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  Honed as Heroes, Unskilled in Ambiguities

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Columnist
June 21, 1986

Athletes seem uniquely ill-prepared for contemporary life because they have been encouraged, from adolescence, to accept the most simplistic views of a complex and ambiguous world.

They're fed black and white, then have to cope with gray. And we wonder how Len Bias can become a born-again Christian one month, then, the next month, drop dead of a heart attack with cocaine in his system.

When a world of cliches runs into reality, somebody gets hurt. When we ask people to pretent to be perfect angels in public, we're begging for the backlash in private.

We see this in almost every sport every day. Coaches are the players' gurus. What they preach—and it is preaching—is a code of conduct that has more to do with winning games (for the coach) than it has to do with living a life (for the player).

Too often, athletes are given an adult's body, an adult's desires and a child's morals. Instead of moderation, they learn the binge mentaility of abstinence in season, then party-hearty. Just don't get caught or embarrass us.

Athletes not only have to cope with fame, wealth and hero worship, they have to face the possibility that they are frauds. Our image-making apparatus seems to insist that scoring average and virtue be connected. Pity the jock who is proclaimed the best of his generation, held up as a paragon when, in his heart, he must know he doesn't have a clue about any issue more significant than a pick-and-roll.

Those who exaggerate the importance and the virtue of athletes do them no favor. It only sents them up to make the fall twice as hard when they turn out to be human.

If the 1980s show anything about University of Maryland athletics, it's that the school might be wise to get its athletes down off their pedestals and knock some common sense and humility into them.

Ten years ago, at a sports banquet, Maryland basketball all-America John Lucas spoke. He rambled from platitude to platitude, discussed the possibility that one day he might be president of the United States, then sat down to a standing ovation.

I have never seen such innocent vanity and such pathetic lack of self-knowledge in the same person. For me, Lucas has always summed up the athlete's dilemma. He mistakes his talent for character. He uses charm and presence to fake his way through. His vanity is excused as a great man's natural ambition.

And no matter what he does, he is cheered—which just coaxes him deeper into self-delusion. He's hailed, that is, until he screws up; then he gets it in the neck twice as much, because he blew the gravy-train ride so many wish they had.

With athletes, that dichotomous black-or-white mind-set always lies in wait for us. It's lurking around Len Bias' memory now. There's going to be a terrible temptation to judge Bias permanently on the basis of a coroner's report. If his death was a heart attack, make him a saint. If his death was directly drug related, turn him into a parable for kids about how drugs can ruin the best of them.

On Thursday, a former member of the Maryland state legislature said he thought Cole Field House should be renamed Bias Field House, as long, he said, "as no drugs are found in the blood."

Does cocaine really change our opinion of Bias by 180 degrees? What if, someday, Memorial Stadium in Baltimore should be changed to Earl Weaver Stadium. Should the little manager's two drunk driving incidents prevent it?

For everybody's sake, can't we learn to live more comfortably in life's gray areas?

Lefty Dreisell knows this black vs. white syndrome to the core. He's a simple, passionate man who wants hard, old-fashioned answers; and he constantly pays an enormous price for the difficulty he has in dealing with subtlety. That, perhaps, is why he counseled his team Thursday as to what parts of the truth to reveal and what to hide.

In the last two days, thousands of people have tried to figure out how they feel abou Bias' death. For me, none has caught the mixture of tragedy and disappointment, annoyance and sympathy, better than a tall Safeway checker who I overheard Thursday. Someone in line said to him, "Too bad about Bias."

"Really a shock. I played for UDC and I was in a pickup game against him just a couple of weeks ago," said the checker. "He had it all in front of him . . . I hope there were no drugs involved. But I wouldn't be surprised."

"Aw, damn," said the checker. "That's a shame. That's so stupid."

"They don't know yet if that's what killed him."

"It didn't help," the checker said. "He was 22. A man. He's supposed to know better."

The checker picked up the intercom phone and said to whoever answered, "They found cocaine in Lenny." He didn't even bother to say Bias. "Yeah, really sad."

Then he started ringing up the next bag of groceries.

Stupid. Sad. A Shame. A personal shock. His own responsibility. A blow to those who believed in him. But not such a surprise if you live in the real world, not the hero world. To the checker, Bias was just a local kid named Lenny who made it big, had it all in front of him, but couldn't finish the breakaway dunk. The kind of thing that makes you sad for everybody.

Lots of people in this town would like to have had Len Bias' life. All but the last day of it. To have had his talent, his joy, his fame, his wealth-to-come. He was a hero to them.

Now they don't know whether to be sad for him, or mad at him, or some much more complicated mixture of both.

And, no matter what the cops and the coroner say, they're probably never going to know.

That's called life in the gray. It's hard. It never gets easier. It's a game you never win, but you just keep trying. It builds character. The real kind. Not just the sort that's talked about at halftime, but forgotten after midnight.

© 1986 The Washington Post Company

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