Tuesday, November 03, 2009

30 for 30, "Without Bias": Everyone's tragedy

Some quick thoughts on the latest "30 for 30" documentary coming right up...

In a way, these "30 for 30" films are almost idiot-proof. The stories that have been chosen have, so far, been so inherently interesting that it almost doesn't matter how the filmmakers have chosen to tell them. I didn't really love Mike Tollin's take on the USFL, but then a lot of you commented that you were just happy to see all that footage.

Kirk Fraser's "Without Bias" feels like another example of that phenomenon. Fraser tries to stuff at least two hours of movie into a 50-minute bag, the end result being a film that jumps around too much among too many sub-stories, and that has to be guided by too many talking heads...

...and yet, I care, because it's obvious how much Fraser, and all the people who get a chance to talk in the film, cared about Len Bias. He was so important to so many people, and if you're the right age (and I confess I'm a couple of years too young to fit in this group), I understand that his death was every bit the major, unsettling even that everyone describes in the film.

The problem is that there are so many potential stories you can tell about Len Bias - cocaine use among athletes (college or pro) of the period, the impact on his family and friends, the way his death altered the fortunes of the Celtics (which Bill Simmons has written about many times), the ripple effect it may have had on the War on Drugs - and rather than just pick one and tell it all the way, Fraser tries to give a little time to them all. The segment on the night of Bias' death, and its immediate aftermath, is both the longest and the best part of "Without Bias," but so many other parts of the movie - the mandatory minimum sentencing material in particular - feel underfed.

Still, many of the sound bytes and images from the movie have stayed with me in the week since I watched it: the composure of Mrs. Bias, the regret of Tribble ("Why did we have to be stupid enough to do drugs?"), the eloquence of Michael Wilbon (which is easy to forget if you just watch him on "PTI" every day, as I do) and, especially, the TV interview about Jay Bias's murder, where the dad talks about "the eulogy that he would give for Len Bias," then stops himself when he realizes what he's just said (and what a horrible double-burden has been visited on his family) and tries to fight back tears.

I'm glad I watched this one. I just wish it had been more focused - or else a whole lot longer.

What did everybody else think?

26 comments:

Wheat Hotchkiss said...

I agree that it seemed like it needed to be longer or more focused. In reading up on Kirk Fraser, I saw that he did an award-winning documentary on Bias for the most recent American Black Film Festival. This leads me to believe that he cut this documentary down to create a film that fit within ESPN's time constraints for 30 for 30.

Still, it was incredibly moving. I was particularly struck by the vast discrepancies between various people interviewed as to their impressions of Bias' previous experience with drugs and of course the tragic murder of his brother, Jay. I've heard about Len Bias and his overdose countless times but this was the first time I ever heard the story of what happened to his younger brother, which in a way is much more tragic.

Beaver said...

Thought it was the worst of the 4 films so far, which is too bad considering it had such an important story to tell. The part where they interviewed the family and friends one after another talking about that night was amazing...I don't think I moved throughout all of those scenes.

But otherwise I thought it was kind of poorly done...the 10 minutes of random 'Mandatory Minimum' propaganda, the Marion Barry talking head (WTF?!?)...

Also, am I mistaken or is 'the man discussing the murder of Jay Bias' their father?

Bearcat said...

They let Marion Barry talk about Len Bias this freaking killed me. Also the connection between Bias and the war on drugs is a little thin. The roots of the 1986 mandatory minimum legislation were laid in the stories coming out of Florida during the early 80's. Congressmen were worried about white housewives getting hooked on crack. They were not worried about black innercity youth or basketball players.

Jeremy said...

Great documentary. When his father mentioned Len's name instead of Jay's in the interview by accident then tried to hold back the tears it was extremely moving. I enjoyed this one thoroughly.

Garron said...

I liked the story, but not the docu itself. It felt very E! True Hollywood Story-ish.

And I'm not syaing it's bad. Just that it dissapointed, and is definitely the weakest of all the ones so far.

Finding out that his brother also died though was shocking. I did not know that, and I guess this is what 30 for 30 is about; telling the unknown.

Remote Control Toys said...

I'm so impressed about the story not the documentary..Its very interesting..Well done blog and great!!!

BNR said...

As someone who was born the year Bias passed, I only heard about him in my early teenage years as my interest in basketball grew. With that being said, 1 thing we should consider with this documentary is that anyone 30 and under really doesn't remember the story, so this was an important story to be told. I agree that the film could have been done better, but the overall story seemed to have been told. 4 questions lingered after watching tonight for me. 1. If the cocaine was so pure as they said it was in the film (Tribble refuted this earlier today on Scott Van Pelt's ESPN Radio show, and Van Pelt was I believe a freshmen or sophomore at Maryland in 86), how did they obtain such potent stuff? Without putting words in anyone's mouth, I would not be surprised if Bias wanted some more expensive stuff in order to celebrate. However, if that was the case, why did he spend the entire evening in a Maryland dorm room? 2. If it was by accident that the drugs were so potent, then WHY was this the case?
3. How frequent was Bias' use? Tribble said today on the radio that this was clearly not a one time thing. 4. If they all did the same amount of the same stuff (meaning Tribble and the 2 other teammates), what happened to Bias?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Was that Bias's dad in that crying talking head? I'll have to go back and look.

Linda said...

I liked it more than some of you did. I did feel like the mandatory minimum segment felt a little tacked on, but that's a SUPER important story that really does tie into this; my guess is that Fraser felt like leaving it out would not have been fair.

I think of all these films as different looks at the same question: "How did this happen?" So for me, it was successful as an attempt to explain how a guy who is basically a decent kid, doesn't seem to be wildly entangled in drugs. and has the world on a string dies in a dorm room when his heart stops.

I agree that there was too much going on, but it didn't bother me that much.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Okay, I changed the reference to Bias's dad in that bit. Thanks.

paul said...

After the Colts Band episode, I wrote about how devastating the loss of the Colts was. Bias' death was worse. He was only a few years older than me, and even if you weren't a Terps fan or didn't follow basketball, you knew who he was and was proud of what he'd accomplished. I was and am a diehard Terps fan, so I had followed him closely. I was talking with a friend on the phone when we heard the news of his death, and it was as if someone had kicked me in the stomach. At first, the story was that this was his first and only time using cocaine. I'm not sure I heard about (or wanted to know about) how long he had been using until much later.

This episode was something of a mess, and I agree it is the weakest of the series so far. For one thing, the background music was absolutely dreadful. Instead of underscoring the emotional impact of the story, it really detracted. The minimum sentencing story felt tacked on and, consequently, like a real reach. It may be an important story, but it needs more development than it got here. Some of the talking heads made no sense. I know why Marion Barry was included, but his presence without comment induced snickers. John Thompson had no place in this story. He had nothing to do with Maryland basketball (Maryland and Georgetown despise each other), and his comments added little. Wilbon has traded his eloquence for national fame on that clown show of his, and his presence annoys. He was notably absent in the most moving part of the program.

That said, there were parts that worked. As others have said, the interviews with the Maryland players and Bias' family were mesmerizing. I also had never heard about Jay Bias' murder, and that was shocking. I liked the use of the local media figures rather than ESPN's cadre of loudmouths (though a couple annoyingly showed up).

It seems an odd standard to employ, but for all of its flaws, the Colts episode brought back all of the emotions of the team's departure. This episode just didn't have the same effect.

Ben said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben said...

I understand what Alan and others are saying about the doc being a bit jammed, but as someone that was a 15-year old Len Bias/Terps fanatic growing up in the DC area, the overall tone was spot on.

All the majors points were covered and recaptured as they felt in those tragic hours and days after his passing. (I watched live the interview with local sportscaster Steve Buckhantz when Bias said he didn't run with the drug crowd).)

It was very much a "where were you when you heard the news" moment. For me it was late morning, watching a Family Ties rerun, when a ticker came across the bottom of the screen.

As I saw the name Len Bias come across, my mind immediately deduced that if his name is being shown on the screen, it must mean he was traded and to the hometown Washington Bullets. What else could a young, naive nind think. The next moment, as the full story was revealed, was the biggest gut punch of my then young life.

The collective sadness that swept the area was nothing like I had felt before or since.

Not that I knew him at all, but I did get his autograph and was able to watch him up close at Lefty Driesell's Summer Basketball Camp. It cannot be understated how indestructible everyone around him viewed Lenny to be; the fables about him climbing tall buildings in a single bound were spreading even before he left College Park.

His brother Jay was at those camps as well.

Perhaps the most poignant moment for me was the very last comment, from another local sports anchor Chick Hernandez, about Lenny had in the end saved so many lives because of his death. As tragic as his passing was and still is, in the end he scared straight a lot of people. His loss was all ever needed to know about not going down that road.

greebs said...

Thought it was typically brilliant, sad and incredibly depressing.

I will say that just seeing Marion Barry there without any acknowledgement from him or the narrator about Barry's own preposterously public drug use was a bit preposterous and did take me out of the moment for too long. Otherwise, it was a great entry in what is proving to be a brilliant series from ESPN.

Chris Littmann said...

Two things bothered me:

1. Don't even dip your toe into the "mandatory minimums" pool if you're only going to dedicate 90 seconds to it. (Don't get me wrong, I think those laws are about as backward as they get, but they deserve more than one person screaming that they screwed up.) And if Bias had so much to do with that, make it clearer.

2. After watching the film, did you feel like you had any better sense of exactly how long Bias had used? Tribble sort of makes it sounds like they'd been recreational users before that night, but I feel like that's a pretty basic question that wasn't answered. Would've rather heard more from Tribble and those w/ Bias that night than Wilbon and James Brown talking about how fond they were of Bias.

bsangs said...

I can honestly say that Len Bias' death is the single biggest factor why I never, ever tried cocaine. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and it couldn't have made a bigger impression on this college basketball nut. I even felt sorry for the Celtics, whom I absolutely despised at the time.

This was the most powerful of all the movies for me because of how close to home it hit. I remember like it was yesterday. Much more personal than the stupid Baltimore band, USFL or Ali-Holmes. Only the Gretzky story comes close.

Henry said...

I audibly gasped when it was revealed that Jay Bias was murdered. I couldn't believe that tragedy would strike the family twice. I already knew about Len Bias, but to have the parents lose both of their sons. It was just tragic and felt like a waste. I thought this was a rather compelling film just from the subject matter, which is harsh. A little too many talking heads for my taste, but I think they were necessary.

Henry said...

I audibly gasped when it was revealed that Jay Bias was murdered. I couldn't believe that tragedy would strike the family twice. I already knew about Len Bias, but to have the parents lose both of their sons. It was just tragic and felt like a waste. I thought this was a rather compelling film just from the subject matter, which is harsh. A little too many talking heads for my taste, but I think they were necessary.

DT said...

I would have liked some follow-up on the other players from the '86 draft (Tarpley, Bedford, Washburn) who lost their careers to addiction. Good work otherwise....

Anonymous said...

Wheat Hotchkiss is correct about this being a shorter version, according to the IMDB the original running time was 96 minutes.

Chalmers said...

As most have noted, the cut-down nature of this version is apparent in the cursory mandatory-minimum segment.

Likewise, to discuss the mid-80s madness about cocaine in pro sports, there has to be something about the similar death of Don Rogers, just eight days later.

He wasn't as prominent as Bias, but the timing led to an frenzy where suspected drug abuse and testing overwhelmed professional sports.

I was surprised that Jay Bilas wasn't a talking head and that they didn't at least toy with the question of whether Bias was a better college player than Jordan. (I think he was, though it might have been a function of Jordan's superior supporting cast and Dean Smith's coaching style).

Anonymous said...

1. Whatever you think of Michael Wilbon in his PTI incarnation, you should know that he covered this story as a beat reporter for the Washington Post at the time. If you ever have a few hours to kill, go back and read his work from then. It's remarkable.

2. I have long theorized that boys who were, say, 8-18 in the Balto/Washington and Boston areas in 1986 probably have the lowest rate of cocaine use of any group of people in the US. Obviously there is no statistical support, though some of the comments here and elsewhere suggest his death had a huge impact on people that meet that description.

What a sad story this was....

William said...

As a very young sports fan in the early to mid 80s, 4 of 5 stories destroyed my sports innocence. I've never used drugs and Len Bias was a big factor.

I've never been a hockey fan, but I couldn't believe as a young kid that a team could trade away the best player in the sport and a national icon.

The Colts moving from Baltimore showed me that there is no loyalty in sports even between a franchise and a city.

Even though the whole league took place before I entered the 2nd grade, I was a big USFL fan. Philadelphia Stars star Kelvin Bryant was from my hometown of Tarboro, NC. It was so much fun to watch football in the spring. I couldn't believe that something so cool could be just taken away.

Those three stories taught me at an early age that sports were all about money.

clayolson said...

From my understanding, this film was finished in 2006 and was stalled for more than one year (possibly 2) due to politics, etc. Its original format is a 2 hour feature that I have not yet seen, although I have spoken to two people involved with the MD program in '86 (one appears on 30/30 and the other did not)-- they were each contacted in 2006, as was Lefty Driesell and all others involved. I think it is truly impossible to comment on the film because 30/30 did not show the film. It showed a condensed version of what I understand was a good movie that I hope to view.

Moving forward, I think the criticism of Fraser's film if unwarranted for reasons that should be obvious in the abbreviated version, and certainly the feature. Without Bias (not the name of the film?) actually illustrated a taboo, of sorts, in that it told the truth about the event. Len Bias was a great human being, although not a virgin drug user. The masses were never told that, and I'm not sure that they should have been. What I do know is that, after death, Bias was treated, in my opinion, as a confusing character. He was "Exhibit A" of what can happen if you use drugs............as "Len Bias experimented with cocaine for the first time that evening" (how many times have I read or heard someone utter that phrase). What Fraser does is illustrates the everyman qualities in Bias via his family, the portrail of Brian Tribble as an honest and good friend to Len Bias with a heavy heart and shade of guilt........not for what he did, but for what happened to Len on his watch, but not as the enabler he was portrayed as in the past. I wish I could write more although I have gone on enough. I don't know Fraser, although I have followed the film from the first time I heard about it in 2006. I hope it gets more exposure in its full length version.

clayolson said...

From my understanding, this film was finished in 2006 and was stalled for more than one year (possibly 2) due to politics, etc. Its original format is a 2 hour feature that I have not yet seen, although I have spoken to two people involved with the MD program in '86 (one appears on 30/30 and the other did not)-- they were each contacted in 2006, as was Lefty Driesell and all others involved. I think it is truly impossible to comment on the film because 30/30 did not show the film. It showed a condensed version of what I understand was a good movie that I hope to view.

Moving forward, I think the criticism of Fraser's film if unwarranted for reasons that should be obvious in the abbreviated version, and certainly the feature. Without Bias (not the name of the film?) actually illustrated a taboo, of sorts, in that it told the truth about the event. Len Bias was a great human being, although not a virgin drug user. The masses were never told that, and I'm not sure that they should have been. What I do know is that, after death, Bias was treated, in my opinion, as a confusing character. He was "Exhibit A" of what can happen if you use drugs............as "Len Bias experimented with cocaine for the first time that evening" (how many times have I read or heard someone utter that phrase). What Fraser does is illustrates the everyman qualities in Bias via his family, the portrail of Brian Tribble as an honest and good friend to Len Bias with a heavy heart and shade of guilt........not for what he did, but for what happened to Len on his watch, but not as the enabler he was portrayed as in the past. I wish I could write more although I have gone on enough. I don't know Fraser, although I have followed the film from the first time I heard about it in 2006. I hope it gets more exposure in its full length version.

Anonymous said...

I just read Bearcat's comments about the mandatory minimum and can absolutely state, without question, that mandatory minimums were part of the 86 congressional campaign season, and speaker "Tip" Oneill, Congressman from Mass-- some say that the Boston connection fueled Tip's interest in using the issue for republican re-election. I don't know that, although I can affirmatively state that, as a 12 year old in 1986 this was a bigger story than the Challenger, Chernobyl, or Bill Buckner. Politics, the media, and Washington DC (College Park, Landover MD) allowed this to be the story it became. No more or no less tragic than others.... I can't decide what is more sad, or who is more worthy of such attention. I am just stating that perception is reality, and if you were around in 1986 this story affected you on a 9-11 level.