ESPN 30 for 30: Without Bias (2009)

Directed by Kirk Fraser

I was first introduced to the person of Len Bias in High School health class. The class was very lazily taught by the head basketball coach at the time and as such I never really learned anything that has stuck with me. In fact, the instance of Len Bias is only memorable for Dick Vitale, as we watched a clip of a speech he gave at a basketball clinic. In the speech Vitale spoke very fondly of the person and talent of Len Bias. He spoke of it all being taken away to the careless use of the “Big C”, cocaine. He spoke with great passion and emotion. I would have never have done drugs anyway, but a video of someone speaking 10 years ago is the only thing I ever took from that Health class, and even then I didn’t really learn who Len Bias was.

Bias was a basketball superstar to be. He was a local treasure in Maryland and attended the University of Maryland for four years where he brought his coach Lefty Driesell an ACC championship. He was described as a raw talent who over his college years developed into a potential NBA all star. He played alongside North Carolina’s Michael Jordan and was even compared to the greatness of the greatest basketball player ever, arguably. But soon after being drafted #2 overall to the reigning NBA champion Boston Celtics, Bias died. The report was that his death was caused by intoxication from cocaine.

The problem with the documentary is that I’m not too sure I know very much more now than I did going into the film. Director Kirk Fraser presents a very straight forward approach to the story of Len Bias, opening with an examination of Bias as a phenomenal player, calling in all the current ESPN guys to prove his point. Then he goes on to the chronological timeline of events that lead to his tragic demise. He graduates, gets drafted, dies, ripple effect in the world of sports and beyond. But as an hour long documentary every thing seems truncated and glossed over. Len Bias was a sensational player and his story is so huge that I cannot imagine this being a testament to that story or that person.

For such a heartbreaking tragedy, there seems to be little in the way of emotion, even from the Bias parents, but that has to be from the presentation and interview methods taken by Fraser because I know it was startling, especially after they lost their second son Jay to a murder just four years later. But again, that story seems added on and bears no effect on the film. Fraser just fails to add anything to an already great story. He has every opportunity to make a great film here given the material, but instead chooses to give us a bland and ineffective film.

The series to this point has done a nice job of mixing stories, sports and styles and for that I applaud the ambition of ESPN Films. However, it has stumbled on a couple of occasions and both times it seems to have come from a lack of passion and just downright laziness by the filmmakers. That is a bold statement and one that assumes more than I can possibly know. Ad quite frankly it is probably not fair to the filmmakers to say that, but I also can’t help but think under more steady hands something more could have come of this material. The Bias story is great, but what lead to what happened to him? What came of it? And I don’t just mean a couple minutes on some vague law against cocaine possession. But all of this should not detract to the reality of the story and just how tragic those few days were.

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