He said he had cramps, Len Bias’s roommates said in recalling his final moments. He said he had cramps, and then he struggled to breathe.
It was early in the morning after a night of partying and celebrating his future in the NBA. Bias was on a couch at University of Maryland’s Washington Hall. And then he collapsed.
When other roommates awoke the next morning, they saw paramedics removing Bias’s body. The basketball star’s death was a seminal moment for so many, even those only tangentially connected to the University of Maryland. For those directly involved with things in College Park, however, it was a moment of crisis, where today it sits once more.
The university on Saturday placed football coach DJ Durkin, along with members of the team’s training staff, on administrative leave following an explosive ESPN report that alleged widespread abusive behavior and disparagement of players in the football program. An investigation found Durkin, along with strength and conditioning coach Rick Court, used conditioning, weightlifting and nutrition regimens to punish and intimidate players.
The environment came to light only after the June death of Jordan McNair, a freshman offensive lineman who suffered a seizure during a team workout in late May. He died two weeks later. McNair’s family asserts his cause of death was heatstroke; ESPN reported that 58 minutes passed between the player’s on-field seizure and when Terrapins athletic trainers alerted emergency personnel.
Now Maryland and Damon Evans — appointed athletic director 12 days after McNair’s death — is investigating the athletic department again.
When Bias died, June 19, 1986, the basketball program was the crown jewel of the Maryland athletic department. The Terrapins had gone to the NCAA tournament six of the past seven years and made the Sweet 16 three times. Coach Lefty Driesell was in his 17th season at Maryland and held the school’s wins record.
Two days earlier, Bias was the second overall pick in the NBA draft, poised to join Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. Bird told Celtics president Red Auerbach he’d even show up at rookie training camp to work out with Bias if the team drafted him.
“Can you believe me playing in Boston Garden?” Bias asked The Post’s Michael Wilbon. “Larry Bird and [Dennis Johnson]? The Boston Garden?”
Bias wanted to look the part, too. He drove a brand new Nissan sports car. He dressed like he stepped out of the pages of GQ, Wilbon wrote.
“Bias walking through the Syms store in Rockville,” he wrote in an appreciation, “searching the racks for extra-longs was a sight to behold. Well-dressed, well-mannered, Len Bias was the kid everyone wanted to know.”
And when he died, after flying home from Boston with his father after visiting Celtics’ higher-ups, after going to a dry party off campus, after eating crabs in his dorm suite — one he shared with teammates — everyone wanted to know why.
It was cocaine. Police found white powder in Bias’s car. Driesell, like the rest of university community, was shocked. Bias had passed physical exams from three NBA teams leading up the draft, at least one of which included a drug test. He never failed a university-administered drug test.
Driesell swore to Auerbach that Bias had never previously used drugs. “I swear on my life,” Driesell told him, according to Sports Illustrated. “I hope to die if this kid ever used drugs before.”
But Bias’s close friend Brian Tribble was known to have sold drugs. Several of Bias’s roommates used, too.
Prince George’s County prosecutors charged two of them with cocaine possession and obstruction of justice, charges that were later dropped in exchange for testimony against Tribble.
“I don’t think the University of Maryland can handle their problems themselves,” Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Arthur Marshall Jr., said upon announcing the charges.
A subsequent university investigation, which looked beyond substance abuse and into the administration of the basketball program, found Bias was 21 credits short of graduating despite exhausting his four years of NCAA eligibility.
University Chancellor John B. Slaughter said he was concerned basketball players were steered into remedial classes to satisfy academic requirements and that they moved on from College Park without a meaningful education.
By October of 1986, four months after Bias’s death, Terrapins Athletic Director Dick Dull, who assumed the position only a year earlier, resigned. Slaughter declined to say whether the move was related to the basketball scandal.
“I accept Mr. Dull’s decision to resign at a time when we are about to undertake some major changes in the athletic department,” Slaughter said.
By the end of the month, Driesell had resigned, too. Basketball practice was set to start days later.
“It is obvious that the administration wants to make a coaching change,” he said. “I do not want to coach if I am not wanted.”
Maryland’s football season begins against Texas in three weeks.
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