Since I idolized Maryland forward Len Bias while growing up as a high school kid in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., you can imagine how much I was looking forward to firing up a DVD of Without Bias, the documentary that will air on ESPN Tuesday night at 8 p.m. as part of the network's "30 for 30" series.
Alas, my giddiness morphed into profound melancholy as soon as the documentary began. The first thing that came on the screen was footage of Bias -- handsome, strong, bartitone-voiced -- conducting a television interview late in his senior season. "It probably won't dawn on me until about 10 years later," he said with a soft smile, "when I'm old and watching somebody else playing and say, 'Wow, I used to could do that. I could do it better than that."
Could he ever. Bias's genius comes through during this documentary, but that is also what makes it so hard to watch. You can't see him glide and dunk and sink feathery jumpers without cringing from the knowledge that it will all end with a cocaine-induced heart attack suffered two days after the Boston Celtics selected Bias with the second pick in the 1986 draft. Without Bias is not without flaws, but it does an excellent job capturing both the brilliance and the tragedy of this beautiful, gifted athlete.
Kirk Fraser, the director of Without Bias, went to great lengths to demonstrate just how good Bias was. Bias has often been compared to his ACC contemporary, Michael Jordan, but to be honest, that comparison is a bit of a stretch -- for Jordan. As the documentary makes clear, Bias as a college player was just as athletic as MJ, but he was two inches taller, had greater strength to finish around the basket and was a far superior jump shooter. Michael Wilbon, who got to know Bias while covering him for The Washington Post, says in the documentary that Bias "had the purest jump shot I've ever seen. The purest. Straight up, off the floor, perfect form, perfect elbow, perfect release point, perfect follow through. It was a vision. It was a work of art." Indeed, one of my favorite alltime college basketball stats is the fact that when Bias was a senior, he led the ACC in free throw percentage.
Without Bias is at its most compelling when it recreates, minute-by-minute, the night Bias died. Fraser secured interviews with all of the major principals, including the teammates and friends who partied with Bias that night and were with him when he convulsed with seizures. That segment, which includes the audio of the full 9-1-1 call placed by Bias's friend Brian Tribble, is absolutely harrowing.
As the documentary recounts the aftermath of that night, I found myself getting angry that Bias's death cost Maryland coach Lefty Driesell his job. To this day, I cannot fathom why Lefty had to go. Watching the video of Lefty walking with his family off the court inside Cole Field House following his resignation announcement, I was sadly reminded that nobody at the university had the guts to stand up for Driesell and refuse to let him be the scapegoat. As sportswriter Jackie MacMullan aptly put it, "People always need someone to blame."
Without Bias makes a couple of mistakes that are not uncommon in sports documentaries. When chronicling the prosecution and media investigation, Fraser used excessively ominous music to underscore the narrative. The music is distinctly at odds with the soundtrak used in the rest of the documentary, and it reveals a director who is trying too hard to manufacture tension when the facts he's presenting are unsettling enough.
The documentary also veers badly off-course when it delves into a larger societal narrative of the scourge of cocaine in inner-city Washington, D.C., as well as the ensuing Congressional legislation that mandated excessive sentences for people convicted of possessing a small amount of crack cocaine (read: black males in the inner city) but was more lenient towards those convicted of possessing powdered cocaine (wealthy white folks from the suburbs). Those are compelling topics, but they seem out of place here. The time spent on those disgressions would have been spent on the stories of Bias's younger brother, Jay, who was murdered three years after Len's death, and the work that their mother has done in the years since to spread the word on the dangers of teenage drug use.
When Wilbon quoted Jay Bilas as saying that there is a certain generation of Americans that marks time by the moment they heard about Len Bias's death, I nodded my head. I am part of that generation. I even remember my reaction when my friend, Evan, called me that morning and told me the news. "It's a hoax," I said. Unfortunately, it was all too real. Without Bias may not be easy to watch, but no matter what generation you belong to, it is important that you know his story. Even as you lament what could have been, you can't help but be amazed at what this guy could do.