The Bias death and sports' false priorities

Monday Book Review

April 06, 1992|By Alex Ober

LENNY, LEFTY AND THE CHANCELLOR: THE LEN BIAS TRAGEDY AND THE SEARCH FOR REFORM IN BIG-TIME COLLEGE BASKETBALL. By C. Fraser Smith. Bancroft Press, Baltimore. 307 pages, soft-cover. $12.95. THE DREDGING UP of the Len Bias tragedy may lead some wave the white flag and cry out in anguish, "Enough already!"

Why must we continue to bash this defenseless terrapin? Shouldn't we declare it an endangered species and ease its pain? Besides, the author, C. Fraser Smith, graduated from the terrapin's natural tobacco-road enemy, the University of North Carolina.

Should we send out an alert to the Maryland National Guard?

But let me put your suspicions to rest. This historical account of the events leading to the death of Len Bias and the subsequent responses of those whose lives were permanently changed by the catastrophe furnishes a healing balm. Smith, a reporter for The Sun and Evening Sun, has woven together interviews with more than 150 people knowledgeable about the athletic program at the University of Maryland. He has also examined numerous documents. This not only satisfies our need to know the facts, but it places readers in the shoes of those primarily involved.

Lace these shoes up tightly, for you must be ready for a fast break!

Good research doesn't just tell us why things are the way they are; it lends insight to help us anticipate future events. This investigation indicates that a cause-and-effect relationship existed at College Park which culminated in disaster -- and it had to do with the priorities of American intercollegiate sports in the 1980s and '90s.

The media reports of Len Bias' death on the sultry morning of June 19, 1986, were so shocking that many people, myself included, thought there had been some mistake. However, Smith's description of the circumstances at College Park indicates that this was more a "disaster waiting to happen" than a tragic surprise. Bias' death was the tip of an iceberg breaking the surface of a deep athletic sea polluted by financial, social and academic neglect.

The major characters in this story, a superstar athlete, a legendary coach and a committed educator/scientist (Bias, Lefty Driesell and College Park Chancellor John Slaughter), are not portrayed as villains. All are depicted as exemplary individuals, each in his own way, who were caught in a system of intercollegiate competition enslaved to money, hypocrisy, exploitation and educational malpractice.

And this student-athlete scam doesn't just victimize big-time athletes; it afflicts every player, parent, coach, administrator and fan who, through lack of understanding, naivete, self-interest or apathy, resists athletic reform. The story Smith portrays clearly shows that there are no winners when the objectives of the athletic department supersede the goals of the educational program.

The all-consuming and ultimately frustrated task facing Slaughter in the aftermath of Bias' death is most fascinating. A scientist and administrator with White House-level connections, his vision was to lead College Park into a position of high respect in the academic community. The reader can sense his resentment at having to defend every decision regarding the athletic program and seeing this as a distraction from the real work of a university.

Admittedly burned out by the crisis, Slaughter in 1988 accepted the chancellorship at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Moving to the new campus of 1,600 students and NCAA Division III athletics left him with only one regret, that he had to abandon Bob Wade, a successful Baltimore high school coach who had replaced Driesell. Wade's abrupt installation proved to be ill-advised.

Smith is less gentle in his characterization of Charles Grice "Lefty" Driesell. Driesell is described as a shrewd and aggressive personality, a man who speaks his mind regardless of the consequences. Lefty's corn-pone, good-ol'-boy routine turned off some folks, especially writers and academic types, but his flamboyant, foot-stomping "I can coach" persona raised him to folk hero status with most of the Terp faithful. More important, by filling spacious Cole Field House for 17 years, he had endeared himself to the powerful fund-raising arm of the College Park athletic program, the Terrapin Club.

College Park's athletic program had declined since the days of Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, but Lefty persistently claimed that the program was healthy. Finally, Slaughter came to the conclusion that Maryland could not change its basketball program without changing its coach.

How does one fire a living legend who has eight years remaining on a 10-year contract and is represented by super-lawyer Edward Bennett Williams? The confrontation described is better than an ACC tournament final.

Len Bias is the most difficult person to understand in Smith's scenario. A born-again Christian and model student-athlete, apparently he had been using cocaine for several months and had neither enough credit hours nor good enough grades to graduate on time. The contradiction in this 22-year-old phenom is symbolized in his Maryland jersey, No. 34, as it hangs from the rafters in Cole Field House, reminding us of his exploits on the court and of the terrible cost of neglect and self-indulgence.

Presumably, the smoke has cleared, and Lenny, Lefty, and the chancellor are history. New leaders are in place and a new cast of young athletes plays the games. But that jersey still hangs there, and every time I see it I'll think of this book.

Alex Ober is a professor of physical education at Western Maryland College, where he coached men's basketball for more than 20 years.

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