The perils of real life

June 04, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

LIKE THE Ravens' Ray Lewis, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias was an athletic virtuoso.

His accomplishments on the basketball court -- his raw strength and leaping ability -- convinced professionals that his peak performances lay ahead.

His wasted promise comes to mind as Ray Lewis endures a murder trial in Atlanta.

Like many young athletes, these young men were sheltered by the aura of sport, hand-carried through college and then asked to understand that a world once so hospitable had turned predatory and unpredictable.

Their best attributes -- not just their physical acumen -- made them even more vulnerable.

They are millionaires but reluctant to adopt airs or stand aloof in any way -- even from people they may recognize as threats. They may wish to reject the notion that they have become the targets of friends, strangers, even family members.

Leonard Kevin Bias died in the summer of 1986 of cocaine intoxication hours after he was the first draft pick of the Boston Celtics. He hadn't had time to negotiate the big bucks, but questionable friends were already at his side.

If anything, this insidious syndrome has grown more vicious since his death.

Fans still wonder how Ray Lewis could have been involved in a double homicide in any way. Of the many professional athletes interviewed on local television, none seemed smarter, more humble and generous than he.

Yet there he was at the scene of brutal murders. He was there in the required limousine. He and his friends fled the carnage amid gunfire and initially misled police when they questioned him.

Why do these things keep happening to young men with so much talent, so much charisma -- so much to lose? Why don't they listen to the counselors who are constantly urging them to be smart and alert? Did Ray Lewis know of the Len Bias story?

But, then, why do we imagine athletes can be more prudent than the non-millionaire young, many of whom tread blithely and recklessly?

Mr. Lewis would have seemed a good bet to exercise good judgment. Like Bias, he has a religious side, a facet of his life burnished by a powerful mother.

He gets a verse from scripture from her every day. Bias wrote the names of his teammates in his Bible. Stories like these are sometimes public relations folklore, but with Ray Lewis you thought you saw a solid citizen.

In recent days, Ravens owner Art Modell has said he plans a heart-to-heart -- if, as Mr. Modell expects, the All-Pro player is acquitted.

"You've got to understand the psyche of a player," the owner says, addressing himself to the wider world. "The player comes, some of them, from a broken home, no mother, no father, [he] goes into high school, becomes a star scholastic athlete, is romanced by every athletic director in America, goes to college and majors in Ballroom 101 and suddenly the pros come along and throw $8 million at them."

So, you've hit the athletic lottery and you're a target.

Perversely, a young man's prowess, his physical capabilities -- his confidence -- can be a disadvantage.

During the fatal cocaine party at Washington Hall at College Park, one of Len Bias' friends suggested he ease up a bit. He waved off the warning.

"I'm all right," he said. "I'm a horse." He'd been showered with this highest of athletic accolades all his life. He could carry his team. He was the team, wasn't he?

Ray Lewis wore similar labels. His coach, Brian Billick, sees him as a young player whose sense of the game made him seem older -- disarmingly so, perhaps.

"I can see a part of his personality as being one who says `I can control this situation,'" Mr. Billick said in a telephone interview last week. "'I'm Ray Lewis. I can do this.' I don't think Ray in all his wildest imagination would see this escalating out of his control."

Mr. Billick had sent out warnings.

As he had done in Minnesota when he was an assistant under the Vikings' Dennis Green, the Ravens coach put on a series of seminars for the Ravens on how to cope with being a target.

Financial managers spoke.

A lawyer came to talk about sexual harassment: "The predatory nature of things -- women with designs that go beyond the usual groupies -- people with a real agenda. These guys are not innocent lambs who have no idea," the coach said. "But even the most streetwise people don't always recognize the environment they're in."

Since the abstract possibility may be hard to accept, the Ravens got actors to role-play certain situations to make the threat seem real.

But there are limits to what a professional coach can do. Mr. Billick says he won't be having a heart-to-heart with his linebacker, for example.

"I don't have the moral or legal right to do that. It's not up to me to dictate who they marry, whether they have children out of wedlock. I can advise them, but it would be inappropriate for me to single out anyone -- unless there's something that affects his professional life.

"Ray has done everything I've asked him to do."

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