The Boston Celtics used their first pick in this year’s National Basketball Association draft to acquire Len Bias, an all-American from the University of Maryland. Bias offered just about everything the Celtics or any other club could want—size, speed, good court sense, shooting ability and, perhaps most important, the sort of competitive spirit that can ignite a team. Len Bias, 22, was a winner, no doubt, and, with a high-class organization like the Celtics, his stardom was assured.
One can imagine Bias’s exhilaration as he returned to the Maryland campus after meetings in New York and Boston. Friends awaited; the mood was triumphant; a celebration commenced and continued for many hours. Sometime around midnight, Bias, demonstrating considerable taste, feasted on a pile of crab legs. Subsequently, according to one report, the star made a significantly less judicious choice by sprinting to his leased Nissan 300ZX automobile and heading, in the wee hours, for Washington, D.C.
Precisely what occurred thereafter—where in the capital Bias went and with whom, what advice he took or ignored—now is a matter of extraordinary interest. Authorities want to know all that occurred between the time that Bias saluted the grand future awaiting him in Boston and the moment, near 7 a.m., when, incredibly, that future disappeared— when Bias slumped to the floor of a dormitory room, heart raging, life drifting away. Every detail has become essential.
When an American athlete perishes under such circumstances the police, like the fans, are bound to assume drugs were involved. For a decade we have heard about the presence of amphetamines and cocaine in the locker room. We have been given the distinct impression that players, pampered, wealthy and much disposed to fast times, are as likely to pop a few greenies as refresh themselves at the water cooler. Now, when a ball player boots a grounder or blows a lay-up, spectators are entitled to wonder if the miscue indicates bad technique or good stash. Against this seamy backdrop came the demise of Lenny Bias.
Almost immediately, drugs emerged as an issue. Authorities said they found a plastic bag of cocaine in the
300zx and, according to the local district attorney, preliminary tests indicated Bias had coke in his urine. There were reports that when Bias headed for Washington he was in the company of a “new friend,” and that the two went to a section of the city well known as a marketplace for drugs.
While associates of Bias protested vigorously that the player had no history of drug abuse and that he was an upright and disciplined fellow, the facts indicated that, at least on this occasion, Len Bias faltered. Within a week of Bias’s death, the Maryland medical examiner confirmed that “cocaine intoxication” had killed the player—that the drug had short-circuited Bias’s brain and, forthwith, stopped his heart. Dr. John Smialek agreed, however, that Bias almost certainly was not a steady user. The fatal episode, he said, could very well have been the player’s first. Remarked one
Greatness is what Americans claim but, on the streets, where drugs are sold like ice cream, things don yt look so good
Maryland student: “It just doesn’t seem right.”
Of course it doesn’t seem rightshunted to infinity for a single siege of poor judgment. But then, death by drugs always is an exercise in absurdity. When illness or disaster snatches a life prematurely there is sorrow and, often, anger as well. When the victim shares complicity in his own destruction, when he hops eagerly aboard the doomsday train, that is something else again. Sometimes, as in the case of comedian John Belushi, the cruel stupidity of the ordeal is well advertised. But the tragedy is not diminished when the victim is a no-name who drops off in a doorway or back alley. For our culture, each loss of life has disturbing implications. Greatness is what we Americans claim but, on the streets, where drugs are sold as readily as ice cream pops, things don’t look so good. We’ve got trouble and plenty of it.
Accordingly, Rev. Jesse Jackson, who for years has fought drug abuse among young people, attended the funeral of Len Bias and pleaded that Americans at last take heed and make
the player’s death “a breaking point.” But even Jackson sounded doubtful. “God sometimes uses our best people to get our attention,” he said. “On a day the children mourn, I hope they learn.” Evidently, they didn’t. Less than a week later Don Rogers, 23, a defensive back for the Cleveland Browns, died following a bachelor party at which authorities say he used cocaine. “The effect of a tragedy wears off,” said a community leader in Brooklyn referring to Bias’s death. “I don’t see it deterring people.”
Complicating the dilemma even further is the arrival of something called “crack,” a cocaine derivative suitable for a water pipe that eliminates the fuss and indignity of snorting one’s drug of choice. Crack is immensely potent and cheaper than regular cocaine. An estimated 40 per cent of all coke addicts have made the switch. “I’ve never seen a drug spread this fast,” said William Hopkins, a researcher for the New York State Division of Substance Abuse Services. Noting the seductive qualities of crack, Wayne Rothwell, director of a treatment program outside Manhattan, said, “This is a drug that is so addictive that it’s preferred over sex, friendship, marriage and food—it’s preferred over the basic necessities of life.”
Preferred over the basic necessities of life! We may want to ask ourselves what forces are at work here, why large numbers of our citizens want so badly to put their brains to sleep. Are we slouching toward the point of societal implosion, a soft and sappy people jeopardized by our own plenitude? So often we do seem terminally disaffected-weary of the workplace, unresponsive in the classroom, mesmerized by junk TV, fickle in our relationships. In the United States, the term “bored to death” may no longer be just a figure of speech.
Professional observers are sure to remind us that drug abuse is a complicated matter with an epidemiology that can’t entirely be attributed to the assembly line or singles bars. Len Bias, after all, didn’t seem at all jaded or distracted. Perhaps the basketball star was just a young man on a roll, a kid who wanted to try something new, have a little fun, mellow out on his night of nights. Along the line, someone must have suggested that drugs would be a terrific idea. Too often someone does.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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