Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fairly Imbalanced: Without Bias

The opening act of Without Bias, the latest edition of ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, feels like the SportsCentury tribute that Len Bias never got the chance to earn. Bias, you might recall, was the standout basketball player at the University of Maryland who died of a drug overdose two days after he was made the No. 2 selection of the 1986 NBA Draft by the Finals-bound Boston Celtics. Bias was a 6-foot-8 hard-dunking forward with a soft shooter’s touch who – like every No. 2 pick before and after him – seemed destined for greatness, only to have his glorious dream end in a nightmare. That said, it doesn’t come as a total surprise that Without Bias is front-heavy with interviews describing Bias’ collegiate career with a reverence usually reserved for sports stars and the prematurely deceased (Bias was both). But it is a disappointment. While some amount of table-setting was necessary in order for audiences to remember Bias in life, director Kirk Fraser goes too far, creating the distinct impression that the most significant effect of Bias’ death was the elimination of his basketball talent.

The truth is something different, and the maddening thing is that Fraser knows it. Bias’ death had less of an effect on the sports world than it did on the real world: In the same way that Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement five years later raised public awareness about HIV and AIDS, Bias’ death made clear the dangers of cocaine. The story circulating at the time was especially alarming (though most likely inaccurate), suggesting that Bias overdosed in his first experimentation with the drug, which friends and family assumed he obtained during a night of post-draft partying in Manhattan two days prior. As a matter of fact, if Maryland teammate Brian Tribble is to be trusted, Bias used cocaine recreationally prior to his overdose, believing the drug to be harmless. In any case, Bias’ death immediately became a lever for “Just Say No” era politicians, who raced to enact stricter anti-drug laws, including the establishment of mandatory minimum sentencing rules. Fraser is clearly aware that these aftershocks were created by the earthquake that was Bias’ death, because he covers them in his 51-minute documentary. Trouble is, he doesn’t get there until the third act, causing the most compelling aspect of this story to feel like a rushed addendum.

This kind of journalistic imbalance wouldn’t be so noticeable if the doc’s first two chapters were more affecting, but Without Bias routinely underwhelms. Its opening act is little more than a collection of grainy Bias highlights combined with lackluster talking-head interviews that are captured at a variety of awkward angles in a lazy attempt to avoid visual redundancy. ESPN personality and Washington Post columnist Mike Wilbon, who covered Bias at Maryland, is eloquent as usual, but his analytical brethren – Kevin Blackistone, James Brown, Bob Ryan and Dan Shaughnessy – have scant valuable insight and contribute little more than name power. Had Fraser combined these commentaries with the memories of coaches and players who faced Bias, a convincing case might have been made for Bias’ greatness. Instead Without Bias is something of an inside job, with Fraser interviewing Bias’ old coaches and teammates, whose praise is neither surprising nor persuasive. The most forceful assessment of Bias’ talent comes from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who considers Bias one of the two “defining” players he has faced in the ACC – the other being Michael Jordan. Alas, this insight doesn’t come in the first person from Krzyzewski but in the third person from Wilbon. Indeed, the only Maryland foe to be found is North Carolina legend Dean Smith, who appears just long enough to call Bias “great” with all the enthusiasm of a guy evaluating his morning cup of coffee.

The second act is equally problematic because of the unnecessary amount of time it spends detailing the night of Bias’ death. Relying heavily on the descriptions of Tribble, who used cocaine with Bias and made the 9-1-1 call in what can only be described as a less than lucid state, Without Bias is abundant with information you could have guessed (cocaine kills) and strangely lacking in the kind of information any audience would want to know (where exactly the cocaine came from). Fraser has something of a journalistic scoop in the form of Tribble’s suggestion that Bias was a recreational cocaine user, but instead of digging into those details the documentary spends almost seven minutes letting each member of Bias’ family describe how he or she heard the news of Bias’ overdose. It’s sad stuff, to be sure, but death is universal. After a while the sentimental music begins to feel a little misplaced, because when it comes down to it Bias was no different than any young adult who took drug use too far. Unlucky? Sure. A victim? Not exactly.

Wilbon suggests that those over the age of 75 and those under the age of 25 wouldn’t be able to appreciate what Bias’ death meant to those in between. I doubt that Without Bias will change that. Of the five “30 for 30” entries thus far, this one has the most catastrophic subject matter and yet its heartbreak seems distant. Fraser has nothing but good intentions in shaping this story as the tragic downfall of America’s next great sports hero; indeed, that’s the way this story has been framed for more than two decades. But in the end there’s something shallow about mourning the loss of Bias as a loss for basketball. Next to the images of grief stricken teammates and an emotionally battered father, Bias’ skill on a basketball court is inconsequential. Next to the impact of Bias’ death on anti-drug laws, the impact of Bias’ death on the Boston Celtics is trivial. By the time Without Bias stops telling us all the ways Bias was supposed to be remembered, it has too little time to cover the reasons he should be.

Without Bias premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.


Chase said...

I was pretty young when Bias died, and just getting started playing basketball, but I remember it as a seismic event, even if I didn't grasp it fully at the time. The clips of him stealing the ball and dunking immediately after hitting a jump shot has worn its way into my skull enough over time that I almost think I remember watching that game instead of just the repeated highlight. It's disappointing to hear that the director of this installment went a little shallow in his investigation, but as always, I'll watch this one anyway.

Jason Bellamy said...

Chase: Though I was disappointed by Without Bias, it's still worth watching, and it does have a few surprises. But for me the interesting parts were too fleeting and the rest was sluggish and unimpressive.

Come back after you've seen it. I'll be curious to learn if I was alone in my reaction.

Craig said...

I see your point about the bigger picture. But as a longtime Celtics fan, I remember the Len Bias tragedy being absolutely cataclysmic for the team. Bird and McHale would have a few good years left but their best were largely behind them. Bias was the future. Without him (or Reggie Lewis, whose sad death occurred a few years later), the Celtics endured a long, painful decline that last through most of the 90s until....well, just recently. A tragic waste of what-might-have-been.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: I don't disagree. But when you watch Without Bias tell me if this film even gets that part of the story right. That's the thing: if Without Bias just focused on his death in basketball terms, or if it had made a more convincing case about his greatness, I wouldn't have complained. These are sports stories, after all. But the first two acts drift by without making much of an impression, with a few exceptions, of course.

I'll be curious to see your reaction after you've seen it.

Craig said...

Oh, I wouldn't call it greatness. And if that's what the doc's suggesting, then it sounds as misleading as you say. It was more like unfulfilled potential. The prospect of Bias being under Bird and McHale's tutelage for a few years was enough to make your mouth water. Unfulfilled potential: the ultimate tragedy.

TC said...

I really wanted to like this film, but the way Frazer jumped from one random topic to the next in the third act was maddening to me. It's like he knows there are certain points he wants to touch on (Drisell being forced out, Tribble's trial, the new drug laws, etc.) but since he's wasted so much time in the first two segments, he doesn't have time to tell anything well here. So instead of cutting a couple topics, he leaves all of them incomplete. Yet as you said, he has time to spare in the second segment while not really sharing much info. Do we really need to hear from EVERY teammate, when not many actually have anything to say?

Of all the 30 in 30 docs so far, this was the one I was most interested in before I watched, and most disappointed by afterward. But one has to be impressed with the ongoing resolve of Bias' mother, who amazed me.

Brew said...

JB -

I was very eager to watch this and hopeful that it would provide something deeper than it did.
I'm not sure exactly what I was looking for, but it left me a bit disappointed.

I think it's safe to assume that with you, like me, Bias' death was one of the defining moments of our early "sports childhood".
The only other event that I can recall that was equally tragic was the death of Hank Gathers.

And the thing that I remember most about his death was how absolutely terrified I was about the dangers of cocaine. I figured that if you try cocaine, you die!

I had no recollection of his brother's death only a few years later. The only thing worse than thinking about what was lost
and might have been is the anguish and heartbreak that his parent's have had to live with.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the reactions! Keep 'em coming.

TC: That's exactly how I felt. The doc belabors the points that are immediately understood and then zips through some of the fascinating stuff, moving so quickly that it would have been better off ignoring those details altogether. Speaking as someone who has interviewed people for stories, sometimes if you put a lot of work into researching and interviewing you feel a need to show your work, so to speak. Fraser seems intent to demonstrate his thoroughness and the number of interviews he conducted, but in the process he overlooks that many of his interviewees aren't saying anything especially interesting. (And I can't believe he didn't get one non-teammate to talk about matching up against him.)

Brew: I figured that if you try cocaine, you die! That's exactly how I'd reacted to the story all those years ago, and that's how I'd remembered it, so it was surprising to learn that Bias had used cocaine previously. Or had he? Listening to Tribble and other teammates, I think he had. And yet Bias' father still remembers the night after the draft as if his son was with dangerous people in New York, when in reality he was with dangerous people in Maryland. Bias' girlfriend still wants to believe that the night of his overdose was the only time he used. Don't get me wrong, the story is tragic regardless, but it's even more tragic the way we learned it at the time: that Bias had one night where he mixed with the wrong crowd and died because of it.

As for Bias' brother, that's a detail I was unaware of, and the most heartbreaking moment of the film for me is when Bias' father accidentally calls his murdered son "Len," and then says, "Oh my God," as if just then he fully realizes that he is burying a child for the second time. Awful.

Anonymous said...

This was a shortened version of Fraser's 95 minute doc about Bias that never got picked up for wide release. Could explain why chunks of it felt disjointed.

Jamie Yates said...

Not to confuse "Bias the man" with "Bias the basketball player," but his death did have a stunning effect on the NBA.

In "The Book of Basketball," Bill Simmons writes a stunning look at the idea "what if Bias had lived?" Granted, it's all speculation, but he shares some insights into how good Bias would have been for the entire Celtics team.

The book also shows that cocaine was widespread in the NBA. Not everyone overdosed, but quite a few careers were limited. Sadly, it seems like it took the death of Bias to highlight this fact.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jamie: Thanks for the comment. My guess is that Bias' death had more of an impact on NBA culture than the game itself.

I haven't read Simmons' book, but I've read enough columns and listened to enough podcasts over the years to know that he's convinced that Bias was the second-coming. But who knows.

In any sport the draft is such an imperfect exercise, and Simmons never holds himself back when it comes to his Boston-based (um) biases. So, yeah, it's speculative. And it's fun to speculate about sports. But Bias might have turned out to be a bust. Or maybe he would have flashed brilliance only to be brought down to earth ... kind of like another young Boston prospect that Simmons couldn't keep from raving about for a while: Jonathan Papelbon.

The point is, all top draft choices are over-hyped coming out of college. Combine that with premature death and who is going to have the heart to argue against Bias' greatness?

Curious: Have you made it through the entire book? How is it?

Jamie Yates said...

Sorry for the delay, but yes, I did finish "The Book Of Basketball." I gave it a nearly sparkling review on my blog, but there are tons more negative reviews out there.


I'm standing by the opinion that it was enjoyable--but I can see how someone unfamiliar with Simmons's devotion to Boston sports and/or "everyman writing style" might be infuriated by the book. Playoffs, drafts, day-to-day games...it's so easy to play the "what-if" card. But I really admired his research, and I think it'll stand up as a solid basketball reference guide in the future.