WIMBLEDON, England — Forget the dateline; this column is not about tennis. Sometimes you can’t help writing about home — even when you’re far away — and the moment the phone call came to my London hotel room, I knew this was one of those times. Medical tests confirmed it: Len Bias died of drugs.
I had waited a week hoping it wouldn’t be true: Wasn’t he the Boston Celtics’ top draft pick? Wasn’t he about to become rich? Didn’t he have the world in his very large hands?
Yes. And it made no difference. Sometime around 6 a.m. last Thursday morning, most likely for the first time in his life, Len Bias, 22, put the drug “everybody’s doing” into his body and it returned the favor by sending him into convulsions, sending his heart and his brain to a dark forever, killing him quickly, so that even the doctors who try to save him could do nothing.
He dies, we die. Nobody knows why it happened. But somewhere in the corpse they buried Monday is a vein of a world we helped create.
Didn’t you know Len Bias? Sure you did. He was the kid down your street with the basketball, the high school star your town came out to see.
He was the kid who was besieged by grinning recruiters, by promises that life would be grand if only he went to their school — until he came to his high school coach one day in tears.
“Nobody says hello to me anymore,” he cried. “They just want to know where I’m going.”
This was Len Bias. Didn’t you know him? Big man; same story
He was a star at Maryland. An All-America forward with a torso like a building and legs like rocket launchers. What a leaper! What a soft shot!
So he became popular. Big man on campus. Enough that he could be surly when he wanted, he could duck the media when he wanted. The well was deep enough. Everybody loves a star.
Didn’t you know him?
He was the kid who once told a reporter: “I want people to see Maryland and say, ‘That’s the school where Len Bias graduated from.’ ” Only now we learn Bias failed all of his classes last semester, and the team’s academic counselor quit because she said the coach didn’t care enough about academics.
Didn’t you know him? Haven’t you heard this story before?
This was Len Bias. This was a big-time college athlete — idolized, shielded and pampered as long as he excelled on the court. Only this one tried cocaine in his dorm one morning and it killed him.
And now it’s his death that moves us. But why? Death can await anyone who walks down a drug- lined street. Here is the tougher question: What brings them there? What is it about sports and winning that leads young men to an orgy of insanity, to dance with the worst type of human leeches, to kiss drugs that they don’t need?
What is it? Len Bias was reportedly not a drug user. “His body was a temple to him,” a teammate said. So what suddenly prompted him to try cocaine, just as his star had reached its zenith?
Was it celebration? Then there is a sickness in how we celebrate. Peer pressure? Then there is a sickness in how we impress each other. Fun? Was it just for fun? That may be the sickest idea of all. Not first; just famous
Bias was not the first body to react fatally to drugs. He was simply one of the more famous. So now there are detectives running around the Maryland campus and teammates hiding, and accusations against the coach, and a dorm room that was mysteriously swept clean, and a grand jury hearing, and an ugly well of questions.
And what will it get us? What will it get his family? Only if the next Len Bias thinks twice about drugs will any good have come out of this.
Maybe the publicity will do that. Maybe not. The societal trends that led Bias to cocaine still are out there. Someone sold him the stuff, or gave it to him, maybe even a friend, because he figured it was OK. And now Bias is dead.
It is terribly senseless. It is brutal. I’m writing this in a London hotel room — with the world’s most famous tennis tournament a few miles away — because I can’t shake it from my head.
He dies. We die. Every one of us, just a little. What can you do, except take the image of Len Bias’s marvelous body being placed in the cold earth Monday, an empty shell, and paste it on the front wall of every American brain?
You may never have met Len Bias, may never have seen him play, or taken the flash of his smile.
But did you know him? Sure you did. We all did. And the next one of us who starts up with drugs spits at everything he died for. CUTLINE Len Bias