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U-Md. basketball star's cocaine death recalled

Twenty years ago, the death of basketball star Len Bias from a cocaine overdose horrified the sports world and was a major factor in reduced recreational cocaine use among young people. It still reverberates across the Washington region.
Len Bias shakes pumps fist
Len Bias, #1 draft pick of the Boston Celtics, pumps his fist after he was selected second over all in the June 1986 NBA draft.  Bias died on June 19, 1986, of a cocaine overdose. Getty Images file
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A school counselor who watched cocaine ravage his community.

A stunned brother who still can't believe it claimed his twin.

A crusading mother who for 20 years has preached against the drug that killed the son who was a University of Maryland basketball star on the eve of professional greatness.

Twenty years ago, the death of Len Bias horrified the sports world and was a major factor in reduced recreational cocaine use among young people. It still reverberates across the Washington region.

"Many, many people have come to me throughout the [last] 20 years and have told me that the day Len died was the day they stopped using cocaine," Lonise Bias said last night of her son. "I've had people stop me in the street and tell me that. They still do, telling me they've remained clean since that time and that it was the turning point in their lives."

Last night, she joined school choirs, drug enforcement agents and hundreds of grieving relatives of other victims in a tearful candlelight commemoration in Arlington of those killed by the scourge of drugs.

'His death woke the nation up'
Called a Vigil for Lost Promise, the ceremony outside the headquarters of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration came 11 days before the anniversary of Bias's death on June 19, 1986.

He was 22 and had just been tapped by the Boston Celtics -- only the second player picked in the whole NBA draft -- when he succumbed to an overdose in his Washington Hall dorm suite on campus. Pathologists later said he had ingested a large amount of cocaine in unusually pure form and died of "cocaine intoxication."

"His death woke the nation up," Lonise Bias said. "We got on the ball, and we started a lot of programs, and a lot of things happened to prevent drug use with young people.

"I believe Len has truly done more in death than he ever could have done in life."

Government officials who have tracked cocaine use over the years agreed.

"Traditionally, cocaine was considered a pretty benign, safe drug," Nora D. Volkow, director of the federal government's National Institute on Drug Abuse, said yesterday. "In fact it was glamorized in the '70s and the beginning of the '80s. The death of Len Bias alerted the community in general that this drug was not a safe one."

In 1986, the institute's surveys recorded a cocaine use rate among 12th-graders of 12.7 percent, she said. "That's extremely high . . . one in eight."

After his death, rates plunged. By 1992, the rate had dropped to 3.1 percent, she said. "Sometimes, you need a sentinel event like this one to alert everybody."

Alas, she said, public attention can be short-lived. "All of that generation of kids that were exposed to the death of Len Bias . . . were very much protected," she said. "But then a generation gap happens, and the next one was not."

The 12th-grade use rate started back up, and doubled to 6.2 percent in 1999, she said. It's currently about 5 percent.

"I think the reason we're still seeing the numbers that we're seeing today is that we have not gotten in and really fought the good fight," Lonise Bias said last night. "We've done this, and we've done that. We have a grant here and a program there. But what we have to do is work with our young people like it's in intensive care."

'Crack made it affordable'
If Bias's death caused a drop in cocaine use, experts say, it had little impact on the great crack cocaine epidemic of later years, when the drug became available in a cheaper, much more addictive and more hazardous form.

Van Quarles, a supervisory special agent with the Washington field division of the DEA, said crack democratized cocaine use in the 1980s. Crack, which is smoked, was far less expensive than powdered cocaine, which is most often snorted.

"Back in the early '80s when you talked cocaine, it was more expensive," he said. An ounce of powdered cocaine could be a couple of thousand dollars, he said. "A certain level or group of people could afford it -- the party people, the pretty people. . . . Crack made it affordable for anyone. You could get a five-dollar rock, 10-dollar rock, whatever. It wasn't just limited to people who could spend a lot of money. It made it available to pretty much anyone."

Crack use exploded in the inner city, sparking gang wars, killings, the proliferation of crack houses -- where it was sold as if from popcorn stands -- and a generation of crack addicts.

Art Smith, 53, a drug counselor for the New York City school system, watched it claim scores of young people in the city, including a sister who became a crack addict and died in the 1980s.

It was "horrible, horrible, horrible," he said last night as he waited for the ceremony to begin.

Now, he said, the community has the legacy of grown-up children born to crack-addicted mothers, called crack babies.

"We have them in the schools now," he said. "First of all, they cannot focus. They're very fidgety. They're very violent a lot of the time. And it's hard to deal with them and hard to control them. And, also, what you have are a lot of grandmas trying to raise those kids because the mothers are all gone, and Grandma can't do it."

Although cocaine use has subsided somewhat, there were still 5.7 million people across the country who abused it in 2004, according to the most recent statistics from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The year before, about a million people reported having tried it for the first time.

First-time cocaine use rebounds
Leah Young, a spokeswoman for the agency, said first-time cocaine use has been rebounding after rising to well over 1 million people in the mid-1980s and then falling to 634,000 in 1993. It reached 825,000 in 1996 and 917,000 in 1999.

It's not clear why. "Our data tell us what is happening; they don't tell us why," Young said. "You're still getting a million people a year starting to use this stuff. People never learn. People just don't get it."

Michael Houbrick, 46, a real estate agent from Spokane, Wash., knows the current statistics firsthand.

As he stood in the crowd in Arlington last night, he said his identical twin brother, Matthew, a television producer, died of a cocaine overdose Nov. 14 in a hotel room in Chicago.

Houbrick said he had no idea his brother used drugs.

"Not pot, not cocaine, nothing," Houbrick said. "That's why it was so hard to take. From the police I found out he ordered chicken fingers, french fries and a Diet Coke."

Houbrick shrugged. "And then he took cocaine," Houbrick said. "And for me, it's very difficult to believe that. But that's what happened. That's what the toxicology report and the autopsy showed: cocaine poisoning."