“Without Bias” remembers a basketball star that could have been

By Ellie Rulon-Miller

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Flickr: Antinee

While the number of sports-related documentaries being produced is constantly growing, ESPN has a growing knack for delivering the most interesting and compelling stories in this cinematic format.

The network’s documentary series “30 for 30” contains 30 films by different filmmakers, each of whom “[brings] their passion and personal point of view to their film detailing the issues, trends, athletes, teams, rivalries, games and events that transformed the sports landscape from 1979 to 2009,” according to the “30 for 30” official website.

Among these stories is the tragic story of the death of Len Bias, a University of Maryland basketball player who died of cardiac arrest after an accidental cocaine overdose while celebrating his first-round selection to the Boston Celtics with some friends in June of 1986. He was 22 years old.

The film, titled “Without Bias,” was directed by Kirk Fraser and released in 2009. Fraser took on a significant challenge in creating this film; because Bias died so long ago that he had to rely almost entirely on footage of the basketball player in games. Most of the non-interview footage included before the story reaches the point of its subject’s death is of Bias effortlessly sinking shot after shot.

The interviews conducted in “Without Bias” are what make the story so gripping. It is made abundantly clear that Bias’ death was a tragedy in the truest sense, striking people from across the country and creating a huge commotion. Each statement made by  every contributor on the player and his end was completely relevant and extremely compelling.

What makes the interviews even more interesting and important is the fact that the film uses such a large number of them. Fraser’s documentary shows people from every aspect of Bias’ life: his family, friends, teammates, coaches, sports broadcasters and news anchors. There is even stock footage of people with unknown relationships to Bias mourning his loss.

The timing in the film is impeccable as well. No piece of Bias’ story is dwelled upon for too short or too long a time. “Without Bias” does not drag at any point, a quality that a lot of documentaries unfortunately possess.  Even in discussing the most personal emotions about Bias’ death, there are uncomfortable moments.

The display of raw emotion in the documentary adds even more to its power. Statements from his mother and a clip of the 911 call made by his friend Brian Tribble, who was present for the tragedy and was brought to trial as being responsible for Bias’ death (he was later found not guilty), make it impossible not to hold viewers’ attention. Bias’ mother, Dr. Lonise Bias, stated that after a tragedy as great as this one, you become more sensitive to the world around you.

“You can’t even imagine why the sun is coming out,” she says in the film.

This pure honesty is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the documentary. Even though over 20 years have passed since the tragedy, people with varying degrees of closeness to the late athlete still become just as emotional as they did on the day they learned of Bias’ passing. Bias, known as “Frosty” to friends and family, had a greater impact on the country than the people around him had known. His mother said the first flowers the family received were from Michael Jordan, a competitor of Bias at the time, and that she “[remembers] receiving cards from the President and Mrs. Reagan,” she said in the film. The Bias family suffered another tragedy a few years later when Len’s brother Jay was shot to death outside of a mall. According to the film, Dr. Bias has been working with young people and talking about drugs and violence ever since the death of two of her sons.

The film is not overwhelmed by talking-head interviews as it utilizes archived news footage from Bias’ college basketball days to his funeral to news footage of the passing of his brother. Each well-chosen clip shows the impact Bias had on the basketball world and the country as a whole.

Despite the fact that the documentary lacked a significant amount of original footage other than interviews, it is extremely powerful and is still 100 percent successful in telling the story of Len Bias.

Ellie Rulon-Miller can be reached at [email protected]