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Death Be Not Proud : Five Years Later, Aftershocks From the Len Bias Case Still Can Be Felt

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The grass atop his grave is more brown than green and the three bouquets left by his mother have long since been scorched and wilted by the sun. The grave marker reads:

Leonard K. Bias

In God’s Loving Care

Nov. 18, 1963 - June 19, 1986

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Buried next to him is his younger brother, Jay, who was murdered seven months ago and whose dying words were a recital of the Lord’s Prayer. A headstone is being cut to include the prayer. Until then, there is only an unmarked mound, a terrible reminder of what happens when tragedy strikes a family in ways never thought possible.

It is another busy day on Mt. Bethel, the gentle slope of land at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. Across the road, 50 yards from their graves, a military service is being conducted in sweltering midday heat.

Wearing starched white uniforms, an honor guard fires a salute, the brief, crackling gunfire echoing through the nearby hills. That done, a bugler plays “Taps,” the notes hanging in the muggy afternoon air. The bugler then turns toward the assembled family and salutes crisply. It is a simple but elegant gesture.

As the ceremony ends, a car stops near the Bias graves. The driver and passenger have come to see them. Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t stop at the cemetery’s main office and ask for directions. Sometimes, if he has a moment and the company limousine isn’t being used, the cemetery’s vice president will escort the visitors to Mt. Bethel.

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“Every day, every single day, people come,” he said.

His name is Frank Bias, no relation to the Bias brothers, and he instructed cemetery groundskeepers to leave the withered flowers on the Bias graves, despite company policy that says dead bouquets must be removed. “Len’s mother asked if we would keep the flowers out a little longer, until she can put some fresh ones on there,” he said.

When 22-year-old Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose, you probably could have taken the petals from the floral wreaths sent to the family and lined the streets from Washington’s Pilgrim African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the funeral service was conducted, to the gates of the cemetery. State flags flew at half-mast in honor of one of the nation’s best college basketball players. Upon hearing of his death, admirers of his game trickled into the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House, where Bias had played for four seasons, and simply sat there in the darkness. Many of them left with tears in their eyes.

When a formal memorial ceremony was held at Cole, 11,000 attended. This was, after all, where Len Bias, in junior high school at the time, had sold ice cream during Maryland games; where, years later, he ruled college basketball.

“Tonight we gather not just to mourn a life that would have been,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said that day in June, “but to gather to celebrate the life that was, the life that lives in us, the legacy that lives in this field house. And as we celebrate that life, let each of us stand and give Len Bias a round of applause.”

And so they did.

Still, it didn’t seem real. Bias? Dead? Of cocaine? Are you sure?

Those who knew him, and the many more who knew of him, mourned his death with a passion not often seen. There was outrage and frustration and a certain trauma. Fingers were pointed in all directions, beginning with the smooth-talking Brian Tribble, Bias’ handsome friend. University of Maryland athletic department officials, among them popular coach Lefty Driesell, were criticized for alleged sins, as were school administrators. Police investigators were--and still are--accused by the Bias family of ignoring the possibility of foul play.

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And eventually, the basketball hero himself, who had made the fatal mistake of using a drug that preys on weakness and insecurity, was blamed. Blamed for cheating himself. Blamed for cheating others of his rare gifts.

One moment, he was being fitted for NBA stardom and financial security, the greatest player, proclaimed Driesell, ever to come out of the tradition-rich Atlantic Coast Conference--the same league that gave us Michael Jordan. The next, he was gone.

Between life and death occurred the moment shortly before 6:30 a.m. on June 19, 1986, in Room 1103 in Washington Hall. That is when Len Bias sat back in his dormitory chair, closed his eyes and began to quiver and shudder as a series of seizures wracked his 6-foot-8, 210-pound body. A little more than two hours later, he was dead.

At the funeral service, Jackson again stepped to the microphone and told Bias mourners not to weep.

“God’s called him for a higher purpose, to get the attention of this generation and to save it,” he said.

That has been the mission of Bias’ mother, Lonise. Since devoting herself entirely to the fight against substance abuse, she has crisscrossed the country dispensing wisdom gained from the loss of one son to drugs and another to violence. Last Saturday, she spoke at an anti-drug rally in Pasadena sponsored by the Mobilization Division U.S. Center for World Mission. Later in the week, on the five-year anniversary of Len’s death, she was a guest speaker at Washington Redskin wide receiver Gary Clark’s sports camp.

“I’m trying to make the community aware that there is still a war going on, and we still have to fight drugs as well as other social problems,” she said.

The war arrived on her family’s doorstep without warning at 6:40 a.m. on that day when a telephone call interrupted the early morning quiet. Something had happened to Len, the caller said. He had been taken to Leland Memorial Hospital, which wasn’t far from the Bias home in Hyattsville. Come quickly.

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So off Lonise and James Bias went, parents who never once had imagined their son was a drug user.

The war escalated in December, when Jay was shot and killed by a jealous husband who accused him of flirting with his wife in a shopping mall jewelry store. Jay Bias, 20, was shot twice in the back and later pronounced dead in the hospital emergency room where Len had died.

“As I tell many people, to bury one son is devastating,” said Lonise Bias, who became a born-again Christian 15 years ago. “To have to step on another’s grave to bury another son is just an impossibility. It’s unimaginable to go through that pain. When I consider my human frailties, I should be in a mental institution somewhere, not knowing my head from my feet. I still wonder how my family and I made it through that time. How we made it to this point is unbelievable.”

There is no worse week for the Bias family than the one that passes each year at this time.

“It is a week that will always leave a shadow,” Lonise Bias said.

On June 15, 1986--Father’s Day--Lonise unknowingly spent her final time with Len. The next day, a Monday, Len and his father flew to New York for pre-NBA draft festivities. League officials wanted Len, considered a top prospect, on hand for interviews, meetings and assorted social functions.

On June 17, the Boston Celtics, after about a four-minute wait, selected Bias with the No. 2 choice in the draft. “A dream within a dream,” Bias told reporters, who had gathered at the Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum.

Bias, the All-American who had averaged 23.2 points and seven rebounds during his senior season and had been selected ACC player of the year, was ecstatic. The Celtics, defending NBA champions, were his first choice, too. Word had it that he had relayed a simple request to Boston General Manager Jan Volk during a January meeting: “Please draft me.”

Celtic scouts, when asked to compare Bias to a player in the league, invariably mentioned Jordan. And team President Red Auerbach, whose summer camp Bias had attended in 1985, didn’t try to suppress his glee.

“He’s the guy we wanted,” Auerbach crowed.

He then announced that Bias would become the team’s sixth man and get ample time at guard, power forward and quick forward. “You ever hear of the word insurance ?” he said happily.

So pleased was Celtic All-Star Larry Bird with the pick that he vowed to report to rookie camp so that he could practice with Bias.

After all, it was Bias who as a sophomore had leaped so high during a game against North Carolina that he landed on the back of 7-foot Tar Heel center Brad Daugherty. And during his senior season it was Bias who had almost single-handedly beaten mighty the Tar Heels, 67-66, at Chapel Hill with a 35-point effort that North Carolina Coach Dean Smith called the most dominating performance by an opposing player he ever had witnessed.

Driesell wasn’t about to disagree.

“He must have made every shot in the book,” said Driesell, who now coaches at James Madison. “He must have blocked the last shot, too.”

After one game, Maryland teammate Keith Gatlin was heard to say, “Maybe Len is God.”

On June 18, Bias, his father and A. Lee Fentress, who helped establish the Washington D.C.-based sports management firm Advantage International, visited the corporate offices of Reebok, near Boston. By the time they left, Bias and Reebok had agreed in principle to a five-year endorsement package worth a reported $1.6 million. The contract would be signed the following week.

Tired, weary of the attention and eager to return home, Bias and his father boarded an evening flight and landed at Washington’s National Airport at 10 o’clock. Father and son parted, James going to Hyattsville and Len to his Washington Hall dorm suite.

Once back with his friends, Bias decided it was time to celebrate. About 10 hours later, he was dead.

The details:

--According to court testimony given by Terry Long, a former Maryland basketball player who had celebrated with Bias, Tribble and teammate David Gregg, the cocaine party began shortly after 2 a.m., stopped briefly at about 3, then resumed until about 6 a.m., when Bias had his first seizure.

--This apparently wasn’t the first time Bias had used cocaine. Again, according to Long’s testimony, Bias and Long had used the drug together at least eight times, beginning as early as 1984.

--No one, except Tribble and his lawyer, knows who supplied the cocaine that killed the Maryland star. And Tribble, who was convicted in October of 1990 of conspiracy to distribute cocaine in an unrelated case, isn’t talking.

--Lonise and James Bias will go to their graves convinced that someone else was partly responsible for Len’s death.

“It has never been proved to me that Len Bias caused his own death,” Lonise said. “This is not saying Len Bias is perfect or he couldn’t have done that. But the only thing I saw at that time was a lot of other people’s dirty laundry going into a dead man’s coffin, a dead man who couldn’t speak for himself.”

After Bias’ death, Tribble was acquitted of charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Long testified at that trial that the four men snorted about one-third of a cup of cocaine during a four-hour period June 19. If the estimate is true and if the cocaine was shared equally, it is a startling amount to have been consumed, said Michael Wieland, director of the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. Regional Poison Control Center.

“If that’s what they did (shared one-third of a cup), that’s heavy, heavy use,” Wieland said.

In Bias’ case, said Dr. Edward Feldmann, assistant professor of neurology at Brown University in Rhode Island Hospital, the cocaine, an extremely strong stimulant, probably caused the brain and heart to undergo “major alterations and changes in function.” That, said Feldmann, would explain Bias’ seizures and cardiac arrest.

At 6:32 a.m., a frantic Tribble dialed 911 as Long and Gregg tried to revive their friend.

“It’s Len Bias, sir,” Tribble said, when a dispatcher answered his call. “You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die.”

An ambulance was sent. Paramedics found Bias clad in a blue Reebok shirt, jeans and sneakers. They dragged him from the bedroom to the living room of the suite and tried to restart his heart.

Riverdale’s Leland Memorial Hospital is only about 1 1/2 miles from Washington Hall. Doctors injected Bias with drugs designed to help the heart recover from cardiac arrest. Sodium epinephrine, sodium bicarbonate, lidocaine, calcium and bretylium all were administered.

A pacemaker also was implanted after Bias’ heart registered nothing more than a flat line on the monitor. It did no good.

“The reality is, there are no predictors,” said Wieland, when asked why Bias, and not his friends, had experienced such a reaction to the cocaine. “It’s almost like a drawing of lots. It doesn’t have anything to do with a person’s physical condition.”

Within days after Bias’ death, the University of Maryland, specifically the athletic department, found itself under siege. Athletic Director Dick Dull resigned four months later.

Driesell was accused of not properly monitoring his program and his players and of caring little about players’ academic progress, other than what was required for eligibility. Not long after Dull left, Driesell, who never had had a losing season as Terrapin coach, resigned and took another position in the department. Eighteen months after that, he became coach at James Madison.

Maryland’s athletic program and image have never been the same.

“I don’t see how they could blame me for it,” said Driesell, who is sensitive about the subject.

Even today, Driesell isn’t sure how or why Bias used cocaine. Driesell thought he knew Bias. After all, Bias used to come to his summer camps in seventh and eighth grade. And Driesell was one of the few Division I coaches, other than those at North Carolina State and Oregon State, who had aggressively recruited Bias.

“He’s a great kid, I’m telling you the truth,” Driesell said. “I’ve got a highlight film of him. I show it to our recruits. We’ve got one kid, Michael Venson, who looks at it every night. I think it’s one of the reasons he came here.”

Driesell recalled the time at Maryland that Bias was supposed to chaperon a recruit during a campus visit. The two players went to a Washington nightclub and somehow word got back to Driesell, who called Bias when the players got back to the dorm.

“What have you been drinking?” Driesell said.

“Root beer,” Bias said.

Unconvinced, Driesell drove to Bias’ dorm room, knocked on the door and found a surprised Bias drinking . . . root beer.

Driesell tells his players and summer campers that Bias’ basketball skills were unparalleled, but that cocaine couldn’t care less about basketball.

“If somebody wanted me to use cocaine, I’d go, ‘Hey, I don’t want to end up like Leonard.’ ” he said.

During the recent NBA playoffs, Driesell said, he found himself thinking of Bias more than usual. Something was missing when he watched the Celtics lose to the Detroit Pistons. That something was Len Bias.

“I get real sad,” he said. “I think Leonard should have been there.”

Much as Driesell did, the University of Maryland tried to distance itself from the Bias tragedy. But school officials and local newspapers kept revealing impropriety after impropriety.

Last October, Andy Geiger was hired from Stanford to be Maryland’s athletic director. In 1986, Geiger had been part of a consulting team hired by the Maryland chancellor to examine and restructure the athletic hierarchy. Now he finds himself implementing some of his own recommendations.

“It’s part of our legacy,” he said of the tragedy. “But it’s really important to us to move forward. I think we should not ever forget (what happened to Bias), but that death is not what this university is about.”

According to Geiger, Maryland’s athletic department has been overhauled. Part of the change was in response to Bias’ death, part of it was inevitable. He said that academic policies have been better defined and enforced. Athletes are integrated into the entire student population.

A school’s reputation has been partially mended. But like it or not, Maryland will never be able to hide the scar left by Bias’ death. Nor should it, Geiger said.

As for Tribble, who declined to be interviewed, his life goes on behind the walls and barbed wire of Petersburg (Va.) Federal Prison.

He pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to distribute cocaine after a federal sting operation caught him in the act of buying 8.8 pounds of the drug for about $100,000.

When Tribble’s attorney, Thomas Morrow, requested that his client be allowed to post bail, the judge asked why such a request should be approved. Morrow listed his reasons and then said, “It would be logically inconceivable that he would flee.”

The judge denied the motion.

“It is logically inconceivable that he would ever get involved in drugs again, too,” the judge said.

Tribble, 28, will be eligible for parole in 8 1/2 years.

Morrow, a former prosecuting attorney who appeared in the movie, “And Justice for All,” said he believes Tribble was “set up as the fall guy, the whipping boy for that whole (Bias) tragedy. To this day, there are people who think he was acquitted of murder.”

But rather than put the incident and first trial behind him, Tribble reveled in his sudden celebrity status. There was talk of a movie deal. Maybe he would try modeling. But before long, said Morrow, Tribble became what he had never been in the past: a drug dealer.

"(After the first trial,) he was still thought of as a big drug dealer,” Morrow said. “He lived up to the stereotype. Ultimately, he became what he was perceived to be. The temptation to make it a reality was too much to overcome.”

When attorney and client occasionally meet, Morrow said, Tribble will never say, “How could I get caught,” but instead, “How could I be so stupid?”

Morrow can only wince.

“Ah, that’s the question of the day for Brian Tribble,” he said.

At some point, Morrow said, Tribble would like to explain to Lonise Bias what happened the morning her son died. “Spill the beans,” is the way Tribble once described it.

According to Morrow, Tribble didn’t supply the cocaine that killed Bias. If anything, suggests Morrow, Bias might have helped coordinate the purchase. “A joint enterprise,” is the term Morrow used.

Whatever the circumstances, Len Bias is gone. His family grieves a little each day and even more during the third week of June, the anniversary of Len’s death and Jay’s birthday.

Every so often, Lonise Bias dreams about her two dead sons.

“They’re always good dreams,” she said. “They’re sitting there, smiling.”

Jay, perhaps a better all-around player than Len, worshiped his older brother. But at the second funeral, Lonise Bias said, she saw a “look of peace on (Jay’s) face, just to be through with the troubles of this world. He was trying to make sense of what happened. He had been through hell the last five years.”

Five years. Has it been that long?

“Most of us just aren’t talking about it,” said Bob Wagner, Len’s high school coach. “It hurts. But please remember the good kid, the smiling young man, the kid who tried to work hard as a student, the guy who was good with little kids. When’s the last time you saw highlights of that?”

The Bias family remembers. Eric Bias, the surviving son, is 17 and plays basketball only for fun. His sister, Michelle, is 22. James and Lonise Bias are going on their 26th year of marriage. It is a family of survivors.

“We’re still making it,” Lonise said. “We still love one another, still laugh, still cry. We’re just making it day to day.”

Were she never to make another public appearance, recite another heartfelt speech, conduct another prayer session, hug another child at speech’s end, Lonise Bias said her work and Len’s death have not been in vain.

“I believe God had to take the best to save the rest,” she said. “I am a firm believer that he has done more in death than he could have ever done in life.”

Perhaps she is right. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has released figures showing that the number of current drug users has decreased, from 23 million in 1985 to 12.9 million in 1990. And of those users, cocaine use has decreased 72% since 1985.

Also, drug use among high school seniors who had used illegal substances within the previous year was down, from 43% in 1985 to 32.5% in 1990--the lowest figure since the survey started in 1975. Cocaine use was down, too, from 13.1% in 1985 to 5.3% in 1990.

Equally encouraging are the numbers involving cocaine use among those 18-25-year-olds. In 1985, 25.2% of the respondents said they had tried the drug. In 1990, the figures dipped to 19.4%. Current cocaine users in that age group also have decreased, from 4.5% in 1988 to 2.2% in 1990.

Lonise and Len Bias’ work isn’t completely done.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

One of these days, Lonise Bias hopes to save the $16,000 or so it will take to buy the onyx and marble monument she wants to place at her sons’ graves. Until then, small bouquets will have do. And memories. Many memories.

“There is a verse,” she said, quoting from the Bible. “‘Except a corn of wheat falls to the ground, it abideth alone. But once it falls to the ground and dies, it brings forth much fruit.’ I believe these two boys’ lives are seeds planted that will bring forth much fruit.”


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