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The Strange Final Weeks of Len Bias' Life : As His Date With Fortune--and Death--Drew Near, He Was Different

August 19, 1986|SALLY JENKINS and MICHAEL WILBON | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — In the investigation of Maryland basketball star Len Bias' death, people in dark glasses go in and out of a small-town courthouse, friends become suspects, mystery women appear and disappear, a local nightclub becomes prominent. None of which provides the answer to what made a good guy come to such a bad end.

Perhaps not even Bias knew what caused him to ingest a lethal dose of cocaine in his dormitory on the Maryland campus June 19.

Was it the result of the persuasion of someone else?

Or did he do it himself, uttering, according to sources, a now-chilling phrase the moment before he collapsed and lost consciousness: "I'm a bad . . . and I can handle anything"?

Bias, at 22, may have just begun to solve his personal mysteries, and several different pictures of him have emerged in the weeks since his death. According to Bias' oldest and closest friends, as well as family, he remained a relatively clean-living, born-again Christian.

Such sources speculate that Bias may have experimented with cocaine in a moment of euphoria resulting from his selection by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the National Basketball Assn. draft two days earlier.

The darkest scenario has him being set up by a drug dealer looking to develop a customer.

Others, however, say Bias changed in the last months of his life, the once-gracious star athlete becoming arrogant, careless and even unpleasant on occasion.

He spent large amounts of money on clothing and jewelry, spent as many as four nights a week at a Southeast Washington nightclub, and was warned that he was hanging out with the "wrong element."

The consensus among friends is that if Bias did become involved with drugs on a regular basis, it would have happened in the last months of his life, as he spent increasingly less time on campus and more time dealing with the pressures of a potential NBA superstar.

The facts are these: Police say three people were with Bias when he collapsed at about 6:30 a.m. in Washington Hall--basketball players Terry Long and David Gregg, and close friend Brian Lee Tribble.

All have been indicted on drug charges, and Prince George's County (Md.) State's Atty. Arthur A. Marshall Jr. has said "evidence will show" Tribble provided the cocaine that killed Bias.

Medical examiners originally said it was Bias' first experience with cocaine, then amended that statement, saying there is evidence that he used the drug before.

Those who knew Bias best are struck by the differing views of him that have emerged from the grand jury investigation at the Upper Marlboro, Md., courthouse.

Said someone who has known Bias as well as anyone the past eight years, "I don't know what's real and not real anymore. I thought I knew him."

One thing that confuses friends is that if Bias was a regular drug user, it almost surely would have taken a toll on his physical condition.

But Maryland trainer Frank Grimaldi said the morning of his death, "Len could play a 40-minute game, then play an overtime, then give a 10-minute interview and never even breathe hard."

Terrence Lewis, one of Bias' closest childhood friends, said the two, shortly before Bias' death, had played basketball together at Columbia Park Recreation Center in Landover, Md., the neighborhood gym where both learned the game.

"Sometimes I'd say afterward, 'Let's go get a drink,' " Lewis recalled. " 'He'd say, 'No, I'm not drinking right now.' He was very strict about what he put into himself; he was proud of his physique. He'd joke about it, say, 'I'm not taking anything to hurt this body, this physical specimen.' "

Adrian Branch, Bias' teammate and close friend at Maryland, said Bias was as protective of his reputation as he was of his body.

"Len's nobody's drug user," he said. "You don't build the reputation he had when you're doing drugs. He knew everything he did was magnified, everyone was looking in the cracks and crevices. He was a very private person. If he was going to do something to harm himself or embarrass himself, he'd stop and think about it."

But Barrette Palmer, a Maryland student and friend of some members of the team, said she smoked marijuana with Bias, Terry Long or David Gregg about 10 times. She said she used the drug about twice as many times with Long and Gregg.

According to Palmer, Tribble had offered her cocaine on one occasion during a phone conversation. They did not use the drug, and Tribble did not offer it again, she said.

But Palmer, who testified before the grand jury last month, said she never saw or heard of Bias using cocaine.

Tribble and Bias both enjoyed the nightlife at Chapter III, a popular Southeast Washington club. Lewis also went to Chapter III on a number of occasions this spring.

"Every time I went, Len was already there," Lewis said. People who work at the club say Bias came in as many as four nights a week: Wednesday (ladies night), Thursday (free barbecue), Saturday and Sunday (come-as-you-are night).

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