SHOCK WAVES 5 years later, Len Bias' death continues to trouble many lives


Lonise Bias arrives alone for the anti-drug luncheon, a tall, strong, self-possessed woman, striking in a blue linen suit as she crosses the flagstones of the Hyatt Regency atrium.

You can see her son, Lenny, in her youthful stride, her athletic carriage, in the bones of her face, and then in the wide sweep of her arms as she makes her impassioned plea against the drugs that killed her son.

And for a moment you can almost see the long reach of his fine, young body stretching once again for the basket in overtime against North Carolina at the Cole Field House. You can almost hear the crowd. You blink your eyes.

Len Bias died on this day five years ago, June 19, 1986, at 8:50 a.m., about the time this newspaper began to come out on the streets today. He had 6.5 milligrams of cocaine concentrated in each liter of his blood. About average, the medical examiner remarked, for people who die of cocaine intoxication.

Lonise Bias has found in her son's death a mission, a duty to preach against drugs. She's a born-again Christian who believes God took her son at the pinnacle of his 22 years as a sacrifice to warn and redeem millions of other drug users.

"There's hope," she tells the diners at the Hyatt meeting of Partners for a Drug-Free America. "But it begins with each one of us.

"Don't allow this luncheon to be an exercise in futility," she pleads. "I'm talking about your own home. I'm talking about the children in your own home."

Lonise Bias began her crusade against drugs almost at the same time she was burying her son. She's delivered hundreds of these sermons in the five years since then. She's quite practiced at them. Her text hasn't changed much -- except that since the death of her second son, Jay, last December in a random shopping mall shooting, she's added a sad, sad cadenza deploring violence and guns.

And despite her choreographed control and self-possession, it sometimes seems that her five years of speeches and sermons have been one long cry of anguish.

Despite her certainty, the meaning of Len Bias' death remains elusive to others, its effect ambiguous.

Conventional wisdom has it that he died with a diamond as big as the Ritz within his grasp. He had been picked as the No. 1 draft choice of the Boston Celtics, champions of the National Basketball Association.

With Bias, the Celtics believed they had the makings of a dynasty. They saw in him a potential Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. He had had an All-American season at Maryland. He was the "horse" the team turned to when they needed points, a 6-foot-8, 195-pound forward who averaged 23.2 points and 6.8 rebounds a game.

Reporting from Boston, Evening Sun sports writer Molly Dunham quoted Bias as saying, "At Maryland we had a great team, but we were always the dark horse.

"I'm going to be top dog now," he exulted. "I'm happy. Elated. I can't wait. What else can I say. I'm in the NBA. I dreamed I'd get drafted. To be able to play for Boston . . . that was a dream within a dream."

He went home to celebrate.

Molly Dunham's next story was an elegy from the shadows of Cole Field House. Bias' victory celebration had been fatal.

He got to the University of Maryland campus about 10 o'clock at night on June 18. He rounded up some friends and teammates and they started partying with malt liquor and cognac and cocaine.

A lot of cocaine, one of them would later say, maybe as much as a half a cup. Dealer-quality dope, an investigator said. Some of it may have been crack.

Bias, his teammates David Gregg and Terry Long, and Brian Lee Tribble, a friend who would be accused and acquitted of supplying the dope, did cocaine from 3:30 a.m. to 6:15 a.m.

At Tribble's trial, Terry Long demonstrated with a straw how they snorted a line of coke from a mirror. He and Gregg said they warned Bias to slow down.

"I'm tough," Bias said, and campus folklore says he added, "I'm a horse."

He was messed up, Long said. He tried to walk to the bathroom.

"He was stumbling. He wouldn't have made it."

Bias sprawled on a bed. He started quivering and shaking as if he were having a seizure.

"When he began the seizures, I called my mom for help," Brian Tribble told an interviewer. "Although I knew already what to do because of my sister."

Tribble's 30-year-old sister is severely retarded and has frequent seizures.

"When he stopped having seizures," Tribble said, "I took his pulse."

He couldn't find any.

Tribble dialed 911. The call was recorded.

"It's Len Bias . . . He needs some assistance . . . He's not breathing right . . . This is Len Bias . . . You've got to bring him back to life . . . There's no way he can die."

But he did.

Bias' death exploded like an underwater volcano and sent forth an enormous wave of shock and horror that swept away the University of Maryland athletic department, washed over the university administration, --ed the hope of a Boston Celtics dynasty and trapped a score of lives in the maelstrom.

The impact on drug use remains unclear. Lonise Bias' hope that her son's death would change America remains problematical.

Dr. John E. Smialek, Maryland's chief medical examiner, counts the number of deaths from cocaine in the years since Bias died and doesn't find any great change.

Cocaine has certainly been deglamorized. Athletes are at least more circumspect about drug use. There's far more testing. But no one knows for sure whether there is less drug abuse.

Michael Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County government's Office of Substance Abuse, thinks there are fewer middle-class drug users.

"Bias' death was the catalyst for a whole nation to look at itself," Gimbel says. "There's no question about its national effect. This single event sparked a whole nation's war on drugs."

Unfortunately, he says, America has ended up with two wars.

Middle-class drug use has declined, Gimbel says, because the middle class responds to fear and education, the major weapons deployed in this war. But in the inner city, he says, "they don't respond to either fear or education. Therefore the inner-city war is a total failure.

"We've developed a real middle-class strategy," Gimbel says, "but not an inner-city strategy. That's the reality of the last five years."

There's no question that Bias' death produced shock waves in Maryland, and The Evening Sun has caught up with several of the people who felt the greatest impact.


Brian Tribble, Bias' "friend" who was acquitted of supplying the cocaine for their all-night spree, is in the Federal Correctional Institution at Petersburg, Va. He pleaded guilty in December to selling at least 50 pounds of cocaine from 1988 to 1990.

In a plea bargain, Tribble agreed to a no-parole prison term of 10 years and one month, plus a five-year term of supervised release afterward. He can expect to serve about nine years in federal prison.

Tribble wasn't even a major drug figure at the time of Bias' death, Prince George's County police say. His "career" took off after his acquittal.

He's adjusting to prison, according to Thomas C. Morrow, his lawyer.

"Needless to say he'd rather not be there," Morrow says.

"He fully accepts responsibility for, shall we say, his poor judgment. He doesn't feel sorry for himself."

Tribble's girlfriend had a baby girl in December. His mother, with whom he is very close and who fiercely defends him, is in poor health.

He doesn't give interviews.

L "He doesn't really want to talk to anyone," his lawyer says.


From his perch as basketball coach at James Madison University in Virginia, a spot he has occupied for three years, Lefty Driesell does not often take a look back at what he left behind.

"I don't think much about Maryland," Driesell says of the university where he spent 17 years as basketball coach. He had compiled a 348-159 record and was a fixture until the shock waves of controversy about the athletic program cost him his job four months after the Bias tragedy.

Driesell refuses to comment directly on Bias' death or its aftermath, except to say:

"I think about Leonard all the time. I talk about him all the time. I tell the kids about what a great player he was, how hard he worked, how much he improved, what a good person he was. And I tell them he messed up one night.

"I miss Leonard. When I watch Michael Jordan play, I think Leonard would be in a class with him. I just wish there was some way we could bring him back. It's still hard to believe he's gone."


In the five years since he resigned as the University of Maryland's athletic director, Richard M. Dull has attended three football and three basketball games in College Park. Being recognized as the former top Terrapin is a painful experience, so he opts to live as anonymously as possible.

"Some people don't like to have their picture taken because they think that the camera takes a piece of their self," Dull says. "That's how I feel -- I've lost a bit of my self. I want to get it back."

Dull says that five years as AD did not prepare him for the public scrutiny he got after the Bias death. Television camera crews followed him into the men's room at Cole Field House seeking comment, and his girlfriend was constantly taunted.

At one point, he thought he was having a heart attack in his office and had to be escorted to the campus infirmary for treatment. His personal saturation point was reached four months after Bias died, when Dull realized that he couldn't bear going to work.

He resigned, picked up his cameras and headed to Utah, Arizona and California.

"To escape," he says. "I basically tried to get away from it, running from the attention and the loss I felt for not being involved in intercollegiate athletics at the University of Maryland. I started out at UM earning $9,500 per year and within six years was the AD. Then I didn't have anything to take its place; there was a big vacuum."

Today Dull, 45, lives in Bowie and is a consultant for Special Olympics International, but he hopes one day to work in some capacity of professional sports or marketing.

"I'm still trying to find a niche," he says. "It set me back professionally a few years, but when you look at the price Len paid, what do you consider a setback?"


It should have been a dream come true for the highly regarded Baltimore high school basketball coach, a chance for fame and fortune in the big leagues.

But for Bob Wade, stepping onto the courts at the University of Maryland after a glorious career at Dunbar High was more like a nightmare.

Wade jumped into the tense aftermath of Len Bias' death as soon as he agreed to replace Lefty Driesell as head basketball coach at College Park. But the program had been badly jolted by the tragedy, and the victory years of national prominence were over.

While campus officials had high hopes that Wade could save the image of the basketball program, his three-year tenure will best be remembered as a time of turbulence. Even Wade says, "It was definitely an experience I would like to forget.

"I'm getting my life in order," says Wade, who now works as Baltimore's superintendent of recreation, a $50,000-a-year position that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke created for him.

"It was a traumatic experience for me and my family. We're very happy now. We're moving forward."


The death of Len Bias continues to haunt David Gregg, who was a promising 6-foot-8 freshman forward at the University of Maryland in 1986. Bias was his idol, mentor and friend.

Gregg was one of the people present when Bias ingested the fatal hit of cocaine.

"I think about it all the time," says Gregg, now 24, who did not graduate. He played professional basketball in Austria for a year before returning to live with his parents in Hyattsville.

"If I see a certain person, I think about it. It's just a sad, sad thing."

He used cocaine with Bias, Gregg testified during the 1987 Tribble trial, but he says he hasn't touched drugs since.

"It made me realize that drugs are a bad influence on black people," says Gregg, who works in computer programming for the District of Columbia public school system.

He became a friend of Bias at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, later visited him often at College Park and followed his idol there to become a teammate.

When Bias died, everyone drifted apart, Gregg says, adding that teammates and friends who once were very close have made virtually no effort to stay in touch.

Gregg has followed the progress of Tony Massenberg, who earned his bachelor's degree from UM in 1990 and was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs last year.

"If I had stayed at Maryland, I would have been in the NBA," Gregg says with conviction. "I want to try out with the Bullets or another team, make one more try. But it's hard to get invited to camps. You've got to know somebody."


At the time of Len Bias' death, Arthur A. "Bud" Marshall was in his 24th year as state's attorney for Prince George's County.

As events turned out, it also would be Marshall's last year in the job.

Some observers attributed Marshall's loss in the 1986 election to the way he prosecuted the Bias case. They said he made ill-advised public allegations about drug use at College Park and mismanagement by the university's athletic officials.

Marshall lost the '86 election to Alex Williams, who still holds the position. After his defeat, Marshall tried unsuccessfully for a judge's seat in Prince George's Circuit Court. Last year, he changed parties, from Democrat to Republican, in a failed attempt to unseat Williams.

Currently, Marshall says, he has no plans to run again for public office. He turned 60 this year and is enjoying "playing a little more tennis and spending more time with my wife."

Now a private lawyer in Upper Marlboro, Marshall denies that his handling of the Bias case cost him the state's attorney post.

"People say, 'Well, if you didn't have all that negative publicity, you wouldn't have lost.' I don't think so," he says. "We had a small turnout at the polls. I lost by a small margin, about 1,500 votes. There may have been a hundred thousand reasons why I lost the election, but I don't think my role in the Bias affair was one of them."

He adds, "It was probably time for me to leave office anyway. I'd been there 24 years."

Whatever effect Bias' death had on Marshall's political career, it clearly has had a positive impact on the University of Maryland, says Marshall.

"The athletic department has improved. The coaching staff has become more concerned about the athletes as individuals. The school's drug program has improved. Yes, certain things were accomplished by [Bias'] death. Like his mother said, he didn't die in vain. People became aware of drugs on campuses, not only at Maryland but at college campuses all over."


Howard "Chip" Silverman, who has spent more than 20 years in the fight against drugs, says the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias marked a dramatic turning point in the nation's attitude toward substance abuse.

"The Bias death was the watershed in this field. It was the catalyst. It helped wake up the public," says Silverman, 49, who directed the state Drug Abuse Administration at the time of Bias' death.

The media moved from portraying drug-using celebrities as glamorous to publicizing the dangers of drugs, Silverman says. Similarly, celebrities began talking openly about their battles to kick drug habits, he says.

"The drug epidemic peaked in 1986. I think there has been a downward trend since that time," says Silverman, who now works as chemical-dependency director at the privately owned Green Spring Mental Health Services in Columbia.

Fewer people use drugs "recreationally," he says, but the number of addicts has risen.

Maryland statistics show that the number of drug abusers entering treatment programs has grown significantly in the past five years, although drug use by teen-agers has declined, says ++ Bill Rusinko at the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration.

Bias' death affected people more than the drug overdoses of other celebrities, Silverman contends, because "initially Bias was considered this clean-cut, all-American guy." People wondered how someone like Bias could fall prey to cocaine, Silverman says.

Since Bias' death, Silverman has served as a special adviser to Gov. William Donald Schaefer on drug abuse policy.

Although he credits Bias' death with leading to the appropriation of more money for drug education and treatment, Silverman does not believe the country has devoted enough resources to undertake its much-publicized "war on drugs."

"Did the war ever begin? No. I think there have been a lot of skirmishes," he says.

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