Jay Bias'death part of senseless tragedy on streets


December 06, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

Jay Bias talked to somebody's wife -- a clerk at a jewelry store where he was making a purchase -- and that somebody had a gun and blew Jay Bias away. It seems to be as simple, and as complex, as that. The killer apparently followed Bias out into a zTC parking lot, got in his car, pulled out his gun and fired five rounds.

Because the somebody was driving a Mercedes, and because he was a young man with a gun and a luxury car, the obvious inference is that he was involved with drugs. But there's no indication that this was a drug deal. It was more likely what they call in the street a disrespect deal. Somebody had a gun. Somebody else talked to his wife and died. It happens every day.

What makes this death special is who Jay Bias was, or, rather, who his brother was. We watched Jay Bias on TV 4 1/2 years ago as he broke down at the funeral of Len Bias, his famous brother who had overdosed on cocaine while partying in his dorm room at the University of Maryland. Len's death was a national story. Jesse Jackson spoke at his funeral. His mother became an important anti-drug spokeswoman. The positive spin at the time was that Bias, the All-America basketball player about to become a Boston Celtic and a millionaire, would not have died in vain if young people saw up close the costs of cocaine.

But the life on the street is harder than it was even when Len Bias died. There is no positive spin. Kids grow up in the shadow of drugs. Drug dealers are role models. Drive-by killings are commonplace. And the Biases lose a second son while a community grieves with them, talks about the senselessness of death and then moves on.

In Baltimore, and throughout Maryland, Len Bias is not forgotten. At Lake Clifton High, a school whose neighborhood is no stranger to violence, the kids at a basketball practice talk of the shock of Jay Bias' death and can't make any more sense of it than of the death of his older brother. It must have been that way at every school yesterday.

"My sister goes to Maryland," says Roger Battle, 17, a senior. "She dated [former Maryland basketball player] Adrian Branch, and she called me with the news. I couldn't believe it. She was in tears, and I was like in shock. It was four years ago that she called me and told me Len Bias had died. She cried and cried then. I loved Len Bias. He was the man. You think about the family and what they must be going through."

You think about the family -- two sons gone -- and you think about what it means.

You wonder if this family is a microcosm of the tragedy of our cities. One son dies of drugs, another of bullets. They die in the same hospital emergency room where others have passed on before them. They die of the violence that society continues to wreak upon itself. You think of the family, and of a thousand others.

Harold Smith, 18, and a senior basketball player at Lake Clifton, was shocked, too, by Jay Bias' death. Shocked, but not completely surprised. He knows how these things happen.

"You've got to walk away from a fight these days," says Smith, although that's just what Jay Bias had apparently tried to do. "It's too dangerous out there. Somebody will shoot you for your jewelry, for your jacket. Over a girl. 'Cause you stepped on their tennis [shoes].

"It doesn't matter how big you are when you're up against a bullet."

Smith knows people who have been shot, knows people who have been killed. "Drugs," he says. And he knows how to get a gun and says anybody can.

"I know somebody I can ask," he says. "It's that easy."

Kids have guns, loaded and dangerous and deadly. You'll have to ask yourself why.

Smith and Battle talked about education, about staying in school and going to college, about playing basketball and staying away from drugs. And they talked about death.

"This wouldn't be a big story except for Lenny," Battle says. "It's just a couple of paragraphs. If somebody gets killed around here, people say, 'It's just another death in Baltimore.' "

Jay Bias was just another basketball player, a college dropout, a kid who had a job and was hoping to go back to school to play some more ball. But his was not just another death, because one tragedy recalls another, the earlier tragedy that crippled an entire university, from which it has yet to recover. At Maryland, where Jay Bias, as a young kid, wanted to play, the story never seems to end.

"It's an important memory to keep," says Andy Geiger, the new athletic director at Maryland. "I wasn't here, but from the perspective of a newcomer, No. 34 [Bias' jersey] hangs in a place of honor in our building, and we're all reminded of all that means.

"Jay's death matters to Maryland, but maybe in a surprising way, in the sense that in humankind there's an extended family. Certainly, the Biases are part of that family. My first reaction was as a parent: 'How you do possibly deal with it?' "

It doesn't hurt for the rest of us to recall Len Bias' death. He was the one who made it and threw it all away for a drug, and there is a lesson there. Maybe Jay Bias' death says something, too -- about the menace of guns and of the low value too many of us place on a life. But what their deaths say most loudly and most persistently is that we live in a society where such tragedies are tolerated, where the mean streets grow ever meaner and where, if the name of the victim isn't Bias, few people ever stop to notice.

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