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30 For 30: "Without Bias"

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The second episode of ESPN's documentary series in a row to be crafted from previously existing materal, "Without Bias" — about the short career and tragic demise of college sensation/would-be Boston Celtics savior Len Bias — is a reworking by director Kirk Fraser of his own award-winning Len Bias:  The Legend You Know, The Story You Didn't.  I haven't seen the film, and it's still scheduled for a limited release next summer, so it's easy to suspect, especially after this episode, that Fraser kept some good stuff in his pocket.

In the footage we see early on of college star Len Bias, he comes across as an utterly charming, perfectly guileless, and invincible young man.  Even when he says "People ask me, how do I do the things I do?  To me, it's like nothing", he doesn't come off as arrogant — only as someone who, like everyone else, is a bit awed at his own gifts.  Born and raised in a comfortable nuclear family with a hard-working father and a devout mother in Landover, MD, Bias doesn't seem like the troubled, defensive kids that would follow him into the National Basketball Association in the 1990s.  He's entirely focused in the prize ("The only thing that's on my mind is where I'm going"), and when he's finally signed by the Boston Celtics, it seems like an inevitability that he's headed to the top.  The Celtics, by a fluke of the rules, had the #2 draft pick a year after winning the NBA Championship, and few doubted that the addition of Bias at forward would be a legacy-building maneuver.  He even told his dog they were shipping up to Boston.


Bias gets compared a lot in the film to Michael Jordan, whose UNC team was defeated by Bias' University of Maryland crew in the game that made a lot of people believers about Bias' talent.  It's impossible to know how much of this is posthumous hype; there's a natural tendency, especially when someone dies so young, to speculate that if he'd lived, a dead athlete would have been one of the all-time greats.  Still, those who saw him play every game, like D.C. sportswriter Michael Wilbon, find the comparison apt, and there were a lot of similarities between the two men:  a muscular body that powered a tremendous leaping ability and a high-scoring game anchored by strong dunks and a gorgeous jump shot.  The staggering outpouring of support he received from all over the country on the day of his death made Bias' mother comment "I did not know who this young man was."  She was right in more ways than one.

The day after signing with the Boston Celtics, Bias and some friends were sitting around a dorm room drinking and doing lines of coke.  Bias went into a series of seizures, and within a day, he was dead from massive heart failure.  Many who knew him were so shocked that it happened that they speculated it was the first time he'd ever done cocaine; this is belied by the testimony of friends, whose statements about hiding the drugs whenever someone they didn't know well would enter the room paint a perfect portrait of a casual user.  The atmosphere was forgiving, not wild.  The terrible waste of Bias' death, after working so hard and repeatedly saying how much he'd been blessed, feels maddening:  didn't he know he might lose it all with coke?   The sad and simple answer is, no, of course he didn't.  Hundreds of thousands of people, almost all of them nowhere near Bias' level of fitness and health, did far more cocaine with no disastrous effect.  By all accounts, it was a bad decision, but one that led to a mostly aberrant result.  (Even the Celtics' management later confessed that they'd done an illegal drug test on Bias and found nothing, but if they had known he was doing a small amount of coke, they would have signed him anyway.)

The idea that it was all just a horrible bit of misfortune is compounded by his friend, Brian Tribble, calling his sister (an epileptic) when Bias began seizing up instead of the hospital — after all, he'd done the same amount of drugs, and he wasn't having a seizure.  Everything from the reaction of Bias to the coke, to Tribble's possibly fatal delay, to the inexplicably hostile 911 operator, all pointed to what was essentially a string of incomprehensible bad luck.  But when someone as beloved as Bias vanishes from existence, bad luck isn't a good enough explanation.  A witch hunt in miniature followed; Tribble, no one's idea of a drug dealer, was charged with felony possession with intent to distribute.  He got off, but others weren't so lucky; UMD's head coach and athletic director, who knew nothing about Bias' drug use, were forced out of their jobs.

The film ends on a somewhat confused note:  it makes hay of the fact that Bias' death, combined with an election year, triggered a perfect storm of drug hysteria that led to unimaginably destructive mandatory sentencing laws for the possession of tiny amounts of cocaine, and helped ramp up the War On Drugs that has done so much harm to the country.  On the other hand, much play is given to the notion that Bias' death may have prevented a generation of young athletes from dabbling with drugs — certainly a good thing, but a bit contrary to the message of the rest of the film that Bias' death was a flukish mistake and the anti-drug hysteria that followed was a harmful development.


This mixed message isn't the only problem with Fraser's direction; it's also severely hampered by its post-Ken Burns documentary style, all talking heads and mournful piano music on the soundtrack as the camera pans slowly over still photographs.  It's a bit unfair to fault Fraser for that, though, considering he's trying to assemble a film about someone who was only alive for 22 years.  Less easy to forgive are the samey studio yack segments and a super-hokey cocaine montage set to to a funky disco score that would have been twenty years out of date the year Bias died.  But given this emotionally harrowing a story to tell, Fraser almost can't help but succeed, and while it doesn't quite succeed as a cautionary tale, Without Bias is a well-done portrait of a phenomenal figure who left the world in a way that left everyone around him looking for answers that never came.

Rating:  B

Stray Observations:

- Would the Boston Celtics have really revived their dynasty had Len Bias lived?  Again, it's impossible to know; but even without him, they made the playoffs and only lost in the Finals to the eventual champions.  If Bias had been even half the player in the pros he was in college, he might have made the difference.


- There's just no way people aren't going to laugh if you put Marion Barry in a segment where he talks about how cocaine took the city of Washington, DC by storm.

- Len's younger brother Jay, also a promising basketball player, was murdered outside a Maryland shopping mall following a pointless argument four years layer.  Seeing his father discussing the funeral and accidentally referring to the boy as "Len" before recognizing his mistake and breaking down on camera is maybe Without Bias' most heartbreaking moment.


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