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Note: This is an edited and updated account first published on STATter911 for the 30th anniversary of Len Bias’s death.
The newsroom phones rang constantly from 5:00 p.m. until after 2:00 the next morning. Bill Rayment was among those answering the many calls. Rayment, one of the nicest people working in television, took a lot of abuse from angry viewers. Not the normal role of the 11:00 p.m. newscast’s director, but the swamped assignment desk needed help. The callers were outraged. They told us we were wrong. They weren’t alone. There was also criticism from inside the news business. One of the top sportscasters in the country blasted us that night. He said it was “too soon.”
What journalistic sin had we committed? We shared an uncomfortable truth about the sudden death of a revered young athlete.
On the same day college basketball star Len Bias died, I was the first to report the 22-year-old Bias used cocaine in the hours before his death. Two days earlier Bias had been drafted by the Boston Celtics. My reporting, along with the work of my colleagues at Channel 9 in Washington was 100 percent accurate. Cardiac arrythmia caused by cocaine was later listed as the cause of death for the University of Maryland athlete. In 1986 this was not news people were prepared to hear – especially the local fans of Len Bias and the Maryland Terrapins.
In the days that followed, death threats arrived by mail. I’d only been a TV reporter for about 10 months and the viewers already wanted me dead. It wasn’t like today when journalists are constantly criticized and subject to frequent and instant threats via social media. In the mid-80s, it took a little more effort — especially from the person who sent me a large envelope with a silhouette target, complete with curly hair, multiple bullet holes from at least two different weapons and a message that said “Go Terps”.
It has been 35 years since Bias’s death. This is my account of June 19, 1986.
The first tip came from a firefighter
The phone rang around 6:45 a.m. that Thursday morning. I had been in a deep sleep. Picking up the receiver I heard a familiar voice. “Dave, they just took Len Bias to Leland in cardiac arrest.” I heard the words, but I’m not sure they registered in my foggy brain. I managed to say, “Huh?
“They just took Len Bias by ambulance to Leland. He’s in cardiac arrest.” Now, I was awake.
The person calling was a friend I first met a decade earlier when I was a volunteer firefighter and dispatcher in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I don’t follow college basketball, but I knew Len Bias. It was hard to escape his name if you lived in the Washington area in the early to mid-1980s. Walking through the newsroom a day earlier I had seen Bias all over the TV screens and even I knew of his big news. I said to my early morning caller, “Didn’t he just get drafted by the Celtics?” The answer, of course, was “Yes”.
My friend had never steered me wrong with his news tips. But this was so startling I didn’t know whether to believe him. I momentarily worried he might have heard a bad firehouse rumor. I wanted confirmation.
The phone number for Prince George’s Fire Department Communications wasn’t one I had to look up. I knew it as well as my own number. Linda Hash answered. We used to work together. Knowing it was a recorded line, I didn’t identify myself. All I said was, “Linda, is it true?” I knew Linda would recognize my voice. She answered, “Yes” and immediately hung up. It was a few years later I learned that “yes” got Linda into some trouble. She wasn’t supposed to talk to the news media.
Channel 9’s morning assignment editor Doug Edwards was the next person to hear my voice. Despite his initial disbelief, Doug got the wheels moving. A live truck was being rerouted to Leland. I would meet it there.
Doug’s next move had significant impact on the day’s events. He called the home of one of our sports anchors. James Brown was a former star basketball player at Harvard. The same James Brown whose stellar TV career has taken him to FOX and CBS. JB’s first call was to the legendary Red Auerbach, then the president of the Celtics. Instead of getting additional confirmation about what was going on with Bias, something very different happened. Auerbach was getting the news from JB. This was the first the Celtics knew that doctors were trying to save the life of Len Bias.
Len Bias was in cardiac arrest. This meant fire and EMS would take him to the nearest hospital emergency department. In this case the ambulance only had to go a mile and a half south of the University of Maryland campus to Leland. Leland has been out of business since 1993, but in 1986 it was a 120-bed facility at Route 1 and Queensbury Road. The hospital had treated many Maryland students. But this was different.
We were the only news crew at Leland. Most news organizations didn’t learn Len Bias had been hospitalized until Channel 9’s first report. If this occurred today, the news would play out quite differently. Someone likely would shoot cell phone video of medics rushing Bias out of his dormitory. It would be all over Instagram and Twitter before the source who woke me even thought about calling.
There can be uncomfortable moments when you scoop the competition on a big story. Doubts emerge. There’s that little voice in the back of your head saying the reason no one else is reporting the story is because it’s not true. When I got to Leland no one at the hospital confirmed Bias was there, let alone in cardiac arrest. But there was a big clue. Outside the emergency room were a number of extremely tall men. They were young. They were distressed. Some were crying. They didn’t want to talk with me.
Doug Edwards knew my college basketball knowledge was lacking. He made another wise move. Doug sent production assistant Mike Bratton to Leland. Mike was a 1981 Maryland graduate. In fact, Mike was the only one in the newsroom who had heard of Leland Hospital. By the time I got there, Mike had already identified the players outside the ER.
Reporters and cameras descended on Leland. The official confirmation came just after 9:00 a.m. Len Bias was dead. It was not a surprise. We had seen the wave of grief moments earlier outside the emergency department as Bias’s teammates and friends were told. They hugged. They cried. Some banged the brick walls. It was tough to watch.
The most haunting moment of the morning was still to come. It’s the image I always think of when Len Bias is mentioned. I stood alongside videographer Kline Mengle. A gurney was wheeled through the doors of the ER to a waiting morgue wagon. The length of the body under the sheet was hard to ignore. Len Bias was six feet-eight inches tall. Chilling.
Reporters are impatient. We want to know things now. And right now each of us wanted to know what killed Len Bias. The doctor who worked on Bias said he suffered “cardio-respiratory arrest”. But there was no explanation why a seemingly healthy 22-year-old athlete suddenly stopped breathing and his heart stopped beating. Despite our impatience, none of us asked about illegal drugs. We didn’t give it a thought. Even as we talked among ourselves outside the hospital, there was no speculation about drugs.
‘They were doing cocaine’
The body of Len Bias was on the move to the medical examiner’s office in Baltimore. We were moving too. Our next live location was Washington Hall on the Maryland campus. This was the basketball team’s dorm. It’s where firefighters and medics found Bias in cardiac arrest. James Brown and a sports department photographer met us there.
As I finished the first of two noon live shots, I was told by the crew to call the assignment desk immediately. It turned out to be one of most significant calls of the day. The desk said one of my friends urgently needed to talk with me about Len Bias. It didn’t make sense. I couldn’t imagine this person’s connection to the story.
My friend answered immediately. He told me there was evidence of cocaine in Len Bias’s body at the hospital. That was as shocking as the call that woke me six hours earlier. He then explained how he knew this. It made sense. To share why my friend had this information would identify him. The source, now dead, made it clear through the years I should never name him or his involvement in the story — even after he was gone. When I hung up, I immediately called the one person I knew who could help me verify the information.
Few local TV reporters were as good as Mike Buchanan. Mike had phenomenal sources. He knew how to tell a story. Mike was the first to learn John Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster. Mike was also the guy who convinced WDVM-TV news director Dave Pearce to hire me. Mike helped start the careers of many young television journalists, including Connie Chung. Sadly, he passed away last year at age 78.
As I was calling Mike, he was trying to call me. It was for the same reason. Mike also knew about the cocaine. His information came from a police source.
Finishing the call with Mike, I walked over to JB. He was standing near the sidewalk leading to Washington Hall. I shared the news about the cocaine. Without him saying a word I could see what JB was thinking. His body tensed. His face tightened. His anger grew, JB stared at me in silence for a few seconds before turning and walking away. At first, I thought JB was just walking off the shock of the news. Processing the waste of a young life. Just moments later I spotted JB near the entrance to Washington Hall. He was talking with Bias’s teammates. He soon returned and had only one thing to say: “They were doing cocaine.”
It says a lot that JB got the information instantly. We would soon learn that some members of the team weren’t initially cooperative with police investigating Bias’s death.
‘I hope Dave’s right, or he will soon be living back home’
We now had three independent sources on the cocaine. The sources didn’t know each other. Each had a reason to know this information. Today, many news organizations wouldn’t hesitate to share this scoop instantly on social media, post it on their website and break into programming with a special report. The world was just a little slower in 1986.
While the special report was clearly an option, Dave Pearce wanted to know a lot more before connecting Len Bias’s name with cocaine. Pearce knew the implications of getting a story wrong. Not long before I was hired, he had to go on the air to apologize for substantial errors in an investigative reporter’s story about funding for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That reporter was fired.
We met with Pearce in his office at Channel 9’s Broadcast House in the early afternoon. I explained how I got the information and told him what JB learned from players. Buchanan briefed Pearce on his conversations with PGPD detectives. It didn’t take long for a decision. The cocaine angle would lead the 5:00 p.m. newscast. The only question left from Pearce was, “Which one of you will do the 5:00 story?” Buchanan, one of the most generous people I’ve known, didn’t hesitate. He said, “Dave will.”
At 5:00 p.m. I was on the air with the news. We were the only ones reporting Len Bias had been using cocaine. That’s when the phones started ringing. Our viewers were angry. It’s not what they wanted to hear from us at that moment.
All news WTOP Radio, where I had worked for almost four years, picked up our story minutes later. Instead of just attributing the news to Channel 9, they went a step further: “Channel 9’s Dave Statter is reporting there was cocaine in Len Bias’s bloodstream when he died.”
My late father always listened to WTOP on his drive home from work in Baltimore. He heard that initial report. He later told me his reaction. Ed Statter said to himself, “I hope Dave’s right, or he will soon be living back home.”
Mike Buchanan’s 11:00 report
It was 10:15 p.m. Mike Buchanan summoned me to his desk near mine in the newsroom. Freshly pulled from his typewriter, Buchanan handed over a copy of the script for his 11:00 report. While I had returned to the Maryland campus for a few hours, Mike never left his desk after the early newscasts. I looked at the thin carbon paper and was surprised by what I read. The story provided great detail on what happened inside Washington Hall in the hours before Bias died. The story talked about a mound of cocaine and Bias saying, “I’m a horse. I can take it.”
I think my words were something like, “Really Buck?” While I may have been a little skeptical a reporter was able to gather so much inside information this early, Buchanan was confident. He learned all of these details from phone calls to law enforcement sources and others. When that story hit air 45-minutes later, callers to the station were even angrier. I kept a copy of that script. Months down the road we learned that every bit of Mike Buchanan’s story the night of June 19th was accurate. All of it came out during the trial of Bias’s friend Brian Tribble. Tribble was accused and eventually acquitted on charges related to providing the cocaine to Bias.
Still, the accuracy of Buchanan’s scoop or my initial report didn’t matter to the hundreds of people calling to complain. Driving from Channel 9 to join Buchanan for a drink at the bar Chadwicks, a few blocks from the station, I learned those same complaints were being voiced very publicly.
‘You’re next on Sports Call’
Mike called on the station two-way radio telling me to turn on 630 AM WMAL. The voices were instantly recognizable. Channel 4 sports director George Michael was talking with “Sports Call” host Ken Beatrice. Of course, there was only one sports item discussed that night. But at that moment they weren’t focusing on Len Bias’s career or the tragedy of his death. They were talking about us. They were critical of the way Channel 9 covered the Bias story. Michael, of “Sports Machine” fame, was very clear. He thought we were irresponsible for reporting the cocaine use. Michael said it was “too soon.”
Mike Buchanan was an easy going guy. He used to tell me he showed anger at work only about once a year and only for something really important. He figured by rationing displays of anger, people paid attention the few times he made a scene. When I next heard Mike’s voice on the two-way I could tell he was hot. He said, “Get me on that program!”
I quickly reached the producer of Ken Beatrice’s show. He told us to come by. The studio is just a block from Chadwicks. We were on the air with Beatrice within a few minutes.
Buchanan did most of the talking. He gave a great defense of journalism. He explained why we reported Bias had used cocaine. In various ways Buchanan and I asked Beatrice — both on and off the air — if this was “too soon” when would be a good time to share the information? We wanted to know what justification was there for journalists to hide or censor key facts of such an important story?
I’m not sure we got a good answer or that we convinced Beatrice, Michael or anyone else our journalistic standards should trump their feelings. We were told we were disrespecting the memory of a revered sports figure.
So much has changed in 35-years. Today, as soon as we learn that someone in entertainment or sports is ill or died unexpectedly, we aren’t surprised to quickly hear a report that drugs or something else illegal were involved.
The image of journalists has taken a nosedive in the past three decades. People love to hate and blame the news media. The complaints today are much different than they were on June 19, 1986. The anger now is often about news coverage not supporting a specific political agenda.
In 1986, people didn’t want to hear the bad news about Len Bias. They were angry at those who dared to speak the truth, so soon. Their motivation was actually somewhat compassionate and for the most part seemed to be coming from a good place compared to our thought process today. Now, the public seems to hunger for the scandalous and we want that information instantly on our smart phones. Little shocks us. We’ve heard the scandals about countless fallen celebrities and other star athletes. Such news, moments after the death of a celebrity, fuels our own instant opinions and even our own “facts”. We then immediately share the news on social media, providing our own commentary.
There are moments when reading the toxic information flow after the sudden passing of one of our stars in their prime that I long, just a little bit, for the time when a reporter could actually piss us off for sharing something “too soon.”
One of the best accounts of the death of Len Bias is titled “1103 Washington Hall.” It’s a chapter in Michael Weinreb’s wonderful book “Bigger than the Game.” Weinreb earlier had written about Bias for ESPN.com in an article titled “The Day Innocence Died.”
Another book is “Lenny, Lefty, and the Chancellor: The Len Bias Tragedy and the Search for Reform in Big-Time College Basketball” by the late C. Fraser Smith of The Baltimore Sun.
There’s also the ESPN Films “30 for 30” documentary “Without Bias” directed by Kirk Fraser. It stands out as the first interview ever of Brian Tribble, the man acquitted after being charged with providing the cocaine that killed Bias.