The day Len Bias died, Jack Lawn was in New York addressing a law enforcement conference on crack. On hearing the news, he suspected the worst -- hours before reports about the cause of Bias' death were to stun the nation. He cut short his schedule and flew back to Washington that afternoon. On his mind was his son John, then a 17-year-old basketball player at Robinson High School in Fairfax County, who idolized Bias.

Lawn figured his son would take the news hard. John had videotaped all of the broadcasts but didn't want to watch them alone. That evening the two sat silent and motionless in front of the television watching inconclusive reports about the death of the University of Maryland basketball star.

"How could Len play and have a bad heart?" Lawn's son finally asked.

"Johnny," Lawn said slowly, "he didn't have a bad heart ..."

As head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), John C. Lawn knew too well the grim statistics that had caught up with Bias in June 1986. A father of four, Lawn had long agonized over the deadly epidemic that so many other parents hadn't seen coming, despite the obvious evidence. But never had the scourge of illegal drugs seemed to touch so personally so many Americans.

Lawn decided to, as he puts it, "capitalize on the catastrophe." Immediate public reaction had been to lionize Bias, to wonder how such a thing could happen to a "hero" and "role model." Not without sympathy, Lawn countered by suggesting a different message to the news media. The same tough message that he had gently told his son would become the public's most vivid lesson to date on drug abuse: "Len Bias caused his own demise. We have to make him responsible for taking cocaine, which killed him."

Now, after almost two years and endless campaigns to "Say No to Drugs," Lawn must report at the White House Conference for a Drug Free America here tomorrow that "the production of cocaine hydrochloride and its availability continues to be higher than ever in this country." He must admit that international drug traffickers are better armed, better financed and more ruthless than ever, that the increased violence and drug-related fatalities in cities such as the nation's capital are evidence day after day that drug abuse challenges this country today more than Soviet missile systems -- "because drugs are here," as he says, "killing people in the streets."

But when Lawn addresses what has been billed as the first national meeting of minds -- from the president to policy makers to parents -- on ridding society of illicit drugs, he most certainly will also announce that public awareness of the dangers of drug abuse has never been higher. "I don't think there's any question but that we're going to win, that we're going to minimize the drug abuse problem in this country," Lawn said last week. "Because the general public is now aroused."

The Coach at DEA Trying to turn defeat into victory is a strategy Jack Lawn learned long ago. It's an old coach's trick. Lawn is an old coach. And was once a player. If life were a game, he'd be pounding a ball down a basketball court, where sweat and elbows fly, where a classic jumper from the top of the key can beat the big men who crack heads under the backboard. The kind of ball Len Bias played.

But life hasn't been that clean-cut since Lawn left his coaching job at Brooklyn Prep, a Jesuit high school, for a career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation 21 years ago. Those who knew him then say he's the same regimented straight arrow who would tell his players, "It's how you play the game ..." But trading the basketball court for criminal court upped the stakes. Forget those locker room bromides. Defeat isn't worse than death when your opponents shoot Uzis instead of hoops -- defeat is death.

For the past three years, Lawn has been President Reagan's chief drug law enforcement strategist, running a full-court press against billion-dollar thugs who don't play by the rules. On Lawn's team: about 3,000 undercover narcotics agents in 63 cities and 42 countries, most of them dead ringers for the other side. Their rules: "Our predominant operandi is deception," says Lawn.

About the only similarity between coaching Catholic prepsters in the '60s and heading the DEA in the '80s is the underlying frustration. No matter how many games Lawn's teams won back then -- and they won a lot -- inevitably they got stuffed by cross-town rival Lew Alcindor and the legendary Power Memorial team. "Never beat Big Lew," says Lawn of the lanky high schooler who matured into the Los Angeles Lakers' all-pro Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "But we kept on trying."

There are days lately when the 52-year-old Lawn would rather be going one-on-one against Kareem. Last week, some congressional critics were still incensed that for years DEA apparently had kept to itself evidence that Panama's de facto ruler, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, was turning his small but critical country into a safe house for international drug traffickers. Noriega was indicted last month on federal drug and racketeering charges, and has since deposed the president of Panama, who tried to fire him.

Things heated up for Lawn three days after the indictments came down, when the Panamanian strongman appeared in an interview on CBS' "60 Minutes," calling the charges "slanderous accusations." Among the commendations from the U.S. agencies that Noriega flaunted were two letters from Lawn thanking Noriega, as the previous DEA administrator had done, for his "long-standing support."

Such contradictions come with the territory, according to Lawn. "We'd be very naive to think that with the corruptibility of narcotics money, corruption doesn't touch the highest levels of governments," he says calmly. "We are used to dealing in that unwholesome vale. In order to be convincing, we are lying to a bad guy about our role, who is lying to us about his role."

Despite the indictments now, Lawn calls the U.S. relationship with Noriega over the years "generally a positive one." The letters of commendation to Noriega were "for something specific he did that we appreciated," says Lawn, mentioning agreements with the general that allowed U.S. agents to rummage through bank records for laundered money and board Panamanian-flagged vessels to seize more than 1.5 million pounds of marijuana and 30 tons of cocaine. "They were not letters attesting to his character. At the same time, whenever we received an allegation of corruption on the part of anyone in the Panamanian forces, we investigated to see if it was sufficient to return an indictment." Noriega was indicted, he says, based on "recent revelations." Dealing with the likes of Noriega, Lawn states flatly, "is an unfortunate byproduct of the work that we do."

Critics on Capitol Hill argue that DEA involvement with a criminal regime may suit drug policy but undermines U.S. foreign policy. And they fear other Noriegas are about to be uncovered in other countries where the government itself has become the pusher.

It's the kind of criticism that gets Lawn's Irish up: not loud anger, but that pink-faced peeve he gets when William F. Buckley Jr. "overintellectualizes" the drug problem and calls for legalization. Or when New York City Mayor Ed Koch urges citizens to demand that the president and Congress cut off foreign aid to "Mexico, Panama, the Bahamas, Haiti, Paraguay, Colombia, or any other drug source country" -- as he did yesterday in a full-page ad in The New York Times because a New York City police officer was killed Friday while guarding the home of a witness in a drug case. "Before we begin to be critical of other countries, we need to address our problems at home," Lawn says.

Moments like those show Jack Lawn for what he's not -- a politician. True enough, he is point man for the Reagan administration's "War on Drugs" -- a high-visibility campaign that some denounce as politically motivated and heavier on hype than on results. But Lawn considers his job law enforcement, not politics. He maintains a low profile. When he talks, he sounds more like he is reciting a police report than delivering a campaign speech. When he speaks of adversaries taking shots, he means it literally.

At a press conference in Italy a couple of years ago, reporters asked Lawn to confirm that he had ordered DEA agents to kill him should he be kidnaped by drug gangsters. He answered, "I hope that isn't the case." Asked about a rumor that hidden inside a hollow molar in his mouth was a cyanide capsule, he joked that his dentist would be appalled.

Lawn doesn't dismiss the dangers of drug law enforcement -- neither does he sensationalize them. He was in Los Angeles last week for the funerals of two DEA agents. Periodic threats to his life have been made since 1985, when notorious Colombian drug lords -- the Medellin cartel, with which Noriega allegedly cooperates -- put a $350,000 bounty on his head. In its own country, says Lawn, the cartel has killed the attorney general, the minister of justice, the editor of the leading newspaper, supreme court justices and dozens of other judges trying drug-related cases. Since the extradition to the United States a year ago of Carlos Lehder Rivas, one of the Colombian kingpins now standing trial in Jacksonville, DEA agents worldwide have been put on security alert.

When Lawn travels out of town, which is often, armed agents escort him to and from the airports. The slight bulge beneath his suit coat is a .357 magnum, known for its stopping action.

"I take certain security precautions," says Lawn. "My family takes certain precautions because of my job ... We're very prudent about where we go and with whom we travel. ... But the fact that DEA personnel throughout the world continue to be threatened is clear indication that we are having an effect. However, it is an unfortunate way to weigh your success."

Lawn prefers to measure DEA's success in statistics. "Our track record has been effective. More than 65 percent of our arrests last year were of major violators," he says, seated with his back to the wall, facing the door in his office at DEA headquarters, a nondescript building between the Blue Mirror luncheonette and a strip of 14th Street still populated at night by pimps and pushers.

During the fiscal year ending last September, DEA seized more than $500 million in cash and assets from traffickers -- more than a million dollars a day, he points out; more than the annual budget of his agency. DEA has confiscated about 40 tons of cocaine in the United States alone. The number of drug criminals it arrested last year who were convicted: 12,395.

Lawn delivers the bad news, too. He is quick to point out that the 40 tons of cocaine seized is but a drop in the bucket of what is smuggled into the country. He admits the traffickers have better equipment -- planes, boats, guns -- than his agents. Statistics revealing that 1 in 6 working Americans uses illegal drugs depress him. "It's like Bop the Mole," says Lawn, referring to the boardwalk arcade game in which each time a player smashes down one mole head, another pops up.

"The American public likes instant gratification," says Lawn, explaining both the allure of drugs and impatience over what seems to be a losing battle against it. "They want something to be done instantly. There has been a feeling that if we give law enforcement the mandate, give them a few extra dollars, they'll handle this responsibility. But it is not solely a law enforcement problem."

Ironically, about the only complaint detractors make about Lawn is that while his message is correct, he doesn't have the political clout or personal style to carry the War on Drugs beyond enforcement or reduction in demand. "Jack Lawn is outstanding at what he does -- drug investigations and enforcement," says Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, who has introduced what is known as the "drug czar" bill to create a Cabinet-level commander of the War on Drugs. "But what we need is someone at the highest level ... with access to the president, to lead all foreign policy and domestic aspects of the war on drugs."

Lawn scoffs at the drug czar concept. He agrees with President Reagan when he says Attorney General Edwin Meese is already in charge. Lawn isn't the sort to flatter himself with thoughts of controlling the big picture anyway.

Learning Leadership On his first day at Brooklyn Prep, Lawn looked up from the front of the classroom to find the six-foot halfback of the school's undefeated football team, a quick-fisted kid, causing a stir to test the new teacher's limits.

"Jack was just out of the Marines, see, so it was a mistake" recalls the Rev. Jack Alexander, then a Brooklyn Prep colleague, who remembers Lawn as "a hardnose ... with the damnedest dimples." Lawn's response called the kid's bluff and prevented any other problems in that class, Alexander remembers. "So Jack said, 'Listen, there are two ways of settling this. I could take you down to the headmaster, or you and I could step down to the locker room. And I prefer the latter.' "

The only son of Irish Catholic immigrants who settled in a blue-collar neighborhood in Brooklyn, Lawn remembers his mother raising his three sisters and his father punching the clock at Consolidated Edison, retiring, then dying in 1967.

"Lived in a basketball mecca," Lawn says, in the fragmented re'sume' jargon he adopts when talking about his past. Home was St. Theresa's Parish -- like a scene out of "The Bells of St. Mary's," where Bing Crosby is the priest who teaches a scruffy knickered kid how to shoot a layup instead of throw a punch. Lawn could've been the kid.

Brooklyn in the '40s was a town and a time when good Catholic boys dreamed of growing up to become basketball players -- but instead they became priests, cops or thieves. Lawn figures three out of four isn't bad -- he never tried stealing.

At 5 feet 10 inches, he was a small guard and captain of his freshman high school team -- an overachiever on and off the court. The caption under his picture in the yearbook read: "Certain to grow up to be a big man." He's since grown maybe an inch. But even then, Lawn was confident that stature isn't measured with a yardstick. "You talk about the Ralph Sampsons and the Lew Alcindors, these were gifted athletes," says Lawn. "I was never in that category ... I succeeded because I worked very hard at learning the basics. Technical soundness. Those attributes that some people are born with, I had to work for."

When he was a sophomore, Lawn entered the seminary preparatory school at nearby Cathedral College to study for the priesthood. It was an adolescent's decision forged by family and cultural pressures. After six years, he knew he'd confused one kind of collar for another. Saving sinners wasn't his beat; nailing them was. He left the seminary and wrote to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about a job.

Those were the days when J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI like a religious order anyway. But initiation required a law degree. Lawn was turned down, so he opted for Marine Corps Officer Candidates School at St. Francis College in New York. He graduated with a BA and commission as a second lieutenant. In his second year in the Marines, while stationed in Beaufort, S.C., the 23-year-old Lawn volunteered to coach a ragtag bunch of boys at the Presbyterian church while off duty. They made the church league's state playoffs. "I found out I had that ability to get people to reach beyond what they thought was their limit," he says.

About a year later, he resigned his commission of first lieutenant and returned to New York City "to get on with his life." That meant studying American literature at St. John's University, meeting Virginia, the girl he would later marry, "in the same church her parents were married in" and landing a job teaching English that also made him the school's basketball coach -- the only kind of work he was certain he wanted to do.

It was 1961, a time of hope and new beginnings for the nation and for Lawn. It was also when the aggressive young coach first heard of a bigger problem he'd later find more difficult to beat than Prep's basketball opponents: street drugs. "Marijuana was not part of my vocabulary then yet," says Lawn. "The drug phenomenon was just beginning."

He remembers reading about heroin addicts "in the low socioeconomic areas of the city," hearing about jazz musicians and ne'er-do-wells smoking dope. "That didn't impact upon me because it was not within my own environment," Lawn says, meaning the basketball court in a more innocent decade.

John Dockery remembers Lawn as "a guy who you just sensed had things under control" -- a guy who influenced a lot of kids. When Dockery was a skinny senior on Lawn's basketball team in '62, he was being pressured by the Jesuits to commit to Holy Cross or Boston College. Lawn encouraged him to go for a Harvard scholarship instead. "He was interested in me, versus keeping me in the system," says Dockery, who lettered in three sports at Harvard and went on to play on the New York Jets' 1969 Super Bowl championship team. Now a New York City businessman and CBS-TV sports analyst, Dockery says of Lawn, "I knew back then there was more to this guy than a good jump shot."

Lawn shelved Prep and his jump shot in 1967 to apply again to the FBI. With an infant daughter, he realized coaching wouldn't put food on the table, and he'd heard the Bureau had dropped the law degree requirement that had kept him out previously. And he figured his sense of self-discipline fit perfectly into the strict and structured agency where employees couldn't even drink coffee at their desks, he remembers, because "Mr. Hoover" figured that if you were drinking coffee, you weren't doing your job. Lawn was right: Thirteen years later, he was heading the largest FBI investigation in the Bureau's history.

In May 1979, U.S. District Court Judge "Maximum" John Wood Jr. -- known for his tough sentencing of drug dealers -- was killed by a single rifle shot as he stood in his condominium parking lot in San Antonio. The FBI suspected an El Paso family of drug traffickers known as the Chagras, but a year of high-pressure investigation hadn't nailed down the proof. FBI officials were wringing their hands because the unsolved case was of historic proportions: Never before had a federal judge been assassinated in the United States, and no other case in the FBI inventory was as critical.

"It was an attack against the system," Lawn says. The investigation ultimately cost more than $5 million and was larger than the one following the Kennedy assassination. In the spring of 1980, FBI Director William Webster gave the case to Lawn. Lawn had impressed Webster a couple years earlier in his handling of the FBI's work when the House Select Committee on Assassinations reopened the investigations of the murders of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. Soon after that, he impressed Webster again by quelling a crime wave against vacationing Americans in the Virgin Islands with six men he handpicked rather than the 26 the FBI wanted to assign to the case.

Apparently Lawn's strategy on the case against Joseph Chagra succeeded where others failed because of his meticulous processing of every shred of evidence. After two years of a seven-day-a-week grind, Lawn had packaged for federal prosecutors what proved to be a foolproof case. In September 1982, Joseph Chagra pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges to assassinate Judge Wood. Lawn's "notoriety within the Bureau" only grew with the Chagra conviction, according to a one Justice Department source: "He went down there and put the case together from almost nothing. He pulled a phoenix out of the ashes on that one."

"He's very capable of long-range strategic planning and the subtle use of skill, which are coaching skills," says a second Justice Department prosecutor who served with Lawn in the FBI office in Kansas City, Mo. "... But he's calmer than the typical coach."

A month after the Chagra conviction, Lawn was ordered back to Washington. Webster wanted him to become deputy director of DEA. On the final day of packing up his San Antonio office, agents who had assisted him on the case presented Lawn with a pair of genuine, handmade Texas cowboy boots -- Size 13.

"Nice boots, but you got the wrong size," said Lawn. "I wear 10s."

The U.S. attorney stepped forward: "Well, Jack, you're so conservative, we thought you'd want to wear 'em over your wing tips."

Changing the Strategy Traditionally, law enforcement strategy against drug trafficking was run-and-gun. The Big Chase Scene repeated over and over. It's the same strategy Lawn's assistant coach at Prep, Bill Duffy, would try in one-on-one games after school. "I liked the running game," says Duffy. "Jack always liked having a game plan and sticking to it."

But when Lawn took charge at DEA in July 1985, there seemed to be little reason to stick to the traditional game plan. Social acceptance of illegal drug use, big bucks and overcrowded jails all undermined that precept by the '70s. The threat of prosecution lost its punch against drug dealers who could bail themselves out and get lost. White-collar users and students never related to being behind bars anyway. "When I go out to talk to young people or to executives, they're not interested in my giving them statistics on how many people go to jail," says Lawn. "They know they're not criminals."

So Lawn has attempted to shape a new government game plan. "My strategy as a coach was certainly the full-court press and a controlled, discipline offense," he explains. "But the trafficker looks for strengths and weaknesses in the system and tries to capitalize on weaknesses. We need the same flexiblity in law enforcement."

First and foremost, he argued, drug trafficking is a business of supply and demand. To stop it, shut off the supply and reduce demand.

Previously, most efforts to close down supply lines to the United States were conducted at U.S. borders. That failed miserably. Under Lawn, the DEA has grown more aggressive in zeroing in on the sources of the supplies, which requires cooperation of foreign governments. And that has ignited numerous diplomatic brush fires.

In his first year, for instance, Lawn renewed the use of herbicides as part of a highly publicized 50-state crackdown on U.S. marijuana crops. Lawn's suggestion that he might bring back the controversial chemical paraquat under a different label to carry on deforestation of domestic marijuana crops raised the hackles of environmental and health groups. But what appeared to be only a domestic debate had international ramifications: DEA had persuaded 15 foreign countries to try aerial eradication of drug crops -- about 62,000 pounds of paraquat was being used abroad each year. "The concern that was fed back to us is that we've asked them to do it, they've done it, and now in our own country we aren't allowed to do it," says Lawn.

About the same time, DEA also started keeping tabs on worldwide supplies of ethyl ether, the anesthetic used to refine cocaine paste into the powder cocaine hydrochloride. That dried up ether supplies to international traffickers, forcing up prices for a 55-gallon barrel of ether from $300 wholesale to $8,000 on the black market, and boosted the street price of cocaine. "We felt we were putting a crimp on the traffic," says Lawn.

Suddenly, DEA labs started detecting street cocaine samples containing benzene -- a carcinogenic chemical traffickers were substituting for ether in processing. Result: the so-called "benzene scare" two years ago, a warning that cocaine use could cause leukemia. Lawn didn't regret the shock waves that spread among users. But "point of fact," he says now, "is before that would happen they would die from their cocaine use."

A few weeks after Len Bias' death, Ralph Sampson showed up at Lawn's office. The former University of Virginia center, who was then playing for the Houston Rockets, had remarked to the press that he favored mandatory drug testing for athletes and had now come to see Lawn about how he could help. Days earlier, New York Yankees slugger Dave Winfield had volunteered his services to DEA and was quickly edited into the first of DEA's "Say No" films. Since then, other sports figures have lined up.

Lawn smiles as he tells of the time his youngest daughter turned down his offer to come to her second-grade class and speak personally about drug abuse. She wanted Winfield instead. The ballplayer addressed the school kids a few weeks later. "Our kids do relate to heroes," says Lawn. "When we can have a Larry Bird or a Doctor J get out and tell them to say no to drugs," says Lawn, "we have leverage."

Frankie Coates, chief of demand reduction at DEA, credits the success of that program to Lawn as much as to the prominent sports personalities. "He's a decent kind of guy, a human being who makes you know that the problem is solvable," says Coates. "He knows how to get the message to the youth of the nation and make a difference."

Not surprisingly, this old coach's favorite project is aimed at the nation's young athletes. DEA's "Sports Awareness Program" to enlist 50,000 high school coaches to channel information and guidance on drug abuse prevention to 6 million athletes was conceived one day when a distraught District coach walked into DEA headquarters and said he didn't have the answers anymore.

"I've seen the unique role a coach can play in explaining things to the young people, giving them reasons to say no to drugs," says Lawn, who has allocated some DEA funds to the coach's program and efforts to reduce demand. "We are exploiting their influence as the local heroes in the schools."

Asked if he's fighting a losing battle -- and he is asked that often -- Lawn's answer is repeated almost verbatim each time: "The most bloody battle ever fought in American history was at an island in the Pacific called Iwo Jima," he says, after mentioning his Marine background. "A general there was asked if there was any hope of winning. My sense of where we stand in this fight against drug abuse is his answer: The issue of victory is not in doubt. The only issue is the cost of that victory."