As some of us continue to grieve over the death of Len Bias, I have to admit that I never saw him play and I am not even very familiar with basketball. Nonetheless, I've been drawn to write about him because his loss has so deeply touched us all, epitomizing an American tragedy in its starkest form.
Since his death, I've learned much about this 22-year-old wunderkind with the unbelievable physique and demeanor of a black Adonis: that he was a consensus all-America player, that the Boston Celtics had just selected him in the draft two days before he died.
Aside from learning about Bias, I've also learned something about collegiate basketball and the manner in which some colleges abuse their athletes.
According to the NCAA, 14,190 men played college basketball during the 1984-85 school year. Of that number, only 162 were drafted and given professional contracts. A much smaller number made the final cut for their professional teams. As former Olympic athlete Harry Edwards once put it: "Most youngsters have about as much chance of becoming a pro athlete as they have of being hit by a meteorite."
Yet, as Wendy Whittemore, academic counselor to the University of Maryland men's basketball team said in resigning Tuesday, too often sports, not education, are the top priority for college athletes. On Coach Lefty Driesell's squad, for example, five of 12 players flunked out of school last semester. Moreover, because most are encouraged to continue to play without interruption, Maryland has let academics go by the wayside, and this is the cruelest cut of all.
But Lenny Bias, who finished his collegiate career as Maryland's all-time leading scorer with 2,149 points, was one of those rare athletes who actually succeeded in getting drafted to play with a professional team, the Boston Celtics. With endorsement contracts, such as the one he got from Reebok, it was projected that he could have nearly doubled his salary as a player. There's no telling how much money he could have earned with that gregarious smile.
Nonetheless, although he was one good-looking man, Lenny Bias was not quite a man -- and I'm not saying that derisively. At 22, he was at one of the most crucial stages of male development, that of the manchild. It's a particularly precarious stage, filled with temptations and difficult choices. Because athletes like Bias are bigger than most people, it is often hard to think of them as anything but adults.
Georgetown University Coach John Thompson realizes that these young athletes are really manchildren. Referring to his players as his children, he sets strict rules to protect them, saying he is making men first and basketball players second. Even after Thompson's team won the national championship in 1984, he told his players he wanted them all to get a good night's sleep, admonishing them: "When you get depressed, you do foolish things. When you get super happy, you do foolish things, too."
Len Bias could have used some advice like that.
During his last term, when he made three Fs and withdrew from two courses, it would have helped him if somebody had told Bias to go to class and stop worrying about getting a Mercedes. Somebody also should have been there to tell him to put the drugs down the night of his death. But unfortunately, too many people were awed by his talent and didn't give him the advice he needed, or if he got it, he didn't heed it.
That Bias died of cocaine intoxication after ingesting an unusually pure dose is precisely why drugs are such an awful dance with death. But while drugs may not yet be as common as the "high-five," they are becoming for too many of our youths an accepted part of the culture. In the case of some professional athletes, the drug pusher has broken into the professional ranks along with an attorney, agent and financial consultant.
In the case of Len Bias, we can only wonder at the greatness he would have attained had he lived, had he managed to survive that crucial period between being a boy and a man. Like me, many people will never have the opportunity to see him play. In years to come, people will talk about him, attributing superhuman powers and abilities to him on the court. For now he is part of basketball legend.