Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Other Games I’d Like to See; Comments on the Len Bias Documentary

As I'm sure is apparent to anyone who reads this blog, I love doing Navy football games on the radio. There is only one drawback and that's the fact that I don't have the flexibility to go to games involving other teams, especially this time of year. Every week I look at the schedule and, while I look forward to the game I'm doing that Saturday, I see games I'd really like to be able to go to that week.

More often than not, these aren't the games the TV talking heads are analyzing and re-analyzing 47 times during the week. This Saturday, I would love to be at the Williams-Amherst game. I've never seen one although I know all about the traditions--thanks in large part to a superb piece my pal Larry Dorman wrote in The New York Times years back--and I know that just about every year the game decides the league title. This year is no different: Amherst is 7-0, Williams is 6-1. In their conference the schools play eight games, none outside the conference, so it is pretty easy to figure out who is in first place. To give ESPN credit, it did take its self-important College Game Day show up there a couple years ago, a rare acknowledgment from the BCS apologists that there is football outside the six major conferences.

There is also Penn at Harvard this Saturday which will pretty much decide The Ivy League title. Al Bagnoli has coached at Penn for 17 years, Tim Murphy at Harvard for 16. They have been the league's dominant coaches during that time, each winning multiple league titles and putting together undefeated seasons. Penn, by the way, has played more games than any college football program in history--it just went past 1,300 last month. In the 1890s, John Heisman played there. Later he coached there. That game would be a lot of fun to see.

The other game I'd really like to see on Saturday won't be played very far from Harvard: Lafayette at Holy Cross. I have an affinity, as people know, for The Patriot League because of the book I wrote a few years back, "The Last Amateurs," about Patriot League basketball and because I continue to do the league's basketball TV package. (It is on CBS College Sports this year for those of you who need to sign up to get that network). But because of my friendships with people in the league, I follow the football programs pretty closely too.

When I was working on the book, Lehigh was the dominant program in the conference. Now, the Mountain Hawks have fallen off and Lafayette, Holy Cross and Colgate--which reached the Division 1-AA national championship game a few years back--have come on to the class of the league. Holy Cross is a remarkable story. Six years ago, Crusaders Coach Dan Allen was dying of ALS, trying to coach from a wheelchair. He died not long after the 2003 season ended and was replaced by Tom Gilmore who has done a remarkable rebuilding job.

The key though for the Crusaders has been their quarterback, Dominic Randolph, who didn't even start in high school and is now getting serious looks from NFL scouts. Pete Thamel wrote a great piece in The New York Times on Randolph a few weeks ago which included quotes from his high school coach. One of them was, "Someday when Dom's an NFL quarterback people are going to say, 'so who's the dope who didn't start him in high school?" I love coaches like that. The final score of this game might be 70-63 because both teams can score but can't, as my old pal Bob Knight used to say, "guard the floor." Lafayette beat Colgate 56-39 last week. Holy Cross's only loss was to Brown in a game in which the two quarterbacks threw more than 100 passes and gained close to 1,000 yards.

Of course next week is Harvard-Yale, The Game as it is called. It's in New Haven this year. Navy is off. Maybe, if I can get a hall pass, I'll take a drive up there. I saw Harvard-Yale once, way back in my early days at The Post, in Boston. At either place, it is a unique experience. The only problem this year is that Yale isn't very good, although it does have a good defense.

I'm not saying the big time games aren't worth seeing or that I don't care about them. I do. I would probably care more if the games were leading to a playoff rather the silly BCS, but they are still worthy of attention. I've never been to USC-UCLA and would like to do that someday. I'd like to see Boise State play and I'd like to see TCU play. I know Gary Patterson from his Navy days and couldn't be happier for the success he has had since taking over at TCU. I'd like to spend some time at South Carolina and hang out with Steve Spurrier. He may not be the coaching superstar he was in his Florida days but he's still as entertaining and interesting as anyone in the sport. I'd like to see West Virginia play Pittsburgh, regardless of the team's records in a given year. There are plenty of other traditional games worth seeing and maybe someday I'll have a chance to do that. At least I get to see Army-Navy every year. That's one game I would never miss under any circumstances.


I finally watched The Len Bias ESPN documentary the other night. I had avoided it, in part because I'm really not into the self-aggrandizing ESPN series which pop up as self-celebrations every five years, but more because I know the story, I lived the story and I didn't think I needed to see someone else's version of the story. But, I was flipping around the other night, missing baseball, with no hockey to watch and came upon it being rerun, so I stopped on it because my pal Mike Wilbon was on the screen at that moment.

I'm almost hesitant to write about this because every time I write about ESPN I know my bias against the suits who run the place is probably in play. But I sat there and watched and waited for someone to say something like, "Len Bias did this to himself." Instead, it almost sounded as if Len Bias was a martyr. One person after another came on screen to say what a great guy Len Bias was and then--this was the best part--how he had saved lives by dying as if he had run into a burning house to rescue people and died after carrying people to safety.

Look, I knew Len Bias well. I covered Maryland during his sophomore and junior seasons and saw him emerge as a star. I liked him and spent considerable time with him. Check the clips on the stories I wrote about him. He was bright, a talented artist, almost a mama's boy when I covered him. He admitted to me once that he took his laundry home for his mother to do whenever he had the chance. I also know during his senior year, when everyone knew he was going to be a very high draft pick, a lot of people who knew him became concerned about the hangers-on who had come into his life. I heard it from a number of people second-hand because that was the year I was in Indiana doing "A Season on the Brink."

Bias's death was stunning and it haunted Maryland for years and years. It was one of the reasons Bobby Ross fled as football coach and it led to Lefty Driesell being forced out as coach by the self-righteous chancellor John Slaughter. Slaughter then hired a high school coach, Bob Wade, who promptly got Maryland into an NCAA investigation that led to major sanctions. In 1997, when I was doing my book on ACC basketball--11 years after Bias's death--Maryland lost a game at Duke. Afterwards, I sat with alone with Gary Williams, who was in the process of rebuilding from the rubble left after Bias and after Wade. Gary was disconsolate and emotional at that moment. He later told me regretted saying what he'd said but at that moment I know it was what he felt.

"When a player comes to Duke," he said, "he expects to play in The Final Four. There are times when I think all our players want to do is get out of here (Maryland) without dying of an overdose of cocaine."

An over-reaction to a tough loss? Perhaps. But it symbolized just how much Bias's ghost continued to stalk the Maryland campus. I believe it was only after Gary took Maryland to the Final Four in 2001 and won the national title in 2002 that it was finally exorcised.

There's almost none of that in the ESPN documentary. There are just excuses: people didn't know how serious cocaine was in 1986 (they may not have known it could be instantly fatal but they certainly knew it was dangerous and illegal). The notion that Bias had never used before is repeated by almost everyone except the county prosecutor who says, "recreational users don't use that pure a form of cocaine."

Many, if not most of the people interviewed barely knew Len Bias. The exceptions of course, are his parents, Lefty Driesell and some of his ex-teammates. Understandably, they want to protect his memory. Even Brian Tribble, the guy who was doing cocaine with Bias that night, is portrayed as someone who just made this one horrible mistake--even though it was seven years later that he was convicted for drug possession.

Clearly a lot of money was spent on this thing and, since ESPN can self-promote better than anyone, it will get a lot of attention. I would like to think if it was any good, if it shed any new light on the tragedy, that I would say so and give credit where it was due. To me though, it came off as an infomercial. No one doubts that Bias's death was a tragedy and there's no questioning that it had a deep, long-term affect on many, many people. I liked Len Bias, enjoyed the time I spent with him. But he was no martyr regardless of how many people the director lined up to lionize him.

The summer that Bias died, Bob Knight spoke at The Five Star camp. He talked about the dangers of drug-use to the campers. "A lot of people think that using drugs is cool," Knight said. "Len Bias thought it was cool. He was so cool that now he's cold."

That may sound cold and harsh. Sadly, Knight spoke the truth--unlike most of the people on camera during the documentary.


Jim in the Cuse said...

Love the blog, John. It feels like whenever Len Bias is brought up, all you hear is a smattering of excuses of ignorance, rather than the reality of the world these players inhabit.

On a completely unrelated note, no love for Jim Boeheim? I don't know how well you know Boeheim, or if you even like the guy, but it just seems that when any other coach, especially Coach K or Bob Knight, reach one of these almost-untouchable milestones, ESPN - and most of the sports writing hemisphere - by and large can't wait to write a million words about the acheivement. I know Boeheim can be prickly, but he's no Bob Knight. Any views on this?

Thomas - said...

People always seem to be put on a pedestal when they die, no matter the circumstances, because I guess we only want to envision the best of them. And because of this, when we continue to eulogize them on a continual basis, the stories and projections of the lost life get greater and greater. Because Bias is the topic of the day, we can look at his case, his situation at the end of his life, and his peers that were on the same path as he.

With Bias, people remember him as the one who was going to thrust the Celtics into another decade of greatness (especially the producer of this ESPN series, Bill Simmons), carry the NBA and challenge Jordan throughout the late 80’s and most of the 90’s. We know, unfortunately but quite factually, that Bias was in much of the same boat as Chris Washburn, Roy Tarpley, and others of his draft class. They succumbed to drugs, and it derailed their careers and lives. There is a reasonable chance that Bias wouldn’t have reached his goals, certainly not on the path we know he was on. But in death, he became the big ‘what if’ for basketball. And 90% of the theory surrounds the greatest outcome, which often is not what is met.
For a TV documentary, or discussion around the dinner table, its so much easier, and we feel better about ourselves, to only look at the brightest of possible outcomes in the ‘what if.’ This is what the documentary wanted to leave us with, I believe.

cd1515 said...

well said as usual.

and i totally agree with thomas above.
i don't buy for a second that Bias was a one-time user.
i believe he was a regular user (Tribble says so in the documentary) and because of that, would've never become the great nba player everyone predicted.

thedean said...

If you have a teenager the Len Bias story was a hour well spent to watch with them. When it was over i didn't need to give any lectures!

case said...

thanks for another fine column
fine tribute to the lesser known top college games this saturday
you capture accurately the importance to holy cross of its game for the patriot league title against lafayette
the memory of dan allen is still alive
i'll let you know how it went

JJ said...

Thanks for the perspective. I remember being shocked by Bias's death. Sadly, now it would just be another story of an athlete's poor choices. Someone( hint, hint) should write a book about the moral decay of athletics.

Hugh said...

From the 11/10/86 issue of Sports Illustrated, "The grand jury source confirmed that [Terry] Long and [David] Gregg continued the story this way: The four friends began snorting the cocaine with cut plastic straws while they sat around the table and talked. All had used cocaine before, including Bias, who had tried it half a dozen times, the source confirmed."