The last time I saw Danny, he was on his knees.
We had been cruising in my old '65 Volvo, the one with the floorboards rusted through, watching the pavement rush under our feet and laughing the way young guys with no bills to pay will laugh. Danny had been a farmhand, a small-town high school football star, a rodeo cowboy and, when I knew him, a brassy reporter. He was charming and comical and terrifically addicted to cocaine.
That night he got a nosebleed. I pulled over and found some Kleenex, but it kept bleeding and it wouldn't stop. Then he started to cry. Young, tough, steely guy like that crying for no reason at all. I asked him what was wrong, but he couldn't stop crying, so I took him home. As I got him out of the car, he fell on his knees: Danny on his knees in my arms in his own driveway under an unsympathetic streetlamp, both of us soaked in blood and tears and an impossible, relentless helplessness.
Maybe sporting America feels some of that helplessness lately. In the last three weeks, two athletes have died young at the end of the cocaine line, and everybody keeps trying to talk us through it, pointing fingers this way and that, bleating and blathering but having not the vaguest notion of what to do about it. When Maryland basketball star Len Bias died, Rev. Jesse Jackson said, "On a day the children mourn, I hope they learn," but eight days later Cleveland Browns safety Don Rogers, a man who didn't learn, put the same pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.
As if that wasn't enough to kick our Pollyanna drug attitudes in the teeth, Willie Smith, a 1986 draft choice of the Browns, was arrested on cocaine and weapons charges three days later. Lessons learned? Not according to the police. This was a guy who would have been Rogers's teammate. All of which teaches us that drug users don't die for anybody else's sake, and just because somebody's talking smart in the paper doesn't mean anybody's listening.
You want to learn a lesson, learn this: The Big Lie is over. Sports can't bury its head in the sand anymore; there are too many bodies buried there. Good young men are stacking up, and we're stumbling over them. For a long time we've had more than ample evidence that cocaine can ruin lives and careers; now, suddenly, the stakes have been raised. Now it's killing people without warning. An NBA star with a sinus problem no longer gets his name in a headline and a 30-day vacation at the Betty Ford Center. Now he runs the risk of joining the six-foot-under leagues. This is not a party anymore. Somebody just called the paramedics.
"We're close to genocide of our young people," L.A. Raiders owner Al Davis said the other day, and if the situation is not quite that ominous, it's frightening enough. It is estimated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that there are now between five and six million regular cocaine users in the U.S., consuming more than 45 metric tons of the drug annually. Because of a seemingly limitless supply—total worldwide production in the mid-'60s was 500 kilograms per year, which is an average planeload today—the purity of cocaine on the streets is increasing, while the price, the average age and the average income of the user are going down. In L.A., $10 will now buy enough crack (cocaine melted down to its purest form and smoked) to blow your haircut off and start you on an almost instantaneous cycle of addiction. In south-central L.A., one high school football player told Diane Shah of the Herald Examiner, "You know how many people you run into who are dealing drugs? The ice cream truck comes by, I go out to buy a Popsicle and the driver says, 'I got a little more than ice cream here.' " Indeed, in Columbia, S.C., an entire fleet of ice cream trucks was busted for selling more than snow cones.
There is no hard and certain body count from the cocaine front, but this much is clear: More and more people are getting in trouble with the drug and more of them are dying. The number of emergency-room admissions due to cocaine has increased 500% over the past three years. In the same period the number of deaths by cocaine intoxication has tripled in the U.S.—there were at least 700 last year—and, according to Dr. Michael Walsh of NIDA, even that may be a drastic underestimate. The numbers don't tell the whole story because many coke deaths go unreported, and many more are undoubtedly attributed to other causes. The sudden death of Miami Dolphins linebacker Larry Gordon in 1983, for instance, may have been cocaine-related. Gordon's former teammate, Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson, told SI's Armen Keteyian last fall that he had free-based cocaine with Gordon the night before Gordon died of a heart attack during a run in the desert near Phoenix, Ariz. Had Bias and Rogers not been highly visible athletes whose deaths attracted special attention, they might simply have become heart attack statistics, too.
Cocaine evidently is becoming harder and harder to avoid. "I try to keep away from it," says Dexter Nickelsen, an 18-year-old basketball hound in L.A.'s Watts district. "But I got a good friend on drugs, and it's messed him up bad. He's losing weight all the time. He steals little stuff and sells it—you know, car batteries and stuff. But he tells me, 'Don't you mess with it. It'll screw you up.' "
Nancy Reagan would tell Dexter, in all sincerity, "Just say no," but that's much easier said than done. Dexter has finished high school, and though he's good enough to play at a major college, his grades may not be good enough to get him a scholarship anywhere. Then what? Ken Curry, who helps run the Watts Magicians basketball program, knows what. "Some of the best kids I've coached end up selling," he says. "The other day I saw a kid sitting in this gym counting out what must have been ten thousand dollars in a bag." In Brooklyn's Brownsville section, the playground home of Billy Cunningham and World B. Free, the lesson kids took from the Bias case was startling. "If he'd been doing coke, he should've done it years ago, so he was used to it," a street player told The New York Times. "He'd've known how to handle it."