Bias' death altered lives Decade: Ten years later, the lives of those who knew him are still not the same.

June 19, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

There was light, and then there was darkness. There was the All-America basketball player and NBA millionaire-to-be, and then there was another victim of cocaine.

From the Prince George's County neighborhood in which he grew up to the University of Maryland campus that launched his star, those whose lives he touched still are affected -- some traumatically -- by his death.

Len Bias died 10 years ago today.

"I don't think any one of us will ever be the same," said Bob Wagner, who coached Bias at Northwestern High School. "A lot of memories are frozen in time."

It was the early morning of June 19, 1986. During an impromptu party in his dorm suite to celebrate his selection by the Boston Celtics as the second player taken in the 1986 NBA draft, Bias had a seizure and stopped breathing.

After a frantic 911 call by his roommates, Bias was rushed to Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale and was pronounced dead at 8: 50 a.m. An autopsy later showed that Bias had died of cocaine intoxication. He was 22 years old.

"The whole experience changed my life," said Dave Dickerson, a former teammate at Maryland who had just finished his freshman year. "I was forced to become a leery person."

"I think most people have forgotten what kind of player he was," said Brian Waller, a former high school teammate who was one of Bias' best friends. "The only time you see a clip of him is in a negative light."

His death became a national event and, for a while, a national cause. And while the rest of the country eventually went on with its life, many of those who had known Bias more intimately had trouble refocusing on their own futures.

Some lost their way for a month or a year or five years. Some wandered so far off course that they still haven't found themselves. Through a series of interviews conducted over the past few months, one thing has become obvious:

Len Bias' death transformed those around him.

Many believe it contributed, at least in part, to the shooting death of Bias' younger brother, Jay, four years later. Some still are haunted by what they might have done to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Many are hesitant to talk about it.

His parents, James and Lonise, failed to return repeated telephone messages left at their home. The two players who were in the room when Bias collapsed, freshman David Gregg and junior Terry Long, did not return messages.

Brian Tribble, former Maryland student and friend of Bias', was charged and later acquitted by a grand jury of supplying the deadly dose of cocaine. He later was jailed on other, unrelated drug charges. He could not be reached.

Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell asked a reporter, "Why the hell do you want to bring that up now?"

As Wagner said, "The closer you get to the tragedy, the less you want to remember."

But here are some of the recollections.

The friend

Brian Waller met Len Bias in high school. Waller was in the 10th grade at Northwestern, Bias in the ninth. "I remember how he was afraid of physical contact and how he couldn't shoot from the perimeter," recalled Waller.

Waller laughs at that memory now, because those who watched Bias at Maryland recall the devastating combination of power and grace, the rim-shaking dunks and the picture-perfect jumpers, the nasty attitude and the engaging smile.

But Waller's memories are also more personal, triggered now when he hears an old Luther Vandross song on the car radio or when he found out that an old girlfriend of Bias' was getting married. Or when he goes to his mother's house.

"She has the cover of the Sports Illustrated after Lenny died in a framed picture on a table," said Waller.

Waller, who played two years at Providence after attending junior college, has carried another memory with him for the past 10 years: his inability to hook up with Bias after the Maryland player was picked second in the 1986 draft.

It was less than two days before his death.

"If I had been with him, I know there would have been no drugs," said Waller. "After he came back from New York and Boston, I thought we'd get together like we always did. I definitely feel that if I was there, he would still be here."

Now 32, Waller manages an athletic shoe and apparel store in Largo. He is also an assistant coach at Parkdale High School. "Most of the kids don't even know who Len was," said Waller. "Some might ask me if he was as good as people say. I tell them he deserved all the accolades he got."

With Waller, the tragedy didn't end when Bias died from a cocaine overdose in the campus dormitory suite he shared with teammates Gregg, Long, Keith Gatlin, Jeff Baxter and Phil Nevin. It continued when Jay Bias was shot to death outside Prince George's Plaza in 1990.

"His last couple of years on Earth were a nightmare," Waller said of Jay Bias, who was a promising basketball prospect himself before his career was curtailed by academic problems. "It really hurt me more when Jay died. When Lenny died, Jay said to me, 'I'm going to look at you as my big brother now.' "

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