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.