Correction to This Article
A graphic with a June 19 article about the 20th anniversary of the death of University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias incorrectly described Arthur A. "Bud" Marshall Jr. as a lawyer at William H. Murphy Jr. and Associates. Marshall has his own law practice.

Bias Death Still Ripples Through Athletes' Academic Lives

Twenty years ago, days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics, University of Maryland star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose.
Twenty years ago, days after being drafted by the Boston Celtics, University of Maryland star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. (1986 Photo By The Associated Press)
By Amy Goldstein and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 19, 2006

The frantic 911 call from a University of Maryland dormitory came in at 6:32 a.m. June 19, 1986. A 22-year-old campus hero -- the finest basketball player in the Terrapins' history, just two days earlier the second player chosen in the NBA draft -- was sprawled on the floor between two narrow beds, unconscious, without a pulse.

"It's Len Bias. . . . He's not breathing right," one of his closest friends, a Maryland dropout named Brian Tribble, told the dispatcher in a shaky voice. "You've got to bring him back to life."

Bias was rushed to a hospital less than two miles away in Riverdale. Inside, doctors used five medicines and a pacemaker to try to restart his heart. Outside, his teammates, coach and mother gathered, stunned and praying. Across town, his agent phoned a senator's office, searching for a military helicopter that could deliver a world-class cardiologist to save him.

At 8:50 that Thursday morning, Len Bias was pronounced dead.

He had been killed, it would turn out, by an overdose of cocaine, a nearly pure form he and friends had been snorting from a pile on the living room table. It turned out, too, that he had gotten F's in three classes and dropped two others in his last semester, leaving him -- like most of his teammates -- unable to graduate.

At the University of Maryland at College Park and across the country, the scandal exposed the twin corruptions of drugs and academic failure in high-pressure, big-money college sports.

In a nation that had not yet lived through the excesses of the O.J. Simpson trial, had not yet experienced the killings at Columbine High School, his death riveted public attention.

It was "the most heartbreaking, stunning and paralyzing event," recalled Wayne K. Curry, the Bias family's attorney, who would become county executive in Prince George's. "Nobody could really grip the enormity of his spectacular rise and sudden demise."

President Ronald Reagan sent Bias's parents a handwritten note. The Celtics' Larry Bird called the death "the cruelest thing I think I've ever heard."

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, consoling the crowd of 11,000 that jammed into a campus memorial service, said: "God has called him to a higher purpose -- to get the attention of this generation and save it."

For Bias's generation and the next, his death 20 years ago today has left an uneven legacy.

Some aspects of the events have faded with time. Leland Memorial Hospital, where Bias died, closed years ago. Cole Field House, where the 6-foot-8 forward dazzled with his 2,149 points, averaging 23 points per game his senior year, has been turned into a campus rec center, its gleaming hardwood court sold off in boards to alumni and replaced with green nylon turf.

Yet the lore and the decisions that have emerged from U-Md. in the past two decades have made an indelible print on the school's identity, on intercollegiate athletics nationally, even on those with no memories of the time.

Dave Neal, a basketball player who lived this year in Bias's old room in Suite 1103 of Washington Hall, said students would stop by and ask to see the room.

More deeply, the scandal prompted a soul-searching about the proper place of college sports that continues today. "I think the Bias tragedy broke the back of athletic domination of academic life," said Gary Pavela, a U-Md. administrator who oversees ethics and discipline.

As the academic quality of its student body has improved overall, U-Md. has imposed rules to prevent athletes from lagging behind.

Meanwhile, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has tightened academic standards repeatedly.

This vigilance has had tangible effects in ways small and large. On the road for away games, head football coach Ralph Friedgen lines players up to get meals in order of grade-point average. Overall, scholarship athletes, like other U-Md. students, are graduating more frequently than their counterparts of Bias's day.

Yet the men's basketball program has remained a source of worry, with few players graduating. Of the 13 years since Bias died for which the NCAA has data for students who joined the team as freshmen, there have been seven years in which no one has graduated. In no year, the NCAA figures show, have more than 40 percent received a degree.

This spring, all four seniors left without graduating. One, co-captain and leading scorer Chris McCray, could not play last semester because, under NCAA rules, his grades were too low.

"There is no excuse," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of Maryland's public universities. Last month, he was appointed to a national commission created three years after Bias died to bring academic and financial integrity to intercollegiate athletics. The current issues, Kirwan said, "are not that different than they were 15 or so years ago -- a concern about the academic underperformance of student athletes in certain high-profile sports."

* * *

When he joined Maryland's basketball team, Neal asked to wear No. 34 on his jersey, as he had at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington. The number wasn't available. No. 34 had belonged to Len Bias and was the only number retired in school history.

Neal's dorm room, too, had once belonged to Bias, teammates told him. Neal guessed that Bias "couldn't take the pressure of what was going on, the celebrity, and it got a little out of control."

People who knew Bias remember him as charming and unassuming despite his talent and fame. John B. Slaughter, U-Md. chancellor at the time, recalls Bias slipping out of the basketball banquet his senior year, moments before he was to collect awards, so he could deliver flowers to poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who was speaking on campus that night.

Yet in his final months, Bias was taking on the trappings, lifestyle and grueling pace of the millionaire pro he was about to become. He had an ankle-length fur coat, a Nissan 380ZX sports car and a gold bracelet with diamonds spelling "L-E-N." In the spring of his senior year, he essentially stopped going to class as he traveled the country to meet with NBA teams.

On Tuesday, June 17, he wore a stylish white suit with gray pinstripes to Madison Square Garden, where the Boston Celtics -- a team that had just won its third NBA championship in six years -- made Bias its first-round draft pick. With his father, James Bias, and his agent, A. Lee Fentress of Advantage International, Bias caught a shuttle that afternoon to Boston, and he appeared that night on the newscasts of all three local TV stations. The next day, he negotiated a six-figure contract to endorse Reebok shoes, then worked the room at a Reebok reception.

Bias was exhausted, he told his agent, and wanted to get home to see his mother. They landed at National Airport at 10 p.m., and Bias dropped off his father at the family's Landover home and left alone for his dormitory about 11:30.

He and roommates ate crabs, and then he drove to a nearby liquor store where, the night manager would say, he bought malt liquor and a fifth of cognac. He gave an autograph to a clerk, including "30," his new Celtics number.

Basketball players Terry Long and David Gregg would later tell prosecutors they were asleep in the suite they shared with Bias when he and Tribble woke them about 3 a.m. to celebrate, inviting them to share some cocaine.

At one point, they said, Tribble warned Bias he was using too much. "I'm a bad [expletive]," Bias replied, "and I can handle anything."

* * *

Kirwan remembers watching the news conference after Bias was drafted, as the beaming young man pulled a green Celtics jersey over his head for the first time. U-Md.'s top administrator for academic affairs at the time, Kirwan was walking to his office Thursday morning when a co-worker asked, "Did you hear about Lenny Bias?" He naturally replied, "Yes, isn't it wonderful?"

No, the co-worker said.

Bias was dead.

"It was one of those moments in life," Kirwan said, "where someone says something to you, and the words are so out of context it just couldn't be reality."

Slaughter remembers a younger basketball player confiding that he would visit Bias's grave at a Suitland cemetery every day, "then come back to Cole Field House, and when he would go to shoot baskets, Len would rise and block him."

Lonise Bias, Bias's mother, remembers she "just could not believe what was happening." The first flowers that arrived were from Michael Jordan. Magic Johnson's mother called. It seemed everyone in the country had known her child.

The summer of trauma was heightened when aggressive Prince George's chief prosecutor Arthur A. "Bud" Marshall Jr. announced the day of the funeral that he would convene a grand jury. It went on for months, with teammates, athletic department staff and campus administrators summoned to testify. The three friends who had shared the cocaine with Bias were indicted on drug charges, although only Tribble was tried. He was acquitted but would be sent to prison four years later on unrelated cocaine charges.

The university tried to contain the crisis. Allen L. Schwait, chairman of the university system's governing board at the time, remembers persuading then-Maryland Gov. Harry R. Hughes not to intervene so U-Md. could try to solve its problems. The board named two task forces on drug policy and athletes' academic lives.

Academic reforms, Slaughter believed, were most vital. "The fact that Len Bias died allegedly from cocaine was not a stamp on the university," he said, "but the relationship of athletics to the academic . . . aspects of the university was very central to [its] existence."

At the end of that September, the academic task force -- led by well-respected physicist J. Robert Dorfman, who did not follow basketball -- issued more than 60 recommendations and a strong rebuke of the athletic department's way of operating.

A week later, Athletic Director Dick Dull resigned. Three weeks after that, university officials forced Maryland's legendary basketball coach of 17 years, Charles G. "Lefty" Driesell, to step aside.

* * *

The academic failures of Bias and his teammates fit into an emerging pattern. The 1980s were becoming an embarrassing time for college presidents, amid revelations that players, such as Kevin Ross at Creighton University, were ending four years of college barely able to read or write.

The NCAA had responded in 1983 with Proposition 48, which took effect the fall after Bias died. It required high school students to have at least a C average and a minimum SAT score to get athletic scholarships and play as freshmen.

U-Md. went further. The university forbade coaches to sign letters of intent with recruits unless the admissions office determined that they were qualified. Linda Clement, admissions director at the time and now vice president for student affairs, recalls that she began to interview star recruits the first time they visited the campus "to get a sense of their character and their attitudes."

U-Md. continues to accept some athletes who fall below its regular admissions criteria -- mostly football or men's basketball players. But there are fewer such exceptions than in Bias's time, and those students are required first to attend a special summer school.

The university's Athletic Council receives detailed reports to monitor players' grades and class attendance. The council chairman, criminology professor Charles Wellford, said spending on counselors, tutors and other academic help for athletes has increased about four-fold in the past decade to more than $1 million. "The athletes meet . . . weekly or biweekly with their counselors, and the counselors meet just as often with the coaching staff to talk about the students," said Anton Goff, associate athletic director for academic support.

Neal, the player who lived in Bias's room, said, "We have so much help with class -- academic support, mandatory study halls, tutors. . . . They know how to get you through."

University officials said last week that they could not provide data to show trends during the past two decades in athletes' admissions qualifications and academic performance.

The NCAA graduation rates, based on the percentage of scholarship athletes who enter as freshmen and graduate within six years, indicate that men's basketball remains a problem spot. "We are not in good shape," acknowledged Athletic Director Debbie Yow.

Coaches and others argue over the fairest way to define how many athletes graduate. But by any measure, Yow said, "our first goal . . . is to get to the average" among men's basketball programs nationwide. "And we're not there."

She and other U-Md. officials say their attempts to focus players on schoolwork often are overshadowed by a temptation that did not exist two decades ago: NBA teams now draft many players before they have finished their four years of college competition.

Wellford, the Athletic Council chairman, said many on U-Md.'s men's basketball team go to class and make adequate -- if not sterling -- grades until their senior year, when they leave to try to get drafted, no matter how unrealistic their chances.

Five of the past six men's basketball players who have departed the campus did not graduate. For instance, junior John Gilchrist left after the 2004-05 season to declare for the NBA draft. Not drafted, he plays professionally in Israel.

Gary Williams, the team's head coach since 1989, said he wants his players to graduate. "Why did the players leave? To train for the draft or a career in Europe," Williams said. "Who allowed the players to leave? Their parents. Well, then, what do you want me to do? . . . If the parents say that is okay, what can I do?"

The athletic department, Yow noted, offers to pay the tuition for former campus athletes if they return to finish a degree. Some have, including Keith Booth, now an assistant coach. Still, Goff said, "the reality is, it's hard to come back here. So we would love for them to finish before they leave."

At U-Md. and nationally, officials continue to refine their policies so that all athletes will get a sound education.

The NCAA is phasing in new standards that, for the first time, will revoke scholarships from coaches whose teams consistently do poor academic work. And at U-Md., the Athletic Council has drafted new class attendance rules for athletes with low grades. Until now, it has been up to coaches to decide whether to penalize team members who skip classes. Beginning this fall, athletes with poor grades and too many unexcused absences from class will be suspended from their next game automatically.

In other words, 20 years after Bias died, the goal of educating university athletes remains a work in progress. Back then, "the athletic program was brought under some control," said George H. Callcott, a retired College Park history professor, "but it was not revolutionized."

Still, that summer yielded lessons. After four years as a forward for the Terps, Nik Caner-Medley left school without graduating this spring and is hoping to get selected in the second round of the NBA draft in nine days. "It's impossible to be at Maryland and not be knowledgeable of who Len Bias was and what he meant," Caner-Medley said. "All the things that come with being an athlete you can learn from his story. The pressures. The challenges. The temptations."

Staff writers Eric Prisbell, Ivan Carter, Liz Clarke, Ovetta Wiggins and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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