A couple of weeks before the 1986 NBA draft, Steve Rivers phoned his former University of Maryland teammate, Len Bias, with some advice.
"I didn't want Len to make a mistake like I'd made," Rivers said. "So I told him, 'You're ready to have the whole world in your hands, so whatever you do, stay away from anything negative -- bad people, bad girls, anything.' He said, 'Look, Riv, you know that I'm okay. You know I'm taking care of business. I'm out here having fun, going to the clubs.' I said, 'Good, go out to the clubs, have some fun, dance, do whatever. Just make sure that you take care of yourself.' "
Two days after the Boston Celtics made him the second pick in this summer's draft, Bias died of cocaine intoxication. The death raised questions about the extent of illegal drug use in Maryland's basketball program. Had university officials been aware of other Terrapins basketball players who had used illegal drugs? Absolutely not, said Maryland Athletic Director Dick Dull. "I have never heard any direct information linking drugs to anybody in the basketball program," Dull said.
Steve Rivers said he knew better. "Both Dick Dull and Coach Lefty Driesell knew that at least one basketball player had experimented with marijuana," Rivers said in an interview here this week. "That player was me."
Rivers said he was actually one of three players on the 1983-84 team who had "experimented" with marijuana. He declined to name the other players.
On Jan. 28, 1984, Rivers and a teammate, Adrian Branch, were arrested and charged with possession of $10 worth of marijuana. Their arrest, conviction and suspension from Driesell's team received widespread attention. In the days after his arrest, Branch said publicly that he had never used illegal drugs. He later rejoined the team. But Rivers remained silent; he did not return to the team.
Rivers, who had never publicly discussed the circumstances of his leaving the Maryland basketball program 2 1/2 years ago, revealed here this week that he had informed Dull and Driesell that he used marijuana during his senior season.
In an interview yesterday, Dull said that Rivers had never admitted to Driesell and university officials that he had used illegal drugs. However, when informed of Rivers' comments, Dull said: "Steve is correct. He indicated that in the past he had experimented with marijuana. That is correct. My previous statement needs to be amended."
Rivers, now a telephone sales agent here for TWA, is the only Maryland basketball player known to have admitted to illegal drug use while he was a student at the university. He agreed to discuss his marijuana use, he said, "because of what happened to Len, I want people to know that they should not mess around with drugs."
Rivers came to Maryland as a hot-shooting, 6-foot-3 guard from Long Island (N.Y.) Lutheran High. But his star never rose in College Park, where he rarely played during his first three seasons.
Rivers grew frustrated with his bench warmer's role, and by the start of his senior season, he said he decided to "experiment" with marijuana. "I wasn't playing, and I was getting, you know, ticked off," Rivers said. "So I said, 'Hey, let me just try to forget about it.' I don't want to sound like that was the sole reason for using marijuana because I could've handled it the frustration in a different way."
Rivers said he was never aware of any cocaine use by Maryland basketball players, and the marijuana use, he said, was limited.
"It wasn't something like we all were trying every week or after every game or before every party," he said. "It was something that happened, I can honestly say, like once a month. We decided, hey, let's go out and do it. My experience with it was mostly with outside friends."
Rivers said he never saw Bias use any illegal drugs during the two years they were teammates and, at times, roommates. "Lenny was the kind of guy who could walk in a room, sit down and have a conversation with me and not touch a thing," Rivers said. "Not even a beer."
Was Driesell aware three of his players were allegedly smoking marijuana during the '83-84 season? "I'm almost positive that he probably really didn't know," Rivers said. "Nobody really knew until the time that we Rivers and Branch got caught for possession of marijuana ." Driesell could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Rivers was caught on a Saturday night, after the team had returned from a game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Rivers said he asked Branch, a junior guard, to drive him to an area near the College Park campus that is known for drug dealing. He said a dealer waved them down and he handed the dealer $10 for two "nickel" -- $5 -- bags of marijuana. The transaction was witnessed by a Prince George's County police officer, and Rivers, Branch and a female companion were arrested and charged with possession of marijuana.
Two days later, the players were suspended from their team after a meeting with Driesell and Dull.
"I admitted it to Dick Dull and to Lefty that I had before experimented with marijuana," Rivers said. "Dull asked us if we were involved in cocaine and we said, 'No.' Coach said, 'Maybe we can let you guys back on the team sooner if you're willing to take a urinalysis.' Adrian said, 'Fine. I'm ready to do it.' I said, 'I don't think it's necessary for me to do that because I'd told you already that I had experimented with marijuana.' I decided I wasn't going to take it because I knew it probably was in my system."
Dull said Rivers and Branch were reinstated on the team after they were found guilty of the misdemeanor offense, fined $200 and ordered to perform community service. Branch, who passed the urinalysis, returned to the team. Rivers did not. Rivers said he "resigned" from the team only after Driesell told him he would not be allowed to play.
Rivers, who majored in government and politics, said he received his Maryland diploma last December and he intends to enter the master's program at City College of New York this fall. "I'm going to pursue a career in teaching," he said.
As for his own troubles with the law, Rivers said: "A lot of people, sad to say, are using drugs. A lot of people are just not getting caught. I got caught. In life, hey, you know, you make mistakes. . . . But I've learned my lesson and today I'm on the right road. I'm happy."
Arthur Marshall, state's attorney for Prince George's County, said yesterday that the county grand jury probing Bias' death also would investigate allegations that some Terrapins basketball players gambled on games this season, according to United Press International.
"We've had allegations brought to our attention regarding potential gambling," Marshall said. "It comes from a reasonably credible source, so we're looking into that possibility, perhaps not this week in the grand jury, but perhaps a little bit further down the line as the investigation continues."