There was light, and then there was darkness. There was the All-America basketball player and NBA millionaire-to-be, and then there was another victim of cocaine.From the Prince George's County neighborhood in which he grew up to the University of Maryland campus that launched his star, those whose lives he touched still are affected -- some traumatically -- by his death.
Len Bias died 10 years ago today.
"I don't think any one of us will ever be the same," said Bob Wagner, who coached Bias at Northwestern High School. "A lot of memories are frozen in time."
It was the early morning of June 19, 1986. During an impromptu party in his dorm suite to celebrate his selection by the Boston Celtics as the second player taken in the 1986 NBA draft, Bias had a seizure and stopped breathing.
After a frantic 911 call by his roommates, Bias was rushed to Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale and was pronounced dead at 8: 50 a.m. An autopsy later showed that Bias had died of cocaine intoxication. He was 22 years old.
"The whole experience changed my life," said Dave Dickerson, a former teammate at Maryland who had just finished his freshman year. "I was forced to become a leery person."
"I think most people have forgotten what kind of player he was," said Brian Waller, a former high school teammate who was one of Bias' best friends. "The only time you see a clip of him is in a negative light."
His death became a national event and, for a while, a national cause. And while the rest of the country eventually went on with its life, many of those who had known Bias more intimately had trouble refocusing on their own futures.
Some lost their way for a month or a year or five years. Some wandered so far off course that they still haven't found themselves. Through a series of interviews conducted over the past few months, one thing has become obvious:
Len Bias' death transformed those around him.
Many believe it contributed, at least in part, to the shooting death of Bias' younger brother, Jay, four years later. Some still are haunted by what they might have done to prevent it from happening in the first place.
Many are hesitant to talk about it.
His parents, James and Lonise, failed to return repeated telephone messages left at their home. The two players who were in the room when Bias collapsed, freshman David Gregg and junior Terry Long, did not return messages.
Brian Tribble, former Maryland student and friend of Bias', was charged and later acquitted by a grand jury of supplying the deadly dose of cocaine. He later was jailed on other, unrelated drug charges. He could not be reached.
Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell asked a reporter, "Why the hell do you want to bring that up now?"
As Wagner said, "The closer you get to the tragedy, the less you want to remember."
But here are some of the recollections.
Brian Waller met Len Bias in high school. Waller was in the 10th grade at Northwestern, Bias in the ninth. "I remember how he was afraid of physical contact and how he couldn't shoot from the perimeter," recalled Waller.
Waller laughs at that memory now, because those who watched Bias at Maryland recall the devastating combination of power and grace, the rim-shaking dunks and the picture-perfect jumpers, the nasty attitude and the engaging smile.
But Waller's memories are also more personal, triggered now when he hears an old Luther Vandross song on the car radio or when he found out that an old girlfriend of Bias' was getting married. Or when he goes to his mother's house.
"She has the cover of the Sports Illustrated after Lenny died in a framed picture on a table," said Waller.
Waller, who played two years at Providence after attending junior college, has carried another memory with him for the past 10 years: his inability to hook up with Bias after the Maryland player was picked second in the 1986 draft.
It was less than two days before his death.
"If I had been with him, I know there would have been no drugs," said Waller. "After he came back from New York and Boston, I thought we'd get together like we always did. I definitely feel that if I was there, he would still be here."
Now 32, Waller manages an athletic shoe and apparel store in Largo. He is also an assistant coach at Parkdale High School. "Most of the kids don't even know who Len was," said Waller. "Some might ask me if he was as good as people say. I tell them he deserved all the accolades he got."
With Waller, the tragedy didn't end when Bias died from a cocaine overdose in the campus dormitory suite he shared with teammates Gregg, Long, Keith Gatlin, Jeff Baxter and Phil Nevin. It continued when Jay Bias was shot to death outside Prince George's Plaza in 1990.
"His last couple of years on Earth were a nightmare," Waller said of Jay Bias, who was a promising basketball prospect himself before his career was curtailed by academic problems. "It really hurt me more when Jay died. When Lenny died, Jay said to me, 'I'm going to look at you as my big brother now.' "
According to friends of the family, Jay Bias also was seen hanging out with Tribble in the years after his older brother's death.
Waller's voice cracked.
"He was trying to be like Lenny," said Waller.
Dave Dickerson was a wide-eyed kid from South Carolina when he came to Maryland in fall 1985. He was a little overwhelmed by the atmosphere of playing for an Atlantic Coast Conference team, but even more in awe of its star.
"He was and still is my idol," said Dickerson, 28, now working as an assistant coach at Radford University for Ron Bradley, an assistant at Maryland at the time of Bias' death.
Dickerson can recall having a conversation with Bias early during his freshman year, then stopping to think, "Oh my gosh, I'm talking to Len Bias." He also can recall that there was a side to Bias he didn't know.
"I guess I was somewhat suspicious, mostly because of the people he hung out with," Dickerson said. "He hung around with people other than athletes. Now that I look back on the situation, I could tell something was going on."
Dickerson's life as a college basketball player was never the same after that. He spent most of his remaining three years trying to stay out of the controversy that seemed to follow the team: from the forced resignation of Driesell to the hiring and subsequent firing of former Dunbar High School coach Bob Wade.
"It changed my life, because I didn't enjoy college," said Dickerson, who still managed to get his degree and fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a coach. "I didn't have fun. There was always that cloud hanging over College Park.
"There was so much pressure on the court. Every day was a different issue. I grew up way too quick. Now, as a coach, I find myself wanting to hang out in the locker room with the players, but I can't. I should have left it behind at Maryland and enjoyed it when I was in college."
"The only thing I feel bad about is when people associate me with Maryland," said Dickerson. "I was a part of the worst time in the history of Maryland basketball. In a way, I feel almost ashamed."
Former chancellor John Slaughter arrived at Maryland the same year as Bias.
"I was always struck by his friendliness and openness," said Slaughter, who got to know Bias through another Terrapins basketball player, Adrian Branch. "It was fairly commonplace for me to talk with him."
When he heard the news of Bias' death that morning, Slaughter called Lonise Bias, Len's mother, at her home.
"The thing that struck me was the unbelievable strength she had," said Slaughter. "I marveled at how a person who had gone through the death of a child could remain that calm. It was a powerful day."
A day that has become a decade. At the time of Bias' death, Slaughter had been the candidate for a similar position at Kansas State, his alma mater. But the controversy surrounding the death and the questions that were raised about Maryland's academic standards for its athletes ended Slaughter's candidacy at any big-time school.
It not only changed the direction of his life, but his perspective as well. It forced Slaughter to look at the priorities of the school and of the athletic program. "I don't think there's any doubt that Len's death catalyzed our efforts," said Slaughter.
Slaughter left Maryland in summer 1988, having hired Wade to replace Driesell within five months of Bias' death. He became president of Occidental College, a small, private school in Los Angeles where he remains happily removed from the spotlight.
Slaughter isn't surprised that the death of Bias had only a fleeting impact.
"I didn't expect that it was going to be long-term," he said. "People don't learn from other people's mistakes. They have to experience mistakes for themselves."
The athletic director
Like Slaughter, athletic director Dick Dull was considered one of the rising stars of his business at the time of Bias' death. A Maryland graduate and former athlete, Dull had turned the athletic department into a money-maker with the hiring of football coach Bobby Ross and Driesell's continued success. He had turned down jobs at several high-profile schools, including Ohio State and Southern Cal.
"I thought I would have been able to stay there for a long time," said Dull.
Dull turned out to be the first to leave, in October 1986. Of all the coaches and administrators whose careers were affected by the upheaval at Maryland, it took Dull the longest to get another athletic director's job.
In part, he didn't want to get back in the business. But the association with Maryland also made Dull damaged goods. After working in real estate and at a travel agency, Dull came back to College Park briefly a few years later as an administrator at University College, the campus night school.
It wasn't until last fall that he re-entered college athletics.
Dull is athletic director at the University of Nebraska-Kearney, a Division III school that is as far philosophically as it is geographically from Maryland and the ACC. When he saw some of his former colleagues at this year's NCAA convention, Dull realized "how I missed the friendships, but not much else."
Though many of the academic reforms at Maryland were the direct result of Bias' death, and indirectly led to changes nationally, Dull said, "It's hard to look at it and say something positive resulted."
And above all, Dull doesn't want to be viewed as a victim.
"I have certainly fared better than some other people, in particular the Bias family," he said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun