College basketball's Division I men's championship is being decided tomorrow night. In addition to tournament pressure, college athletes have to face academic pressure, as shown in this excerpt from "Lenny, Lefty and the Chancellor." The book is about the events surrounding and following the 1986 death of Len Bias, a basketball star at University of Maryland College Park. Published last week, it is by C. Fraser Smith, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.
James Bias tried to get his son to focus on what he would study at the University of Maryland -- and on the odds against a successful career in basketball. It was not easy when the best coaches in America were telling the young man he was certain to be an All-American, certain to be a No. 1 draft choice in the National Basketball Association.
As fathers do, James Bias told his son stories from his own experience. He had known many good athletes as a younger man.
"A lot of them went from All-American to All-Nothing," he would say. He had seen it happen. He had seen the heartbreak and the deadening realization, arriving too late, that nobody in business cared if you were a playground legend. James Bias, telling the story, used the "All-Nothing" line over and over.
His son played the summer after high school in the Derby Classic in Louisville, Kentucky, and he was voted Most Valuable Player in the McDonald's Capital Classic at the Capital Centre near his home.
All-Nothing did not seem possible.
Professor Joyce Ann Joyce met Bias on the first day of the 1983 fall semester, his second year at Maryland. He walked into her introductory class in Afro-American literature and, at 6'8", was more than conspicuous as he found a seat.
"It was a chaotic day, and he came late, this very tall young man. He came in, and he was so tall. I said, 'Well, do you play basketball?' "
The question was met with stifled giggles. Len Bias was a campus figure. Who didn't know he was a basketball player?
Her greeting was one of those "How's-the-weather-up-there?" questions that put basketball players into straitjackets. Others, who were not as open and honest as Professor Joyce, fit him silently into the mold. Either way, it was limiting, and he disliked it.
In her classroom at Taliaferro Hall and in other places on the campus, Professor Joyce got to know him better. She found him a "sweet and thoughtful person." The description could not have been more at odds with his public image, an image owing everything to his aggressive and powerful style of basketball and little to the sensitivity and complexity that Joyce and others saw in him. He was Len Bias, the cake-and-ice-cream superstar headed for the National Basketball Association.
In Professor Joyce's class, he performed like most other ballplayers: He was indifferent, frequently absent, and a distinct under-achiever, but he was polite. Whatever he may have thought about Professor Joyce's greeting during his first day in her class, he gave no hint of irritation.
"Yes, I play basketball," he said. He smiled and sat down. His appearance that day was the high point of his participation in her class.
Professor Joyce began her course in Afro-American literature with the slave narratives, then moved on to the Harlem Renaissance, Richard Wright's "Native Son," the work of James Baldwin, and the black poets of the 1960s. She stopped keeping track of absences after Bias missed five classes. On the only two assignments he completed, she gave him Fs. She invited students to come in for a pre-review of tests and she gave double credit for class presentations, but Bias did not take advantage of either offer. Professor Joyce passed him anyway. It was something she did for ballplayers.
"I gave many a D. It was grace," she said. A passing mark, though he had made no passing grades on the way. She told herself then that it made little sense to have him repeat the course.
Later, she thought she was contributing to a destructive atmosphere of unreality, undergirding a sense that whatever one did or didn't do, there was a safety net.
She knew that Bias and his teammates cared only about their professional aspirations -- "chasing the dream" is the way [Chancellor John] Slaughter thought of it. Academics did not match up well against the lure of the pros. Like others who knew them, Joyce thought of basketball players as special people with special burdens who needed and deserved special treatment. They were geniuses at basketball who were harried by travel schedules and academic demands.
"The A student can't make As on the road," she said. Like James Bias, Joyce did not make a federal case of what she saw. She tried to accommodate herself to the reality, just as the players did.
jTC As a student, Bias lost his way academically almost immediately. As soon as he signed the scholarship form, his father thought, the idea of education vanished from the agenda. Practice, travel, and a lack of class preparation put him permanently behind.