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The Cruelest Thing Ever
Jack McCallum
June 30, 1986
Such was the reaction to the death of Len Bias, a Maryland All-America and Celtic-to-be. An autopsy showed that cocaine was involved in the tragedy
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June 30, 1986

The Cruelest Thing Ever

Such was the reaction to the death of Len Bias, a Maryland All-America and Celtic-to-be. An autopsy showed that cocaine was involved in the tragedy

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At about 6:30 a.m. Bias had a seizure. He lost consciousness and ceased breathing, and his heart stopped beating. Long tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and when it failed to revive him, someone on the scene phoned for emergency help. A six-person team from the College Park, Md., station of the county fire department arrived at 6:36 and took over the resuscitation efforts from Long. Two paramedics arrived at 6:42. By 6:54 Bias was in an ambulance on his way to Leland Memorial Hospital, 1� miles away.

"The thing is, he had every reason to make it," said fire department major Thomas Brinkley. "The rescue was by the book. But it all wasn't enough." Bias never regained consciousness, or heart or respiratory function. At 8:50 a.m., even as grief-stricken family and friends assembled at the hospital, hoping for a miracle, Bias was pronounced dead. Several Maryland players, current and past, went to Driesell's house later that morning. "They prayed together and talked to the chaplain," said Driesell on Thursday.

Dr. John Smialek, chief medical examiner for the State of Maryland, said that in a case such as Bias's, cocaine would interrupt brain signals to the heart, causing it to beat irregularly and inducing arrest. A fuller explanation was expected in the final autopsy report, but even this preliminary finding belies the widespread notion that cocaine use cannot be fatal. Medical experts say that it does not necessarily take a massive amount of cocaine to contribute to death. In addition, impurities in cocaine sold on the street can make it lethal, and an individual may have a particularly low tolerance for the drug.

On Thursday evening, at a gymnasium about seven miles from the Maryland campus, Len's brother, Jay, laced up a new pair of black-and-white sneakers, preparing to play in a summer-league game. "Len would've wanted me to," said Jay, who would turn 16 the next day. A lanky 6'5" junior-to-be at Northwestern High, Jay played passionately and well, scoring 20 points (including two spectacular dunks) and getting whistled twice for goaltending, the supreme act of machismo for a young player. On that night Jay bore an eerie resemblance to his big brother, both facially and in the way he ran the court—proudly, confidently, with his arms pumping high. "Jay's a little further along at this stage than Len was," said Wagner.

Indeed, his latent grace and strength notwithstanding, basketball didn't come terribly easy for Len Bias. Waller remembers how Bias was cut from his junior high team and how passes were still bouncing off his stone hands in the 10th grade. Wagner recalls how Bias built up his body in the weight room above the Northwestern gym. Gatlin, a point guard, mentioned the way Bias sought him out two summers ago for help with his ball handling. Bias was gifted—the way he lifted straight off the floor on his jump shot was something to behold—but he worked hard, too. The result was a two-time ACC Player of the Year who finished as Maryland's alltime leading scorer with a total of 2,149 points and a 20.9-point average his last two seasons. "Lenny was almost the perfect basketball player," said North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. "The body, the quickness, the jumping ability."

But Bias was much more, too—a complex man-child who struggled with his notoriety. When he was being recruited as a high school star, he once complained to Wagner: "No one says hello to me anymore. They just want to know where I'm going." At Maryland he was at first shy with the press, then charming, then reticent. He tried to deflect attention to his teammates because he was sincerely embarrassed by his fame. Some hours before he died, just before he left the dorm around 2 a.m., he had told Covington that he was tired of questions about himself.

On the court, though, he commanded the spotlight. He carried himself like a king, with a mixture of arrogance and pride. Driesell always called him by his full name, Leonard, and it fit. Last February, after a game against North Carolina State in Raleigh, Driesell caught Bias, Baxter and reserve guard John Johnson strolling into a hotel lobby after curfew and suspended them for one game. Lefty still called him Leonard.

If Bias's teammates revered him, his opponents sometimes loathed him and called him a crybaby, though none ever denied his talent. He had matured since high school, when he once threw a ball at a referee, but he was still temperamental. "He was a young 22," says Wagner. Bias threw elbows. He jawed at opponents, even taunting them sometimes, and complained to referees and the world in general that he was being roughed up, which was quite often the case.

Off the court, Bias liked to draw. He was interested in interior design and viewed it as a possible career after basketball. He took care of his body—"If he had even one beer, he was out that night or early the next morning running it off," Waller says—and he had an aura of indestructibility. In four years at Maryland he never missed a game because of injury.

Bias listened to jazz and gospel music. Though he didn't proselytize, friends and family described him as a born-again Christian. He loved sports cars and talked of buying a Mercedes with his Celtic money. Until he leased the Datsun recently, he drove an Oldsmobile Cutlass. One couldn't always figure Bias out, and he liked that. His life didn't end at the baseline. Before he left for the draft, he shared with Waller his dream of opening a nightclub. "He was really excited about it," says Waller.

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