He was listed in the University of Maryland registrar's office as a full-time student. But in the spring of 1986, Len Bias knew there was only one thing he could really do full-time -- and it wasn't sit in a classroom.
Bias was enrolled in General Studies, a curriculum for students who chose not to declare a major. Although he had a desire to earn a diploma -- he particularly enjoyed classes in art, human development and Afro-American studies -- his thoughts now were on the NBA draft, and on the fame and fortune that would follow.
His dreams, quite simply, were to play professional basketball, make lots of money and own a sleek, pricey Mercedes. So when grades for the spring semester were released several weeks ago, and he had not passed a single one of his five classes, Len Bias could not be surprised. Neither could anyone at Maryland.
"Len was under an incredible pressure that was totally inconsistent with studying and finishing his degree," said Maryland Athletic Director Dick Dull. "All of a sudden, Lenny Bias had become a star, and he had to deal with the pressures of NBA teams calling him, taking physicals, making public appearances, talking to the news media and selecting an agent. That not only takes a lot of time, it was also a very tiring, stressful existence."
That stress clearly was in evidence during the hours preceding Bias' collapse Thursday morning in a dormitory suite on the College Park campus. At 8:50, Bias was pronounced dead, of cardiac arrest. Although the exact cause of his death has not been revealed, police sources say evidence of cocaine was found in his urine.
During the 48 hours before his death, the NBA champion Boston Celtics had made Bias, a 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward, the second pick overall in the league draft. And he had followed a stressful schedule that took him from Washington to New York to Boston to Washington -- with a lot of parties, meetings and interviews in between.
This jet-speed existence typifies the lifestyle of many of the best college players each year during the weeks preceding the NBA draft. If it is inconsistent with higher education, so be it. But it has left Bias' friends and acquaintances wondering whether, ultimately, it might have played a role in his death.
"This probably reflects our whole society, where enough is not enough and more is always better, which isn't true," said Bob Wagner, who coached Bias at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. "Isn't this our society? You turn on the TV and you watch a sporting event with beer commercials. We all sit there and have a beer while we watch the game. And after the game we celebrate. And then we ask, 'Where's the party?' In other words, our society has almost gotten to the point where the party after the activity is more important than the activity."
In Bias' case, Wagner said, "Things were happening to him faster than he could absorb them or than he knew how to deal with them.
"He probably asked himself, 'What's me?' and 'What's reality?' Where do you draw the line between saying, 'I'm just a 22-year-old kid, just growing up,' and 'Here I am. I can handle anything.' You know: 'What can I not handle? I've been through it all. Other people can't do what I've done.' "
Reality for Bias was that he would be a first-round NBA draft choice and, before long, a wealthy man. And there were times when he had difficulty meeting all of his obligations, particularly as a student.
"I think he took his responsibilities very seriously," said Wendy Whittemore, academic adviser for the Maryland men's basketball team, "and to realize he may have been falling short made it difficult for him to deal with it. It was difficult for him to be anywhere on campus without students wanting to spend time with him. Imagine yourself in a situation where you go from place to place and everybody just wants a little time: 'Can I talk to you about this? Wasn't that great? What are you going to do next?' I don't think he was ever able to get away from that.
"Lenny was very bright and intelligent, and I had no question whatsoever about his abilities under normal circumstances. But last season it seemed like every ACC game that we had that was away happened to fall on a Thursday, so all of the guys missed a good number of classes during the season. Could any student have finished his course work under the circumstances? I think not."
Whittemore said the players missed 35 to 40 percent of their spring classes because of travel.
Bias later told reporters that he was only a few credits short of earning a degree, and Maryland officials last week said Bias lacked nine credits needed for graduation. In fact, he was down by 21 after he had three Fs and two withdrawals during the spring semester. "There was definitely a sense of frustration on his part," Whittemore said.
Despite the inordinate time in the spotlight, Bias rarely seemed comfortable there. He sometimes grew testy with reporters, who seemed to always want something more from him.
"The one thing Len valued was his privacy," Wagner said. "You know: 'I want to be myself.' Some reporters said he didn't want to talk to the press. But people had to realize he wasn't a good loser. If he didn't have a good game, he didn't want to talk about how this happened or how that happened."
Bias' style off the court showed as much flash as his play. He had an ankle-length fur coat and a leather trench coat, and he seemed most comfortable in three-piece suits and tassled loafers.
Once, as they walked out of Cole Field House after a game early last season, Bias and teammate Keith Gatlin played the role of 9-to-5 businessmen.
Gatlin: "How's the wife?"
Bias: "Great, great."
Gatlin: "How's the kids?"
Bias: "Great, great."
Gatlin: "It's 5 o'clock?"
As the season ended, and he was selected all-America and named Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, the demands on Bias multiplied.
First came the burden of selecting a sports representation agency to negotiate his pro contract. Hundreds of agents and would-be agents competed for a job that could net several hundred thousand dollars in fees.
Surprisingly, Bias and his parents met with representatives of only two agencies: ProServ and Advantage International, both based in Washington. Advantage did seem to have a clear advantage in that Coach Lefty Driesell had retained the agency last year to negotiate his Maryland contract and, later, an endorsement deal with Reebok, a shoe and sportswear company. Bias joined his coach as a client of Advantage.
Now that he had an agent, he needed some spending money, not to mention a sports car to replace his 1974 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Bias applied for -- and received -- a loan from D.C. National Bank and used some of the money to lease a Nissan 300ZX. He intended to buy a Mercedes after signing his NBA contract, although his agent, Lee Fentress, said: "I hope I could've talked him out of that. The Mercedes would've cost him a lot of money."
Bias still was a student at Maryland -- but only in name. He had enrolled in five classes for the spring semester, but he had found little time to attend. After classes ended in early May, it became even more hectic. On May 5, for example, he flew to New York with his mother to take a physical examination at the request of the New York Knicks. On May 27, he was in Boston for a Celtics physical. Two weeks later, he was in California for a physical by the Golden State Warriors.
The real whirlwind began Monday, when he flew to New York with his father, James Bias, to attend various functions associated with the NBA draft. That night, Bias said he didn't leave his room at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, where he watched the "Tonight Show" and "Late Night with David Letterman."
On Tuesday, he appeared at the Felt Forum for the draft in a stylish white suit with gray pin stripes. Yes, Bias told reporters, he still was eager to buy that Mercedes. When James Bias was asked if he intended to help his son choose a car, he said, smiling: "If you've seen how Len dresses, you know he doesn't need any help picking out a car. He's got his own sense of style."
After the draft, Bias flew to Boston with his father to meet members of the New England news media. That afternoon, he appeared on all three Boston TV news shows.
On Wednesday, Bias spent an exhausting day with his agents negotiating an endorsement deal with Reebok.
"I was immediately impressed with Len's charisma," said John Morgan, Reebok's product-line manager for basketball. "He came into our offices just like he was a member of our family, like he'd been around here for a year. He played around with the Star Trek game in our lunch room, walked through the warehouse, and approached everybody like he was a normal individual -- not like some superstar."
By the end of the afternoon, Bias had made a commitment to sign a long-term, six-figure-a-year contract with Reebok the next week. "The contract provided Len with financial security for the rest of his life," said Fentress. Bias was not advanced any money.
Reebok executives invited Bias and his father to a reception at the Royal Sonesta Hotel to honor Celtics players Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson (who also are on the Reebok payroll). "Ladies and gentlemen," said Reebok president Paul Fireman, "the newest member of our family, Len Bias."
Bias beamed as he was presented with a pair of Celtics shoes, then went about the business of signing autographs. "At the time, Len was very tired," said Morgan. "He'd just spent 72 hours on the fast track. He was excited about his situation and glad everything was over with. He was looking forward to going home. He kept telling me, 'All I want to do is go home and see my mother.' "
After charming the Reebok retailers for an hour, Bias hustled with his father and agent to Logan Airport to catch an 8:35 p.m. New York Air flight. En route to Washington, Fentress said he discussed strategy for their first round of negotiations with the Celtics, on Tuesday in Washington. "I cautioned him on patience," Fentress said, "and told him to expect a long summer of negotiations and that he should have very little expectations of a contract being reached soon." Fentress said he planned to seek a three- or four-year deal that would pay Bias close to $1 million a year.
Fentress said that, as the plane touched down at 10 p.m. at National Airport, he turned to Bias. "I asked Len what he was going to do. I said, 'You must be a little weary. Get some sleep for class tomorrow.' He said, 'Yeah, I'm going home with my dad. I'm going to drive him home and I'm going to give a lot of the Reebok shoes and clothes as presents to my family. And I can't wait to see my mother.' "
Bias and his father drove from National to the family's Landover home, and from there Bias went on alone to his dormitory suite on campus. Even though he was exhausted, Bias wasn't ready to call it a night. At 2 a.m., he left, telling suite mates and a friend from the football team he wanted to be alone. He returned about an hour later. At 8:50 that morning, he was dead.
"We had the kind of relationship where we supported each other, right or wrong," Wagner said. "I always told him, 'The true measure of a friend is the person who would be there if you couldn't play basketball.' I accept him for what he is. If he made a mistake, he made a mistake."
Staff writer Sally Jenkins contributed to this report.