UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND basketball star Len Bias, hours after realizing his greatest dream, is tragically dead. It is all the more shocking because this was the quintessential "local kid makes good." His story began on a dilapidated court outside an elementary school in Landover, with a boy then so poor a player that no one wanted him on the team. It ended, inexplicably, on a hospital bed hours after he had flown back from Boston as the draft choice of the world champion Celtics.

There is much speculation about the cause of the cardiac arrest that killed him. There are reports that cocaine was found in his system, although he had passed every random drug test at the university and had been tested by four NBA teams and found to be drug-free and in perfect health. Or the cause may have been a heart problem that was not detected during any of the physical examinations. A week or more will pass before the final tissue and toxicology reports are complete. But there are many other things about Mr. Bias that can be said now.

It can be difficult to respect young athletes these days. There are stories of greed, of student athletes with little or no interest in education, of shoplifting, point-shaving and assaults on women, and of schools so embarrassed by the conduct of their athletes that they openly discuss dropping their athletic programs.

Len Bias was a born-again Christian, a spiritual leader of his team at a religious retreat. He wrote poetry. After being drafted by the Celtics, he planned to finish his degree this summer. college, he was the superstar trying gamely to lift his team above mediocrity. He took the knocks and the pressure and went back to his old playground and high school haunts to show youngters how to play the game. He never forgot his old neighborhood, his old coaches or his family. He was a gentleman and a good kid, say those who knew him best. His worst confirmed transgression: missing a team curfew at an away game when he visited old friends.

If it develops that drugs killed Len Bias, we hope that the warning reaches all of the youths who admired and emulated him and all of the adults who influence the lives of those like him. No matter how this turns out, he leaves an image of the grace and drive of a marvelously talented young man.