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.