Big-Time Basketball: So Many Tragedies

March 14, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

In the speculation about what killed Boston Celtics and Dunbar High School basketball star, Reggie Lewis, the focus falls upon cocaine. Was he a user? Can the scarring of his heart be explained in any other way? Did people hide what they knew for financial reasons?

The questions are painful, important and worthy of energetic inquiry -- not least because they amount to another examination of basketball itself. Having been denied if not forgotten, the past of this troubled sport is re-lived with regularity. Each new tragedy requires a new set of definitions.

Basketball is a game played with hoops and nets and, if necessary, court-side defibrillators lest the star fall to a recurrence of his well-known heart problem. Such a precaution was taken for Hank Gathers, the Loyola-Marymount star who succumbed on the court despite technology in 1990.

Basketball is a game in which one can no longer be sure what is meant by the term ''Dream Team.'' Is it a reference to all-star players assembled for the 1992 Olympics or to doctors hired to examine one of the all-star hearts? Such a team of physicians attended Mr. Lewis, though their unwelcome finding that he was seriously ill may have been rejected.

Basketball is still a game in which the best players are protected from the normal experiences of life to such an extent that some of them feel immune.

At a party shortly after he was drafted by the Boston Celtics, the late University of Maryland star, Len Bias, consumed what doctors later calculated to be five times the usually fatal amount of cocaine. He brushed aside the concerns of his fellow celebrants: ''I'm a horse,'' he told them. A ''horse'' was a strong athlete, strong enough to carry a team . . . strong enough to do drugs with impunity.

When he stayed out all night after a game during his senior year, everyone denied he had been using. His coach, Charles G. ''Lefty'' Driesell had confronted him with that suspicion but he reacted as if deeply wounded. Mr. Driesell benched his star -- and boosters demanded to know how the coach expected to make the NCCA tournament with his horse on the bench.

Maryland made the tournament, but within hours after the Celtics drafted him in 1986, Len Bias was dead in a University of Maryland dormitory of what the state medical examiner called ''cocaine intoxication.'' Len's fans prayed it wasn't drugs. When they learned differently, they found solace in the view that he had been unlucky, a first-time user. Later, teammates testified he had been using for months.

Basketball is a game in which the stars set records, not just for points scored but for attendance at funerals and memorial services: No funeral in the history of Boston was bigger than the one for Reggie Lewis. They closed the Capital Beltway for Bias' cortege.

Basketball is a sport in which earning power has a blinding effect on all its participants. No one other than a Lewis or a Bias or a Gathers could fully understand the pressure. Basketball is as lucrative as the lottery and almost as rarely won: One in 10,000 high school players get to be professionals. The rewards are fabulous, worth a risk or two, no doubt. Would Hank Gathers have continued to play basketball if the NBA did not exist? Would he have found a comfortable spot in the world of work?

The problem is not merely venality. The will and pressure to win, which comes before the pressure to make millions, is engraved upon the athletic psyche. One could ask coaches Gary Williams of Maryland and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University, both of whom put off medical care this year until they were seriously ill. Have they asked themselves how much pressure their relentless styles put on their players?

Basketball is a game which continues to insist that education is one of its primary goals. It provides entertainment and a ladder out of hard times for people like Reggie Lewis and Len Bias and Hank Gathers.

And like Joe Smith, the University of Maryland sophomore star, a teen-ager with an innocent smile and a fluid style. He's a good player, but his scholarship is suspect. So suspect, in fact, that his school would not certify that he has a 2.0 or C average in his classes -- a requirement for those who compete in a prestigious national Player of the Year contest named for the great UCLA coach, John Wooden. Though he is one of the best players in the country he was not among the finalists because he didn't have the grades. Len Bias failed every class in his final semester at College Park.

Mr. Smith, 19, may leave Maryland without graduating. The pros may offer him big money this year. He can get his degree in summer school, of course, if he wants one.

Coach Driesell spoke for too many when he said Len Bias didn't need a degree. He was going to be fabulously rich.

The player's father thought differently:

''If you don't have an education and you're a millionaire, you and your money will part quickly. You have to count your own money,'' he said. His meaning was more general than its dollars-and-cents thrust: You need your best judgment, a sense of who your friends are, some ability to see your best interests and enough confidence to pursue them.

When Mr. Smith leaves Maryland for the NBA you have to hope he realizes he's really like any other Joe. If he does, he'll be a different sort of horse.

He might even survive.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun and author of ''Lenny, Lefty and The Chancellor, The Len Bias Tragedy and the Search for Reform in Big Time College Basketball.''

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