THE PEOPLE in the drug business thought Len Bias was stupid. In a world where dope dealers send women with ounces of cocaine to party with the stars and where it is standard operating procedure to give an athlete his first hit -- let him get a taste for the stuff and then start selling it at higher and higher prices -- Bias was just another chump waiting for his pockets to be picked.
Among the matters police say they would like to discuss with Brian Tribble, Bias' fast-lane-riding buddy, are these: What was an alleged first-time user doing with a 10-gram block of cocaine in his car, and is there any truth to a rumor that someone -- maybe Bias -- not long ago paid a fat $800 for eight grams of cocaine?
It wouldn't be the first time that a dope dealer said no discount for a deep-pocketed dummy. In the drug world, they mean business.
It's only in the real world where the games are played, games like "Who Killed Len Bias?"
Bias, so the story goes, was too smart, too good, to do it to himself. But now that it is clear that nobody slipped a drug into his soft drink, everything and everybody else -- from college and professional sports to teammates and friends -- has been blamed.
Thus, for the excuse makers, there will be sweet relief if manslaughter charges are brought against those who helped Bias get the drugs. But these excuse makers must ask themselves: Just because somebody passes you a gun, does that mean you must blow your heart out?
Bias had it all. He would be paid to play a great game with a great team. He would wear the most fashionable clothes, drive whatever car he fancied. He didn't need to pass an accounting class because he could afford to pay an accountant.
All he needed to do was stay alive, stay away from drugs, for five years, and pocket -- at the very minimum -- $5 million.
But he blew it.
There is no excuse for what Bias did. Yet, by looking for reasons, we act with the same selfishness that Bias did, trying to protect our own illusions and the warped notion that athletic heroes are automatically heroes in the arena of life as well.
There can be no lesson in Len Bias' death as long as there is a cover-up about the man. Was Len Bias the greatest thing to come out of Prince George's County since Sugar Ray Leonard? Was he just a hot dog? Did he have brains along with his talent? Who was right about him, the drug dealers or the people who wrote his press releases?
Bias wasn't made into a hero just because he was a good basketball player. He was lionized because he had the cat by the tail. He had tapped into what always seems to be the greatest secret of life: how to be rich, famous, beautiful -- and young. A myth like that can be more dangerous than drugs, both to the superstar in question, and to those who emulate him. To be a superstar is to shine all the time, we believe. But this is foolish. Trying to shine all the time takes more than anyone has. If Len Bias believed the myth, and if he used cocaine to keep shining -- for himself and for us -- then he was dumb.
Ultimately, the way cocaine deceives, a user may end up ingesting it not to feel "great," but just to appear normal. Common sense should prevent this. But that is the first thing that drug use destroys.
Carl Eller, a former National Football League star and rehabilitated cocaine addict, told the House Select Committee On Narcotics Abuse and Control:
"The athlete is the most discriminated against person in our society today. Most people see the athlete as a highly paid professional. They do not think of him as the kid next door. . . . I think we are sincerely lacking in the amount of expertise to develop the programs to help our young athletes become citizens of tomorrow. The problem is not drug abuse. The problem is exploitation, not of the athletes, but of the community."
But Eller was doing no more than making excuses. Bias had not been exploited. The pressure was off. In another time, Bias could have been a soldier in Vietnam. Instead, the only battlefield he had to fight on was a basketball court; the only bullets he had to dodge played at the Capital Centre.
Yes, he blew it.
Some say that it is because he lived in a world where lies are accepted, where kids are led to believe that the way out is to make it as a pro, where relief from the daily grind is spelled d-r-u-g-s.
But Bias seemed to make lies come true. He beat the odds. Maybe he thought that of all the people who use cocaine, he would be the last to die. After all, he had cheated himself by not finishing school and gotten away clean.
Until he took that hit of cocaine.
For some, a certain sympathy goes out to Bias because of the drug epidemic that exists now. How tough it must have been for him to have drug sharks circling for a strike at his cash, they say. How rough it must be to say no when cocaine so effectively short circuits the brain, falsely recreating the "high" of a basketball-game victory.
"I am convinced Bias came back from Boston, he had signed a contract with Reebok athletic shoes , he was happy and excited and somebody said, 'Hey, Leonard, try this,'" said University of Maryland basketball coach Lefty Driesell. "Leonard went along with the gang and he paid the price."
But heroes don't go along with the gang. The gang follows the leader.
When Bias' parents appeared before the television cameras shortly after his death, they projected the strength that made clear the kind of stock this man had come from. Both are articulate and sensitive and have no reason to feel that they had failed.
The headlines were supposed to have read by now, "Superstar Buys Parents A Home." Whether they needed a new one is immaterial; we knew they deserved it. But what was Bias thinking about? Whether Bias had died from the cocaine or not, he had cheated them. What kind of hero cheats his parents?
The cocaine dealer has a homing instinct for people like this. And so do fans who turn brilliant athletes into glorious heroes.
What else can you say? Grown people can't be tailed 24-hours a day by someone carrying a urine sampler. Grown people can't be forced to save their own lives, not if they don't really want to live. At best, you can teach a person to be careful when they can't behave and ask for help when they can't do that.
Bias knew how to do all of those things. But he did not. That was dumb. And since when has ignorance been a reason for heroism?
He blew it.
Courtland Milloy is a Washington Post columnist.