to comprehend the hellish depths she has plumbed, and it is equally difficult to see how she emerged with such palpable vigor, determination and self-assurance. This is what makes her come across as a bit strange, especially to a roomful of teenagers; instead of crushing her spirit, unspeakable family tragedy has stripped her of the angst and self-doubt that paralyzes much of her audience. She opens her speeches by telling people she does not particularly care what they think of her, which permits her to bellow phrases like, "I AM THE LEGACY THAT WAS LEFT BEHIND!" and "I CAME THROUGH TO SHOW YOU THE WAY!" and somehow make them sound authoritative rather than bombastic.
"I've been termed as being ABNORMALLY ENTHUSIASTIC," she is saying. "But I am full of passion BECAUSE I BELIEVE IN YOU. I am standing here to TELL YOU that you CAN MAKE IT."
It is a Monday morning, and Lonise Bias is sweating underneath the spotlights on the stage of a high school auditorium in a quiet corner of South Carolina. The assembly is mandatory. And it doesn't matter that no one in this room knows who she is anymore, or who her sons were, or where they came from, or why her story means anything at all. It doesn't matter that she was hired blind by a teacher who read her biography on the Web site of a speakers' bureau and thought, "Well, that sounds kind of appropriate for a schoolwide assembly," and it doesn't matter that she momentarily forgets where she is, and refers to the students of Greenwood High School as the students of Greenville. It doesn't matter, because it is hard not to listen when a woman with this kind of overbearing presence IS TALKING RIGHT AT YOU.
She has always possessed a robust set of vocal cords. When she was in elementary school, and the faculty needed a child to speak loudly enough for a large group to hear, they chose her. She grew up tall and imposing, with a natural-born gravity; after her speech at Greenwood, more than one student said Lonise Bias reminded them of their mothers. Perhaps, she always thought, she would teach someday, but she imagined it would be in Sunday school, not in a place like this, a public school several hundred miles from the suburban Maryland county where her life has played out like a soap opera.
Here, though, is what's weirdest of all about Lonise Bias: She, of all people, does not believe the events of that day were unjust. In fact, she believes the events of that day were unavoidable. She has never allowed herself to project into the future, or to examine the possibilities, the endless permutations of what-ifs that guide the discussion of her son whenever his name arises. For her, there was only this future. For her, there was only this possibility. In the days after her son died, her public demeanor was so stoic and unflinching that she received letters from people declaring her a phony. And she admits that among the other emotions her son's death brought on, it brought relief.
Not long after Len Bias' death, she made a life-changing appearance on a Christian television program, "The 700 Club," in which she explained why. She described the premonitions she'd been having, and the dreams, and the inexplicable emotional breakdowns, and the visions she assumed were coming directly from above, all imbuing her with a heavy and inextricable feeling that her son was not meant to play professional basketball. Her son, who in his senior season at the University of Maryland was widely regarded as the best college basketball player in America, a can't-miss talent with absurd hang time. Her son, who had been drafted with the No. 2 pick by the NBA champion Boston Celtics on June 17, 1986. Her son, who would be described in an autopsy report two days later as a "well-developed young Black male," 6-foot-7, 221½ pounds, otherwise fit and healthy and clean, with the exception of the copious amount of cocaine in his system.
"I can remember speaking to this woman once before Len died, and she had said, 'Things are going to be so wonderful for you all,'" Lonise Bias says. "And I remember telling her this very clearly. I said, 'It looks like I can go over to that table and pick up whatever's on that table. It looks like I can do it, but there can be something that can stop me from doing it.' So I guess what I'm saying is, while everyone else was cheering, I was still waiting to see if it was going to happen, because ..."
For a moment, she is somewhere else, her gaze fixed on a table a few feet from where she sits in an office adorned with photographs of her posing next to presidents and congressmen as a well-compensated motivational speaker of some renown, as a proud foot soldier in the war on drugs. Twenty-two years have passed, and Len Bias has been dead as long as he was alive. And clouds of doubt and shame and confusion linger, and truthfully, no one wants to talk very much about the long-term meaning of Len Bias except Lonise Bias, who cannot stop talking about it. All because, several years before her sons would come to lie side by side in those two narrow burial plots and several months before her life became altered by grief, the mother had a vision of her eldest son as a martyr.
Autopsy No. 86-999
Prince George's County
Leonard K. Bias
June 19, 1986
1. Cocaine Intoxication
LEONARD K. BIAS, a 22-year-old Black male, died as a result of cocaine intoxication, which interrupted the normal electrical control of his heartbeat, resulting in the sudden onset of seizures and cardiac arrest. The blood cocaine level was 6.5 milligrams per liter. Toxicological studies for alcohol and other drugs were negative. Due to the ongoing investigation of the circumstances surrounding his death, the manner of the death is ruled UNDETERMINED at this time.
I do not know whether Len Bias was a martyr, or whether in death, as his mother often says, he has brought life. I do not know whether, as Jesse Jackson claimed in eulogizing Bias -- likening him to Martin Luther King Jr., Mozart, Gandhi and Jesus -- that the Lord "sometimes uses our best people to get our attention." I do not know whether Len Bias died for any reason at all, divine or otherwise, beyond the fact he ingested a massive amount of dangerously pure cocaine in a brief period of time, short-circuiting the electrical impulses to his heart muscle. I do not know whether, as many claim, the Boston Celtics would have extended the Bird-McHale-Parish dynasty by several seasons if Len Bias had lived. I do not know if he was the catalyst for another decades-long New England curse. I do not know whether he would have been better/as good as/in the same stratosphere as Michael Jordan if he had lived to play in the National Basketball Association. We can argue these issues all we like, but I believe that, because the answers to such questions can never be determined, the questions have become irrelevant, obscured by the mythology that Autopsy No. 86-999 has engendered.
I do know death -- especially sudden and premature death -- has a way of obscuring many truths (see: Dean, James; Cobain, Kurt; et al.).
I do know I was 13 when Len Bias died, and it scared the hell out of me. It was supposed to scare the hell out of me; this was a moralistic passion play, an after-school special come to life.
I do know the public narrative was deceptively simple: Len Bias had just experienced the most euphoric moment of his life, and he had an unquestionably bright future, and he had chosen to experiment with illicit substances for the first time -- perhaps, some errant rumors went, it was crack cocaine -- and in a freak occurrence of bad karma, his heart had stopped.
And I do believe that because of this public narrative and the consequences of this narrative, the death of Len Bias can be classified as the most socially influential moment in the history of modern sports.
Or perhaps -- as Len Bias' former college basketball coach, a crusty old Southerner named Charles G. "Lefty" Driesell, told me -- Len Bias changed absolutely nothing at all. Perhaps it was just a "bad accident." Perhaps the meaning of the demise of Leonard Kevin Bias is this: "Some guy was doing cocaine, and he died."
The Len Bias Morality Play began with a single bizarre phone call, placed from a dormitory on a college campus to a 911 dispatcher whose Baltimorese hammered flat the word "phone" and who, from his tone of voice, apparently assumed this whole thing was a put-on, a prank by a bunch of rowdy university kids with nothing better to do. It was approximately 6:30 in the morning. The voice of the caller was slurred and hesitant, and the voice kept repeating the victim's name until the dispatcher declared, "It doesn't matter what his name is." But Brian Tribble was also (presumably) prodigiously high, and this was really happening to him -- his friend was having a seizure on the floor of his suite, 1103 Washington Hall, on the University of Maryland campus. So Tribble kept repeating the name, and uttering panicky phrases like, "This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There's no way he can die."
A moment earlier, we have since learned, Len Bias sat up on a bed, bent over a mirror, proclaimed himself "a horse" -- a nickname his teammates had used for him because of his on-court grace and physical presence -- and snorted one last line of cocaine. A moment earlier, Bias was fine, just a young man celebrating his future the way many young men have/will celebrate their futures. Then he got up to use the bathroom, and he stumbled, and he sat back down on the bed, and he lapsed into a seizure. There were three other men in the room. One, Terry Long, placed the handle of a pair of scissors in Bias' mouth to prevent him from biting his tongue; another, David Gregg, held Bias' legs. Brian Tribble phoned his mother, who told him to call 911.
Statter phoned a woman at the dispatch center. She confirmed his tip. He phoned his supervisors at Channel 9 in Washington. His supervisors phoned the station's sports anchor, James Brown, and Statter went live on the air as the first reporter at Leland Memorial Hospital. He knew Len Bias was in critical condition. He did not know why. At this point, only four people knew why, and one was dying and the other three were too freaked out to say anything. To this day, they have spoken about it only rarely, though Tribble, along with several of Bias' Maryland teammates, has recently talked to a local filmmaker, Kirk Fraser, whose documentary on Bias reportedly will be released later this year. They will recount a story that has been revealed over the years in bits and pieces, through leaks and rumors and sworn testimony, most notably in a Prince George's County courtroom more than a year after Bias' death, when Brian Tribble -- either a scapegoat or a murderer, depending upon your point of view -- went on trial, charged with providing the drugs that killed his friend.
At 8:51 that morning, according to the autopsy report, Leonard Bias was pronounced dead. Larry Bird, reached by phone at his home in French Lick, Ind., declared to a reporter -- in a quote that would be woven into the legend -- that this was "one of the cruelest things I've ever heard." Bias' body was wheeled out of Leland Hospital, in front of TV cameramen and newspaper photographers, in front of onlookers and teammates who had gathered near the entrance to the emergency room. Statter, who has covered fires and murders and seen all manner of dead bodies, said the sight of Bias underneath a sheet, his outline long and lean, chilled him to the bone.
Meanwhile, Lonise Bias, who had arrived at the hospital and heard the doctors say they were doing all they could, felt the fulfillment of her prophecy was at hand. She listened, and she nodded, and then she told herself, "He's already gone."
In the first hours after Bias' death, there was nothing but shock on the afternoon news. One broadcaster, George Michael, actually broke down on the air. Another, Frank Herzog, had taken his kids to see Bias speak at an event a couple of weeks earlier; he imagined, like many others, that Bias must have had a congenital heart condition. Hundreds of Maryland students, upon hearing the news, gathered at Cole Field House to cheer on a ghost. "Lenny elevated above mortal men," one of them told Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post.
Over the years, we have come to expect the worst from our public figures, and there is little question, if Len Bias died today, the immediate speculation would have been unfettered. But the television news was different back then, still in the middle stages of its transition from sobriety to sensationalism. This was eight years B.O.J. (Before O.J.), and the market was not yet saturated, the cable news channels were in their infancy, and the broadcasts themselves had not been subsumed by the modern troika of scandal, cynicism and splashy graphics. An athlete's personal life was still sketchy territory.
"I think today, it would be different," Statter says. "We've seen so many of these things happen to athletes, people expect it more now. We're so jaded now that if it's a real medical condition, we're almost surprised."
Also, it should be noted that we were in the heart of the Reagan era, at the midpoint of the second term of a president Time magazine put on its July 7 cover. Headline: "Why Is This Man So Popular?" As a nation -- even in the wake of the January space shuttle explosion that the president blamed on "a carelessness that grew out of success" -- we were generally optimistic. Iran-Contra had yet to break; a month earlier, Ivan Boesky had delivered a commencement speech during which he declared, "Greed is all right, by the way. ... I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself." We maintained a certain amount of faith in public institutions, and in the notion of laissez-faire democracy that dictated the Reagan philosophy. We were in the mood to believe in dreams.
And the media, Herzog admitted, was "so naive" about drugs. Few imagined a human as healthy and robust and muscular as Bias could actually die from a substance like cocaine. This was not John Belushi we were talking about; this was not a man who abused his body to its breaking point. This was just the opposite. Bias had the potential, according to Indiana Pacers personnel director Tom Newell, to "become one of the best to ever play his position," the very model of a futuristic NBA power forward, an inside-outside threat, both intimidating and graceful, with the uncanny ability to hang in midair while his opponents shrank beneath him. There is one extraordinary sequence -- available via YouTube -- against North Carolina during his senior season that illustrates Bias' ability to redefine the parameters of his position: With his team trailing by eight, Bias hit a long jump shot, then galloped toward the baseline, stole the inbounds pass and, with a defender closing, dunked with his back to the basket, before landing in a tangle of limbs on the floor. Maryland would win the game in overtime.
How could someone who could do that die like this?
Equally confounding to Herzog, a question that seems incredibly innocent in retrospect: Where did a college athlete get the money for such extravagances?
Of course, there are many things we know now that we did not know then, both from a larger perspective, and a smaller one. We know, for instance, Brian Tribble was once a member of the Maryland JV basketball team, and would later spend time in jail on drug charges, and once had been accused by Driesell of stealing balls from the gym. We know Tribble and Bias had been friends for several years and had spent a great deal of time hanging around a nightclub in Southeast Washington called Chapter III. We know Bias' moods had been growing more sullen as his senior year passed, and he had essentially stopped attending class, acquiring, according to The Washington Post, "the style of one about to become rich and famous."
"Whether Brian got Lenny started doing drugs, I don't know," says Derrick Curry, who was friends with Tribble and Jay and Len Bias. "I've heard stories from people who were around him much more than me, but personally, I had never seen Lenny use drugs. Lenny didn't even drink at clubs."
To do so would have contradicted the public persona of Bias, who was, like his mother, a born-again Christian and who considered himself a role model for children. This was the dawn of the era of image consciousness among athletes: The burgeoning success of Michael Jordan had opened a whole new world, that of the athlete as sponsorial cipher. It was not just about the game anymore. There were shoe contracts and endorsement deals to be cultivated and protected. It was unquestionably a business, and Bias was either self-aware or innocent enough to pass every drug test he ever took, and to emerge clean from all the pre-draft physicals. Bias' advisers claimed to have told him, in the days before the draft, that if he even happened to be in a car with someone smoking a joint, he should remove himself immediately.
Yet Leonard Bias was also 22 years old, just coming to terms with his own maturity. He liked to draw and had imagined pursuing a career in interior design, until advisers at Maryland, seeming to act on the advice of the basketball coaching staff, reportedly steered him into a less demanding curriculum. He had an introspective side, but he was slow to mature (both on and off the court), and often petulant in his dealings with opposing players and officials, and not immune to peer pressure. "If you put him with a bunch of bums, he'd be the best bum," his high school coach, Bob Wagner, once told a reporter. "Put him in with good people, and he'd be the best there, too."
As the legend grew and Maryland students hung life-sized posters in their rooms (Caption: I'm Bias), Bias developed an affinity for the high life that drove the cultural narrative of the era, a high life he imagined he'd be living soon enough. In the months before his death, he purchased fine suits and stereo equipment and jewelry, including a $1,300 gold necklace he bought on the installment plan so he could wear it during a television interview. He took out two personal loans and used most of the money to lease a cobalt blue Nissan 300ZX with a T-top. And he vowed once he signed his NBA contract, to buy a pair of Mercedes -- one for himself and one for his mother.
He used his celebrity to pick up girls. Early on the night of his death, he made a trip to a local liquor store to buy a couple of six packs of Haffenreffer Private Stock malt liquor, and then returned shortly afterward to buy an $18 bottle of Hennessy. He called at least one of his girlfriends. He was allegedly pulled over for speeding on the Maryland campus as many as three times. Portions of the timeline of that night remain obscure and unsubstantiated. What seems clear is Bias, on the night of his return from Boston, was celebrating. More important, he appeared to be escaping -- from his parents (his father had traveled to Boston and back with him), from the friends who thought they knew him, from the reporters whose questions tried his patience, from the weeks of pre-draft workouts, from his role as a neighborhood hero, from the inherent responsibilities that would soon guide his adult existence, from the notion of authority itself.
After completing his noon broadcast, Statter received a call from a source, who told him cocaine had been found in Bias' system. Statter, Brown and their colleague Mike Buchanan confirmed it with two other sources, then Statter went on the air with it. By that evening, the entire story had changed. There was a chill on the airwaves, and we all began to feel as if we had somehow been conned. Statter and his colleagues received death threats for broadcasting details of the previous night, details that suddenly seemed frighteningly intimate. All across the country, we began to question everything we thought we understood about drugs and athletes and our perceptions of modern celebrity. No one wanted to believe it, but this was the new reality. There were no secrets anymore.
"I had a guy who called me and said, 'Listen, he wasn't doing lines of cocaine,'" Herzog recalls. "'Len Bias and I did mounds of cocaine. Mounds.' And I'm saying, 'Holy cow.' But I couldn't find anybody to confirm it. I'm sitting there listening to this guy and he's scaring the hell out of me. And I'm saying, 'What if he's wrong? What if he just wants to be on television?' It didn't make sense on a lot of levels at the time.
"It was awful. But then, with everything that came after, you started to say, 'Yeah, what's your problem? What are you doing that we don't know about?'"
As the news congealed, as police discovered several grams of cocaine under the seat of Bias' leased sports car, as the autopsy was issued, as it became clear cocaine was the cause of Bias' demise, as denial turned to anger, we began to widen the scope of our outrage. We began to contemplate not just the mistakes of one man, but the mistakes of the institutions that led such a man to his death. Was it our fault? Were society's priorities so utterly skewed that we couldn't see the path down which we'd guided a star athlete?
What had we done?
Although college sports have been ripe for corruption since the turn of the 20th century, the 18 months leading up to June 19, 1986, were especially raw for the NCAA. The violations were not just rampant, but blatant. Regard for the rule of law had been entirely subsumed; several coaches complained they could not win without cheating. At North Carolina State, Chris Washburn was suspended for stealing a stereo. At Baylor, basketball coach Jim Haller resigned amid allegations he gave a player money for car payments. At Tulane: point-shaving. At Vanderbilt (Vanderbilt!): a strength coach accused of distributing anabolic steroids. At Memphis: potential ties between the basketball program and gamblers. At SMU: probation for the football team. At TCU: possible cash payments from boosters to football players. At Kentucky: cash and gifts for basketball players. At Clemson: steroids. At Tennessee: quarterback Tony Robinson arrested for drug trafficking. At Georgia: a former instructor alleged athletes were given special academic treatment.
Ultimately, only seven of the 18 players chosen in the first round of the 1986 NBA draft had earned their degrees. That draft would be remembered not just for the death of Len Bias but for its sheer multitude of colossal busts and burnouts, young men who entered the world entirely unprepared for what was coming, for the ever-increasing demands of celebrity.
At Maryland, the scrutiny began immediately, and the scrutiny was relentless: Reporters from the Post and The Baltimore Sun and the TV stations chased down leads for months. A grand jury was called, and a Prince George's County prosecutor named Arthur A. "Bud" Marshall happened to be running for re-election, and what better opening was there than for Marshall to find the persons/places/things that had killed Leonard Bias? To Marshall, and a certain segment of the public, suspects included not only Brian Tribble, but the entire athletic culture at the University of Maryland.
"Money," James Bias would lament in the weeks afterward. He later filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against both Bias' agents and Reebok (he has since retired from his job as an equipment repairman). "That's what it's all about. It's all about making money for the university. It's not about athletes. It's not about athletes and how you feel about them."
In the days following Len Bias' death, the basketball team's academic counselor submitted her resignation amid revelations Bias and several other players were flunking their classes. Task forces were assigned to study several areas of the university's infrastructure. The headlines were brutal as the grand jury dragged on, interviewing some 80 witnesses. And leaks abounded:
The whole thing took on the grand scope and skewed morality of a Tom Wolfe novel: Driesell, the longtime Maryland coach, was accused of covering up his initial knowledge of Bias' cocaine use (he testified in court and was never charged). He clashed with university chancellor John Slaughter, a dignified man with a background in engineering, and with athletic director Dick Dull, who had extended Driesell's contract by a decade just one year earlier.
In the end, all three would resign. Marshall would lose the election for prosecutor. Brian Tribble would be acquitted for lack of sufficient evidence that he was the drug provider that night.
"If I did anything wrong, why am I in the Maryland Hall of Fame?" Driesell asks. "You're bringing up all this crap that happened, but there's nothing to it. There's some stuff that went on there, that I haven't talked about, but if you've got any sense, you can figure it out yourself. Go ahead and figure it out. I don't want to talk about this junk, man."
Twenty minutes after he says these things and hangs up, Driesell calls back and indirectly apologizes for his tone of voice. Still, he refuses to admit he made any mistakes, even in the face of evidence that he might have pressured the school to accept athletes who might not otherwise have been accepted at Maryland. He speaks of the team's graduation rates during his tenure, which he insists were solid. He reminds me that Len Elmore and Tom McMillen, who played at Maryland in the 1970s, were both superior students. He calls Slaughter "a jerk," and says the academic adviser who resigned was "trying to save her butt."
This is the essence of Driesell: He is famously brash and combative and stubborn. He comes across -- often on purpose -- as an unsophisticated hayseed, but he graduated from Duke. He once challenged a reporter, the Post's Ken Denlinger, to a street fight after a particularly critical column. But he also has a way of softening and endearing himself to his critics. (This, says Denlinger, is "Lefty being Lefty.")
Lefty's stubbornness also might have contributed to a certain myopia. In an era when athletes were growing accustomed to a culture of permissiveness, Driesell had simply lost his way and "started recruiting a different kind of kid," according to Denlinger. In turn, Driesell might have inadvertently changed the atmosphere within his program.
"Lefty didn't buy the drugs for Len Bias, and he didn't encourage him to take drugs," says Mark Hyman, who covered the aftermath for The Sun. "But the question is, was his style of discipline such that the kids thought it was OK to do this?"
As Lonise Bias told me recently, "When you're talking about the life of a child being lost, regardless of how it took place, it's going to fall on the university. There was no covering."
So, what has changed? Certainly, academic standards have been raised at many schools, including Maryland, and athletic departments are much more tightly regulated and controlled than they were back then. "If it hadn't been Lenny, and it hadn't been right before the draft, and it hadn't been the Celtics, nobody would have noticed," says one longtime Maryland official who is still wary of speaking publicly about it. "I guess that's the good that came out of it."
But let us examine the key recommendations of the academic task force at the University of Maryland, formed in the weeks after Bias' death, to realize how far college sports have drifted toward the business end:
That task force was chaired by J. Robert Dorfman, then the acting dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical and Physical Sciences. Dorfman was not, and is not, a basketball fan, but he holds no hostility toward athletes, either. At one point, he says, he and Driesell fell into a "discussion" about the meaning of statistics. "It's a little hard for me to describe how he viewed things," Dorfman says.
Dorfman's own view has been that a university's mission should be in education; when he encountered certain members of the athletic department, he realized their thinking was entirely different. Hence the task force recommendations, which today, in the era of Tuesday night football and Maui-Anchorage-Festival-Challenges and the O.J. Mayo saga, seem refreshingly quaint.
"I don't mind quaint," Dorfman says.
But most of us have moved on from such lofty ideals. It is too late to turn back. All of us who escape to major college athletics for solace have a little bit of Lefty in us. We would prefer to view the death of Len Bias not as an indictment of an entire system rife with hypocrisy, but merely a poor decision by a young man who should have known better.
"There was nothing I did wrong -- what did I do wrong?" Driesell says. "Leonard Bias was a great kid. I loved him. But he was not under my jurisdiction in any shape or form. It wasn't anything I had something to do with. He made a bad decision to try cocaine for the first time."
1. Len Bias was experimenting with cocaine for the first time that night.
A: That is possible, yes.
-- Maryland medical examiner John E. Smialek at a news conference June 24, 1986
Why this matters:
So perhaps this is one of those wishful notions -- perpetuated by Len Bias' negative drug-test results (easily manipulated), and by the claims of friends and family, and by the medical examiner's initial opinion (later revised) that this might have, indeed, been Bias' first experience with cocaine -- that benefits everyone and harms no one. Perhaps, in burnishing a legend, the claims of Driesell and Lonise Bias (who still believes her son had never tried cocaine before, and might, in fact, have tried it accidentally, or even been poisoned that night) actually proved far more positive for society than the truth might have.
As evidence, I return to myself, at age 13, and all the other children of my generation, products of the skewed value system of the '80s, for whom the most potent advertisement for the "Just Say No" campaign might have been the notion that a single splotch of cocaine -- and this is how I imagined it as a child, that Bias had simply touched several stray crystals of processed coca leaves to his nostrils, and shortly thereafter departed this mortal coil -- could kill us without prejudice, if our bodies were so genetically inclined. This is no doubt a major reason why I have never touched cocaine myself, and why, several years ago, when an acquaintance of mine who was a product of the same generation tried cocaine for the first time, he thought immediately of Len Bias, as I'm sure hundreds or thousands of others did, too.
"All of us like to generalize our experience," says Eric Sterling, an expert on drug policy. "But it's a big country, with a lot of different kids. I wouldn't say that it 'worked.'"
Still, I ask: Would Bias' story have achieved the same status as a cultural touchstone if we had known he -- while probably not a habitual user -- had dabbled in cocaine for months, or that his close friend was apparently dealing cocaine, or that the truth was far more nuanced than the mythology? Is there then something to be said, at least in this case, for a (seeming) lie proving far more powerful than the truth?
2. Len Bias was using crack cocaine that night.
See also: Smialek told reporters as he left the courthouse that it did not appear Bias freebased the cocaine found in his system. Earlier this month, Smialek's assistant, Dr. Dennis Smyth, who performed the autopsy on Bias, said the redness in Bias's windpipe and a high concentration of cocaine in his blood indicated the athlete "most likely" smoked cocaine rather than snorted it in powder form through his nose. ''We don't have any evidence to support that [freebasing] right now," Smialek said. (UPI, July 21, 1986)
Why this matters:
Why this matters, II:
If there is a human thread to tie all this moral complexity together -- a Zelig-like figure who bore witness to the complexity of this entire saga -- it is Derrick Curry. He, too, was a basketball player at Northwestern High School, a fleet guard with Division I prospects who was a close friend and classmate of Len Bias' younger brother, Jay. He claims to have spent time in Len Bias' dorm room hours before his death, hanging out with David Gregg, another Northwestern graduate. Curry knew -- and liked -- Brian Tribble.
The night after his brother's death, Jay Bias, who would turn 16 the next day, went out to play a basketball game as a tribute to a brother who had always warned him away from drugs. But over time, Curry saw the way Len's death ate at Jay's own sense of identity and his own passion for the game. He sought solace on the court, but what he carried, both within himself and through the projections of others, were a mythic set of expectations, as if Jay could carry on what his brother could not. On the court, he often resembled his brother, and he was endowed with undeniable talent: In their junior year, Curry and Jay Bias led Northwestern to the state championship. Jay scored 28 points in the finals, at Cole Field House on the Maryland campus, the gym where his brother had made his name.
Jay Bias averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds his senior season, and was generally regarded among the top recruits in the nation. But something wasn't right. He got into disputes with the Northwestern coaching staff. He started fights. He fell into tantrums. His grades and test scores were poor, and he chose to enroll at a nearby community college. After a year and more problems, this time with the Allegany Community College coaching staff, he quit school and took a job, hoping, at some point, to enroll at American University.
"After Lenny died, it took away [Jay's] love for the game of basketball," Curry says. "Part of him wanted to play and be the second Lenny, but the pressure people kept putting on him took its toll. Finally, Jay said, 'Man, I'm just tired.' He used to keep so much stuff inside."
By then, the Len Bias legend had swelled to the point that it carried a strange cachet (and still does -- today, in the D.C. area, there is a rock band named after him). In the drug business, amid the perverse logic of celebrity that we would soon grow accustomed to, Tribble was seen as a rising star; he considered writing a book and hosted several parties at a local nightclub, posing for photographs with the attendees. His guilt also led him back to Jay Bias.
"Brian used to look out for me and Jay, particularly after Lenny died," Curry says. "He'd give us money to take our girls out to the movies. He'd take us out shopping. Brian didn't look for anything in return -- he never asked me to do anything illegal for him.
"I think what happened with Brian is that Brian was a very likable person, and Brian knew a lot of people, and they said, 'Do you want to make some easy money?' And Brian probably figured, 'Well, doggone, this is easy.' I can say that from his family's standpoint, he wasn't living in the ghetto. His family wasn't doing bad. Brian is and was a very intelligent person.
"But sometimes people get into it so much that they can't get out of it."
On Dec. 4, 1990, Jay Bias, then 20 years old, went to a shopping mall. He told Curry he planned to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend. Curry was going to go with him. He chose to get a haircut from a friend instead. Midway through his haircut, Curry saw a television news report about a shooting at the mall. The victim was Len Bias' younger brother. According to reports, the sales clerk had accused Jay of flirting with his wife, and Jay left and got into his car, and the suspect drove up behind him in the parking lot and shot him in the back. Curry later heard that Jay Bias and the man who murdered him had gone together in a limo to their prom a couple of years earlier. At the hospital, Eric Bias, the last living male progeny of Lonise and James Bias, kept repeating the words, "My brother's not dead."
It made no sense, but what did make sense anymore? What logic could anyone extract from this without clinging to divine inevitability, to the theories of predestination and martyrdom favored by Lonise Bias?
Like many of us, Derrick Curry was still terribly naive about the realities of the drug trade in the late 1980s. He was 20 years old, the son of a high school principal with a Ph.D., but he still reverted to sucking his thumb during stressful moments. He had enrolled at Prince George's Community College, but still had aspirations for a Division I basketball career at Georgetown, and he was something of a playground virtuoso, whose vertical leap was once measured at 43 inches. He had friends in the neighborhood, and those friends were -- like Tribble -- involved in illicit activity, in a drug ring that would later come to be known as the Woodridge Group, whose cell phones were being monitored by authorities. Curry did not do drugs, and he insists he did not profit from drugs, but a man he considered a friend and a role model, Norman Brown (whose cocaine supplier, according to a 1994 Washington Post report, was Tribble), had asked Curry to run some errands for him. "Curry needed what Brown's lifestyle offered: a casual acceptance of crime and danger; a casual defiance of the American power structure," Richard Leiby wrote in The Washington Post several years later. Maybe that sounds overly psychoanalytical, but it is hard not to wonder whether the relationship between Len Bias and Brian Tribble was guided by some of those same elements.
One day after the death of Jay Bias, and two months after Tribble pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, federal agents broke up the remainder of the Woodridge Group. (In part, Curry says, they acted because they feared retaliation from the Woodridge Group against Jay Bias' murderer and his accomplices.) Curry, who had been driving Brown's car, in which a one-pound rock of crack was hidden, imagined he would pay a price; he imagined he would serve a short jail sentence and then be given a chance to atone for the sins of his naivete. He had no criminal record. One FBI agent called him a "flunky."
But there were federal laws, hurriedly passed by Congress, and those laws decreed that drug offenders were subject to mandatory minimum sentences, and those who trafficked in crack were especially susceptible. Despite sympathy from a judge who could do nothing to help him, Derrick Curry was sentenced to 19 years and seven months in prison for his role in a drug conspiracy under laws that had been passed in the summer of 1986, in the midst of an unprecedented cry for reform in the wake of the death of Leonard K. Bias.
This is America, after all, and it does not take long for tragedy to bleed into political stratagems. Here is how this element of the Bias saga progressed: The speaker of the House of Representatives at the time was a Democrat named Thomas Phillip "Tip" O'Neill Jr., and Tip was an old-school Boston politico, and you can imagine how a politician with ties to both D.C. and Boston, two cities devastated by the Bias tragedy, would react the morning after such an event.
Sterling, a lawyer for the House Judiciary Committee, came into work the next day and was overwhelmed by the response. Overnight, America's "vulnerability" to drugs had become the seminal issue in Washington. O'Neill was thinking about the midterm elections in November 1986; he was thinking about regaining political momentum from a popular second-term president. It didn't matter that Bias had nothing to do with crack -- Bias was a major story, and crack was a major story, and to conflate them was simply a shortcut to political progress. O'Neill thought Democrats should take the lead on getting tough on drugs, and that meant stricter sentences for drug offenders. It also meant both Democrats and Republicans were swept up in hyperbole and emotional appeals, in trying to out-tough each other, in a debate swept clean of nuance. Crack had altered the media's image of a typical cocaine user from white to black, from rich to poor -- in 1986, for the first time, more blacks were imprisoned than whites. Now, here was the perfect call to action, a young man of modest means on the verge of becoming rich, an athlete who had instilled pride in white and black communities, suddenly gone -- and for no good reason. That Cleveland Browns safety Don Rogers fatally overdosed on cocaine eight days later only served to reinforce the anti-drug rhetoric that was building to a fever pitch on Capitol Hill.
"In death," Dan Baum wrote in "Smoke and Mirrors," Len Bias "would become the Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs."
Amid the fury and panic and ignorance, amid what Sterling calls a "legislative frenzy," Congress acted in a bipartisan fashion, passing the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. One Oklahoma legislator admitted it was "out of control," but added, "of course I'm for it." The law established mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders; it also decreed that possession or sale of 1/100th of an amount of crack cocaine as compared to powder cocaine (5 grams versus 500 grams) would trigger those mandatory minimum sentences. That number was based entirely on fears of this new drug. What it had to do with the death of Len Bias, no one seemed to know. But it was all part of the same narrative now.
In our haste to address what had been framed as America's most pressing problem, in our haste to atone for the sins of Leonard Bias, we took it too far. That is now widely acknowledged by both Democrats and Republicans and borne out in studies by advocacy groups like The Sentencing Project and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The racial disparity, the targeting of black neighborhoods, the overcrowding of prisons with low-level drug offenders rather than major traffickers, and the outright absurdity of what happened to Derrick Curry and thousands like him, has prompted the introduction of seven bills between the House and Senate -- sponsored by conservatives, such as Orrin Hatch of Utah, and liberals, such as Charles Rangel of New York -- to amend the laws passed in 1986.
Derrick Curry (whose original sentence was nearly three times that served by most murderers) was 31 years old when his sentence was commuted by President Clinton in 2001. He worked out with the Knicks, but he tore up his knee, and any hope for a pro basketball career was gone. He still maintains contact with Brian Tribble, who was sentenced to 10 years for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and now works as a trainer at a local gym, and who seems determined to begin his life anew. For a time in prison, Curry and Tribble shared a cell. They would talk sometimes about what happened, and they would talk sometimes about what would have happened if that night had never happened.
"I think if Brian was a real friend -- and I know personally that he loved Lenny, and I have seen Brian break down from talking about Lenny -- he wouldn't have let him do it," Curry says. "I know how Brian felt about Lenny as a friend, and he shouldn't have put him in that situation."
But here we are, and what's done is done. Time has been served, and the bodies have been buried, and a mother continues to tell the only story she knows, the only story she cares to believe. She has heard of the controversy over mandatory minimum sentences and the role of her son's death in the process, and she has heard of the continued corruption of college sports and of the Hall of Fame career of Lefty Driesell -- she still attends Maryland games with her grandchildren on occasion -- but these push-and-pulls over legislation and administration are not her greatest concerns.
Her concerns, and the mission she has been charged with, are more concrete, more personal. She has aspirations of building a youth center in Prince George's County, named after her children. She believes that by addressing the way these modern children see themselves, she can affect the decisions they make. She believes this is her calling. She believes her son died for this very reason, to be a cautionary tale, to be a martyr. And we can fret all we want over the legacy of Len Bias, or the lack thereof, over whether, as one newspaper columnist wrote in the aftermath, ignorance should be a reason for heroism, or whether, as Lonise Bias says, "He went down to give life." Because she knows she is right.
"It's not that I'm just some airhead that's just full of faith," she says. "It's just that you have to move on. And through your faith, you believe that things are working out for good, and when you see you're impacting people's lives as a result of this horrific thing that happened, and whether it be a lie or a truth, you continue to move forward in the midst of it."
So she sits here, in a classroom in Greenwood, S.C., eating a fried-chicken salad, granting an exclusive audience to the members of the boys' and girls' basketball teams before she rides back to the airport.
"COMPARISON RUINS CONTENTMENT!" she told them earlier.
"THERE ARE CONSEQUENCES THAT ARE GOING TO FOLLOW YOU!" she told them.
The girls are cozying up to her. A boy named Sam Montgomery, who is a star player on the football team, a Division I recruit, tells me Lonise Bias reminds him of his mother, a "strong black woman" with a resonant message. Everything Sam says indicates he could not imagine poisoning his career with drugs. Everything he says seems heartfelt and truthful. Everything he says gives you hope for the next generation.
And that's the thing: All of this is so admirable. Everything Lonise Bias preaches is backed by a moral certitude you can't help but find compelling. A woman who lost two of her children -- a woman who straddled the graves of two of her children -- is helping ensuing generations. Where are the flaws in such a story? What isn't redemptive and appealing -- what isn't downright American -- about a narrative like this one?
"Did you know your son was doing drugs?" one of the girls asks.
"It's been said it was his first time," Lonise Bias says.
Michael Weinreb's book "Game of Kings: A Year Among the Oddballs and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team" is now available in paperback from Gotham Books. He is working on a book about sports in the 1980s. He can be reached at http://www.michaelweinreb.com.
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