Promise Thrown Away

(Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)
By Michael E. Ruane and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 9, 2006

A school counselor who watched cocaine ravage his community.

A stunned brother who still can't believe it claimed his twin.

A crusading mother who for 20 years has preached against the drug that killed the son who was a University of Maryland basketball star on the eve of professional greatness.

Twenty years ago, the death of Len Bias horrified the sports world and was a major factor in reduced recreational cocaine use among young people. It still reverberates across the Washington region.

"Many, many people have come to me throughout the [last] 20 years and have told me that the day Len died was the day they stopped using cocaine," Lonise Bias said last night of her son. "I've had people stop me in the street and tell me that. They still do, telling me they've remained clean since that time and that it was the turning point in their lives."

Last night, she joined school choirs, drug enforcement agents and hundreds of grieving relatives of other victims in a tearful candlelight commemoration in Arlington of those killed by the scourge of drugs.

Called a Vigil for Lost Promise, the ceremony outside the headquarters of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration came 11 days before the anniversary of Bias's death on June 19, 1986.

He was 22 and had just been tapped by the Boston Celtics -- only the second player picked in the whole NBA draft -- when he succumbed to an overdose in his Washington Hall dorm suite on campus. Pathologists later said he had ingested a large amount of cocaine in unusually pure form and died of "cocaine intoxication."

"His death woke the nation up," Lonise Bias said. "We got on the ball, and we started a lot of programs, and a lot of things happened to prevent drug use with young people.

"I believe Len has truly done more in death than he ever could have done in life."

Government officials who have tracked cocaine use over the years agreed.

"Traditionally, cocaine was considered a pretty benign, safe drug," Nora D. Volkow, director of the federal government's National Institute on Drug Abuse, said yesterday. "In fact it was glamorized in the '70s and the beginning of the '80s. The death of Len Bias alerted the community in general that this drug was not a safe one."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company