By Dave Ungrady, an author and journalist
David Dickerson faced an unprecedented dilemma. The deadly and devastating floods from Hurricane Katrina threatened to flush away his first season as a college head basketball coach at Tulane University. His team was forced to relocate for the season to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, some 400 miles away. How could Dickerson convince his players to stay with a program treading water even before Katrina hit (Tulane finished 10-18 the previous season). How could a coach who barely knew his players convince them to suck it up and commit to playing for a team that had just one winning season in its previous five?
Dickerson thought about Len Bias. He told his players about how he sucked it up and stayed with Maryland’s program for three trying years after Bias died. “I told them the story about not transferring and weathering the storm, and look where it got me,” he told me when I wrote my recent book Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias.
“Without that story, I think I would have lost half my team. They had to remain loyal to a coach who hadn’t recruited anyone on that team. I told them what happened and what type of player Bias was. I told them he was the best player I played with or against, or saw during my coaching career. The Len Bias story was the catch to get their attention, to get guys to be loyal, maintaining the course and yes, there will be some ups and downs, tragedies here and there.”
Dickerson’s story of resilience is one of the more powerful accounts from Maryland players who were on the team when Bias died on June 19, 1986 from cocaine intoxication. Each year around this time, many reflect on the significance of his death, how Congress overreacted and within four months pushed through the 1986 Anti Drug Abuse Act. Within a decade, a high percentage of young black men overcrowded prisons with prison sentences that stretched two and three decades, victims of a sentencing disparity that harshly punished crack criminals. The law spawned a period of activism calling for sentencing reform, led by such advocacy groups as the American Constitution Society, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the Open Society Foundation.
Bias’s death convinced teenagers and adults alike about the perils of drug abuse. If Len Bias died from cocaine, so can I, they suddenly thought. Cocaine was no longer considered a recreational drug that altered lives. It was now considered a potential killer.
Robert DuPont, M.D., was the president of the American Council of Drug Education when Bias died. From 1973 to 1978, he was the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Dupont is the President of the Institute for Behavior and Health Incorporated, which promotes strategies to reduce the demand for illegal drugs. He claims the death of Bias was the most important date related to drug abuse in the United States since the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in June 1935.
“It changed the basis on which everyone was thinking about drug abuse,” he says. “It brought it home to everybody. Len Bias was an American prince, and he was at the height of his fame. The way drugs had been thought about up to then was it had to do with disadvantaged, poor people who didn’t have good families or an education. Bias was the antithesis of that. He came from a wonderful family, had tremendous support. It surely didn’t have to do with him being depressed, being poor, uneducated, all those stereotypes.”
DuPont also claims that the death of Bias played a large role in establishing drug-testing in the workplace. On January 4, 1987, an Amtrak train crash in Chase, Md., killed 14 people after the train operator ignored warning lights to slow down. The operator tested positive for marijuana while operating the train, helping compel Congress to authorize mandatory random drug-testing for all employees in safety-sensitive jobs in industries regulated by the Department of Transportation.
“The combination of those two events [the Bias death and the Amtrak crash] created the modern effort at workplace drug-testing,” says DuPont. “If there had been the crash without the Bias death, the country was not ready for it.”
Still, perhaps the most significant legacy of Bias’s death imparts lessons in decision making and resilience. Dickerson was a rising sophomore on the team when Bias died. Three of his classmates -- John Johnson, Tony Massenburg and Greg Nared -- all stayed at Maryland and graduated within five years. Johnson’s pro aspirations never materialized; he entered the workforce early, has been steadily employed and now lives near the University of Maryland campus. Massenburg managed to play in the NBA for 13 seasons on 12 different teams, winning an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs, during a pro career that lasted through 2005. Nared worked with such superstars as Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie as a marketing and management representative for Nike and later coached in college basketball.
Tulane finished 12-17 in Dickerson’s first season there, followed by records of 17-13 and 17-15 – the team’s first consecutive winning seasons in 11 years. But the program struggled with losing records the next two years, and after the 2010 season, Dickerson resigned, never having led Tulane to a post-season tournament.
Now a men’s assistant coach at Ohio State, Dickerson considers Bias a role model. “Role models don’t always make the right decisions,” he says. “I’m surprised the Len Bias story is not being told on a yearly basis when new athletes come into college, or in high school. The Len Bias story is one of the better stories you can use to get an individual or team to do the right thing.”