When will we ever learn the lesson of Len Bias?

June 20, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

From all points in this big, eternally haunted Cole Fieldhouse, you can gaze down to the basketball court and picture the ghost of Len Bias with a ball in his massive hands, defying the various laws of gravity, looking like a Michael Jordan with muscles in the making.

But you have to look pretty hard. Ten years after his death from a mixture of cocaine and stupidity, instead of inscribing his name across the athletic skies, Bias has become our national cautionary tale.

Instead of remembering him driving to the hoop, we recall a bleak funeral procession driving Bias to his grave. Instead of celebrating -- What? Four, five, 10 championships he might have brought to the Boston Celtics who drafted him -- we invoke his name this week to lecture shaky adolescents about the dangerous choices life brings, as if they needed another reminder.

Len Bias? Yeah, sure, students here say. Basketball player here who overdosed. That's about it. Most of them were elementary school children when Bias marked his last night on Earth with massive cocaine intake. The athletic skills, they never saw. The strength, the pogo-stick leaps, they'll have to take someone else's word for it. The grimy end is what they've been told about.

Len Bias was basketball's most famous modern tragedy, but not the only one. In Baltimore, some still remember a kid named Skip Wise, who instigated the first generation of basketball magnificence at Dunbar High. His undoing preceded Bias' by a generation.

Quick, unflappable, a deadly shot who led Dunbar to 40 straight victories, Wise was the spiritual godfather of the Dunbar greats like Tyrone Bogues and Reggie Williams, David Wingate and Reggie Lewis and many others, some of whom had nice college careers, a few of whom made it to the pros, and the vast number of whom discovered the highlight of their athletic lives was stirring up the crowd in a little high school gym.

On days like this, we recall the cocaine death of Len Bias 10 years ago, but maybe the drug ruination of Skip Wise, too. Remember Skip? He left Dunbar for Clemson in 1974, averaged 20 points a game in his first college season and opted to turn pro.

He flopped. At 19, it turned out he wasn't ready yet. And then, somehow, the big money he thought had been guaranteed fell through in a blur of contractual small print. Within two years, this golden kid who seemed to have been blessed by the gods was arrested at Golden Ring Mall, carrying women's clothing from a department store and packing a .38 caliber pistol.

He was acquitted. But, on a winter night months later, police battered down the door to Wise's crummy Aisquith Street apartment and seized heroin, glassine bags and measuring spoons. It was only the first in a bleak succession of narcotics arrests for Wise, who went off to prison instead of the basketball heavens.

A decade ago, as Len Bias' life was ending, we told ourselves lies. We said Bias was an aberration, a singular story. Then the investigations began, and the tales of Maryland basketball players who never went to class, never opened a book, never graduated, never had the discipline to match their athletic talents.

And 10 years later, after promises of redemption, after NCAA sanctions, we learn that graduation rates among basketball players here are still pretty dismal.

On glum anniversaries like this, we wonder how much has changed. No Len Bias is dying with a body full of cocaine this week, but how many kids have written off their future by stepping off the basketball court and immediately losing their way?

So we think about Bias, but also some of the others: Skip Wise, who turned to drug trafficking; Reggie Lewis, who made it from Dunbar to the pros but died with reports of drugs helping bring on his demise; and maybe we remember a lady named Julia Woodland, too.

She was principal at Dunbar High when Skip Wise was there and the basketball program was beginning its compelling legend. She was there when they led Wise away in handcuffs.

"Oh, I begged him to stay in school," Woodland said one long-ago morning. She sat behind her desk, with pictures of Dunbar kids around her. Children, she called them.

"All these children," she said, "dreaming of being basketball stars, and they can't all make it. And what happens once they don't? Where do these children go?"

Skip Wise went to jail, came out, and he's tried to put his life together. Len Bias, who could have been a star, deprived himself of the chance.

So we'll give the kids some more lectures this week. We'll tell them about Bias, and about Reggie Lewis, maybe, and Skip Wise if we still remember. We'll tell them that basketball's just a starting point, that they have to keep up their grades, they have to avoid the temptations of the age.

Who knows if they'll listen? People turn to narcotics to avoid grim reality. But Len Bias' reality was golden, and still he wanted more. How many ghosts do we need before the lesson kicks in?

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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