Sense of vitality keeps story of Bias' death, fittingly, alive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Len Bias died of a cocaine-induced seizure 15 years ago today, and if you're old enough to have lived through it, you probably remember where you were when you heard the news.

I was driving down Northern Parkway on my way to work, thinking about what I needed to do to finish a series of articles looking back at the Orioles' first World Series victory in 1966. The first radio bulletins were as sparse as they were stunning, with no mention of the defining drug angle that would surface later. That night, I wrote The Sun's front-page story as a pair of news editors looked over my shoulder.

Fifteen years later, such memories are all that remain. The facts of the story aren't going to change, and neither are the sad lessons of waste and stupidity. We're down to marking anniversaries now, and conjuring memories, and shaking our heads. Lenny Bias, yeah. Remember when he had it all and lost it in an instant?

The people at the University of Maryland and everyone else who was connected to or tainted by the scandal surely wish it was time for this reflexive marking of the anniversary to cease, allowing the story to fade into the oblivion of yellowed newsprint. And maybe that will happen one day. But we're up to 15 years now, and it hasn't happened yet, and frankly, here's hoping it never does.

Yes , the memory is a grim business, and yes, many of the people have scattered and the university has moved on - to the Final Four, among other places - but the greatest cautionary tale of our era still warrants re-telling whenever the time is right, for the simple reason that it imparts wisdom no less relevant to athletes now than 15 years ago.

You might think you're invincible, but you're not. You might not think you have to be mindful and take care of yourself even when the public isn't around, but you do.

Remember Bias' final words, laughingly uttered to friends who'd started to worry that he was partying too hard that night in the dorm: "I'm a horse."

Yeah. Right.

We live in an age when getting athletes to heed and respect the past has become almost impossible; absent from "SportsCenter" for all these years, Bias might as well have traded hook shots with George Mikan in the '40s and '50s.

But while the memory of his on-court prowess certainly deserves to live on - what a player he was, with that awesome spring in his legs, that nifty baseline jumper and that innate fierceness inside - it is the circumstances of his death that warrant a re-telling to every new generation.

He was the second player picked in the 1986 NBA Draft, the heir to Larry Bird in Boston, a probable champion in the making. Within days of the draft, he was dead.

The repercussions were staggeringly broad - coaches fired, academic standards raised, mandatory drug-testing laws implemented. There's even a federal statute referred to as the "Len Bias Law," enabling prosecutors to charge drug dealers whose sales lead to fatal overdoses.

The greatest change wasn't as tangible - after a nation saw that cocaine could kill, and then a pro football player named Don Rogers died in similar circumstances just eight days later, a sports world rocked by drug scandals in the '80s turned away from the white powder. Tellingly, according to the Orlando Sentinel, 14.2 percent of the NCAA athletes who took part in an anonymous survey in 1986 reported having used cocaine, and the number had dropped to 1.2 percent by 1997.

That's not to say drug use in sports had declined forever. Reports of widespread marijuana use among NBA players have surfaced in recent years, and of course, performance-enhancing substances such as steroids are now the scourge of the Olympics and other sports, having replaced recreational drugs as the athletic vogue. There are still headlines about athletes who can't stay out of rehab, whose lives and careers are ruined.

But it was never the same after Bias, who had the world in his hands and threw it all away.

Dr. John Smialek, Maryland's chief medical examiner, later said Bias' heart show no evidence of repeated drug use, or, for that matter, any. The guy wasn't about that, never had been; just ask the coaches and friends who were with him on his journey from the streets of Prince George's County to a place among basketball's elite.

Smialek, who died of a heart attack earlier this year, had uncovered a reality few remember 15 years later: Bias, who would become the nation's idea of a drug abuser, wasn't really even into drugs. He was just young and strong and in a mood to celebrate that night, and he believed he couldn't be touched, and he was so wrong.

Fifteen years later, you probably remember where you were when you heard the news. And you'll probably remember again when the next anniversary rolls around five years from now, too.

It's a grim custom that's hard on a lot of people who were involved, but sometimes, a sobering past can underscore an important point with unmatched power, so you pass it on. What else is there to do at this point?

ESPN Bias special

ESPN Classic network will air a one-hour special on the life and death of former Maryland star Len Bias tonight, beginning at 7.

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