Years later, Len Bias' death continues to trouble many lives


June 19, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff The following contributed to this story: Patrick Ercolano, Josie Karp, Elisha King, Melody Simmons, Marina Sarris and Norris West.

Lonise Bias arrives alone for the anti-drug luncheon, a tall, strong, self-possessed woman, striking in a blue linen suit as she crosses the flagstones of the Hyatt Regency atrium.

You can see her son, Lenny, in her youthful stride, her athletic carriage, in the bones of her face, and then in the wide sweep of her arms as she makes her impassioned plea against the drugs that killed her son.

And for a moment you can almost see the long reach of his fine, young body stretching once again for the basket in overtime against North Carolina at the Cole Field House. You can almost hear the crowd. You blink your eyes.

Len Bias died on this day five years ago, June 19, 1986, at 8:50 a.m., about the time this newspaper began to come out on the streets today. He had 6.5 milligrams of cocaine concentrated in each liter of his blood. About average, the medical examiner remarked, for people who die of cocaine intoxication.

Lonise Bias has found in her son's death a mission, a duty to preach against drugs. She's a born-again Christian who believes God took her son at the pinnacle of his 22 years as a sacrifice to warn and redeem millions of other drug users.

"There's hope," she tells the diners at the Hyatt meeting of Partners for a Drug-Free America. "But it begins with each one of us.

"Don't allow this luncheon to be an exercise in futility," she pleads. "I'm talking about your own home. I'm talking about the children in your own home."

Lonise Bias began her crusade against drugs almost at the same time she was burying her son. She's delivered hundreds of these sermons in the five years since then. She's quite practiced at them. Her text hasn't changed much -- except that since the death of her second son, Jay, last December in a random shopping mall shooting, she's added a sad, sad cadenza deploring violence and guns.

And despite her choreographed control and self-possession, it sometimes seems that her five years of speeches and sermons have been one long cry of anguish.

Despite her certainty, the meaning of Len Bias' death remains elusive to others, its effect ambiguous.

Conventional wisdom has it that he died with a diamond as big as the Ritz within his grasp. He had been picked as the No. 1 draft choice of the Boston Celtics, champions of the National Basketball Association.

With Bias, the Celtics believed they had the makings of a dynasty. They saw in him a potential Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. He had had an All-American season at Maryland. He was the "horse" the team turned to when they needed points, a 6-foot-8, 195-pound forward who averaged 23.2 points and 6.8 rebounds a game.

Reporting from Boston, Evening Sun sports writer Molly Dunham quoted Bias as saying, "At Maryland we had a great team, but we were always the dark horse.

"I'm going to be top dog now," he exulted. "I'm happy. Elated. I can't wait. What else can I say. I'm in the NBA. I dreamed I'd get drafted. To be able to play for Boston . . . that was a dream within a dream."

He went home to celebrate.

Molly Dunham's next story was an elegy from the shadows of Cole Field House. Bias' victory celebration had been fatal.

He got to the University of Maryland campus about 10 o'clock at night on June 18. He rounded up some friends and teammates and they started partying with malt liquor and cognac and cocaine.

A lot of cocaine, one of them would later say, maybe as much as a half a cup. Dealer-quality dope, an investigator said. Some of it may have been crack.

Bias, his teammates David Gregg and Terry Long, and Brian Lee Tribble, a friend who would be accused and acquitted of supplying the dope, did cocaine from 3:30 a.m. to 6:15 a.m.

At Tribble's trial, Terry Long demonstrated with a straw how they snorted a line of coke from a mirror. He and Gregg said they warned Bias to slow down.

"I'm tough," Bias said, and campus folklore says he added, "I'm a horse."

He was messed up, Long said. He tried to walk to the bathroom.

"He was stumbling. He wouldn't have made it."

Bias sprawled on a bed. He started quivering and shaking as if he were having a seizure.

"When he began the seizures, I called my mom for help," Brian Tribble told an interviewer. "Although I knew already what to do because of my sister."

Tribble's 30-year-old sister is severely retarded and has frequent seizures.

"When he stopped having seizures," Tribble said, "I took his pulse."

He couldn't find any.

Tribble dialed 911. The call was recorded.

"It's Len Bias . . . He needs some assistance . . . He's not breathing right . . . This is Len Bias . . . You've got to bring him back to life . . . There's no way he can die."

But he did.

Bias' death exploded like an underwater volcano and sent forth an enormous wave of shock and horror that swept away the University of Maryland athletic department, washed over the university administration, --ed the hope of a Boston Celtics dynasty and trapped a score of lives in the maelstrom.

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