- Without Bias dir. by Kirk Fraser
In the fall of 2014, former University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. Arguably the best men’s basketball player in Maryland’s illustrious hardwood history, Bias undeniably earned the honor. However, the fact that it took nearly three decades after he last wore a Maryland uniform for the school to formally acknowledge Bias’s greatness underscores the lingering fallout from his 1986 death of a cocaine overdose, just two days after he was drafted second overall by the National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics.
The fourth installment of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, director Kirk Fraser’s Without Bias masterfully tackles Bias’s complex legacy. The film begins with an overview of Bias’s career. Through a mixture of interviews with figures such as former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell and journalist Michael Wilbon, video of Bias in action, newspaper clippings touting Bias’s exploits, and archived commentary from his games, viewers learn how the talented but “raw” teen became one of the premier stars of college basketball in the mid-1980s. Bias’s heroics on the court, from his leading role in Maryland’s 1984 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament triumph to his dominant performance in the Terrapins’ 1986 win over top-ranked University of North Carolina, are recounted. Wilbon, a Washington Post columnist-turned-ESPN-personality who covered and knew Bias, compared the budding star to Michael Jordan.
In presenting Bias at his best on the court, with slow-motion highlights that accentuate his elite athleticism and physical prowess, as well as showing footage of a beaming Bias on draft day and hearing Celtics president Red Auerbach excitedly describe Bias’s attributes, the film leaves viewers acutely aware of his potential for superstardom. Indeed, a key component of the narrative surrounding Bias’s death is that he was on the cusp of realizing a childhood dream, only to have his life cut short by a fatal mistake. The night of that mistake is relived through the haunting details of Brian Tribble, a friend who was accused of providing Bias with the lethal dose of cocaine, teammates who were at the fatal dorm party where he overdosed, and Bias’s parents. But it is the recording of Tribble’s 911 call that is especially chilling. Hearing the drugged Tribble tell a dispatcher, “This is Len Bias. You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die,” both points to that ill-fated night’s senselessness and the enormity of the tragedy.
Indeed, Without Bias succeeds in emphasizing the impact the events of June 19, 1986, had on sports and American society at large. Amid scenes of distraught teammates and stunned Maryland students, a former classmate of Bias noted that his death marked the end of “innocence.” Wilbon, echoing another popular trope often seen in the Bias narrative, likened the tragedy’s impact to that of the JFK assassination; people of a certain generation recall where they were when they heard the news. As Celtics general manager Jan Volk recounted, the lack of awareness about drugs was so prevalent at the time that the team would have taken Bias even if it had known beforehand that he used drugs. [End Page 396]
The film also places Bias’s death in the context of mid-1980s Washington, D.C., which saw crime rates soar as the drug trade became more lucrative and competitive. The temptation was there, especially for an up-and-coming celebrity such as Bias. In discussing Bias’s indulgence in that temptation, the film directly challenges yet another popular and oft-repeated myth within the Bias narrative. There is a widespread belief that Bias never did drugs before his fatal encounter. This is repeated in the film by Driesell, some teammates, an old girlfriend, and other friends. However, Tribble notes that he and Bias regularly used cocaine and that Bias hid his drug use from all but a select group of friends.
The conclusion of the film seems to tackle too many...