“From my perspective, he saved a lot of our lives. Plain and simple.”
These were the final words of Without Bias, ESPN’s latest documentary in its superb 30 for 30 series. It is impossible to know for how many people specifically that lines applies, but to put it in the hundreds of thousands probably would not be an overstatement.
The hour long film, which premiered tonight and was directed by Kirk Fraser, chronicles the life and death of Len Bias, who passed away 23 years ago when I was only four years old, but whose legacy lives on in perpetuity…today and beyond.
There were some aspects of the story that I did not know before watching it tonight, most notably that Bias had done cocaine before the night he died and that his brother Jay died four years later. Despite these surprises, the familiar feeling and lessons of the Bias story remained true and as strong as ever:
- You never know which seconds will be your last.
- Never underestimate the cruel power of drugs.
Obviously I was too young to have any personal memories of Bias’ death. But as a die-hard college basketball fan growing up, even from the time I was 7 or 8, it wasn’t long before I became indoctrinated to the sad legend of Len Bias.
I heard about his freakish athleticism, how he was as good — if not better — than Michael Jordan in college, and how sure of a thing he had been to become a superstar and carry the torch of Celtics greatness.
And I also heard, repeatedly and more often as I got older, how Bias had been foolish enough to do cocaine time — ONE TIME! — and had paid the ultimate price for it.
First hand accounts of Bias’ social habits presented in the documentary, especially those from Brian Tribble, with whom Bias was indulging in cocaine on the night of his death, seem to dispel the notion that Bias’ June 19th, 1986 dalliance with cocaine was his first.
Here is a clip from the film itself, which details the final hours of Bias’ life.
While Bias did not seem to have any sort of addiction or problem that negatively impeded other aspects of his life, Tribble makes it clear that he and Bias had used cocaine clandestinely on multiple occasions before that night.
I had heard and read that this might be the case before seeing Without Bias, but I guess I never believed it. Part of the reason for my reluctance to accept this notion, I presume, is that every time I’ve ever been presented with the opportunity to use cocaine in my life — opportunities which have luckily been few and far between — I’ve always thought about Len Bias.
If he could use it one time and die, what makes me think that I’d be any different?
There are multitudes of reasons why I’ve never indulged personally, but that is no doubt one of the main ones.
I have no way of knowing if that line of thinking ever specifically saved my life, but it certainly allows me to understand, if not relate, to the final words of the documentary, as presented in the first line of this post.
Michael Wilbon is featured in the documentary and he recants what ESPN college basketball analyst, and Bias’ former ACC rival, Jay Bilas said about the death of the Len Bias: for an entire generation of people, they mark time in relation to where they were and what they were doing when Len Bias died.
I don’t fall into that category, and there is a generation older than me that undoubtedly feels a much stronger connection to the life and death of Len Bias than I ever will. And if Without Bias does anything exceptionally well — and in all honesty, it does a lot exceptionally well from a storytelling standpoint — it expresses the multiple layers of significance that Len Bias’ death had immediately, and that it still has today.
- The Maryland basketball program, most notably its legendary coach Lefty Driesell, unraveled in the aftermath of Bias’ death.
- There was a drawn out investigation and trial, with Brian Tribble ultimately being acquitted on drug charges.
- The Boston Celtics won an NBA championship that year, and then fell into a 21-year abyss without another one.
- Congress seemed to treat Bias’ death as a tipping point and instituted mandatory minimum sentencing laws (i.e. five years for five grams) that many saw as targeting inner city black men specifically, and that helped contribute to the overcrowding of prisons that is still felt today.
- Thousands upon thousands, if not millions upon millions, of people — and not just sports fans or residents of Maryland — were profoundly affected by the death of a seemingly invincible 22-year old.
Whether Bias had done coke 100 times or never before the night he died, his death would still have been one of the seminal moments of the 1980s, and one of the most significantly tragic events in the history of sports.
Would it have kept so many young people, including me, away from using cocaine? Who knows. Probably, though perhaps not quite as much.
But does that matter? Not really.
Sadly, the tragedy for the Bias family did not stop with Len. His brother Jay, also an accomplished basketball player, died four years later in a senseless shooting outside of a mall.
And this brings me to the heart and soul of Without Bias: Len’s mom and dad.
His mother has a God-fearing strength and iron will that is manifested by her incredible courage, grace, and resolve to turn her sons’ deaths into something positive. I am paraphrasing, but towards the end of the movie she claims that each of her sons’ deaths are “a seed out of which life can grow” and she has since crusaded to teach kids the lessons that can be learned from Len and Jay.
Their father’s unconditional love and support, and his heartbreak, are palpable. Each word that he speaks about both Len and Jay drips with pride and affection, and it is hard not get choked up towards the end of the film when he mistakenly invokes Len’s name while discussing Jay’s death.
Without Bias begins with a terrific celebration of Len Bias the basketball player, an excellent retrospective for those of us who were too young to appreciate his on-court greatness. It ends with a feeling of despair and depression as it becomes obvious that no level of detail nor context can help make Bias’ unnecessary death any more understandable.
The film also implies certain questions, at least it did for me. Would Len Bias have lived up to his promise in the NBA? Would he have fizzled and disappointed like so many his wayward classmates in the star-crossed NBA draft of 1986 (Roy Tarpley, Chris Washburn, William Bedford)?
What we do know is that Len Bias’ playing career certainly would have been over by 2009, but yet he is still relevant today. His relevance unfortunately is a function of tragic circumstances that never should have befallen such a seemingly well-meaning and hard-working kid in his early 20s, but he remains important just the same.
Many basketball players have been high draft picks and won titles or made it to the Hall of Fame. Very few, if any, have inspired their contemporaries to say “he saved a lot of our lives.”
Len Bias’ short but stellar basketball career was filled with superlatives. Sadly, tragically, the most significant superlative that endures about Bias has nothing to do with his talent and ability on the court. It has to do with the long-lasting effect of one fateful decision that he made off it.
Finding meaning in death, perhaps even stretching to do so, is as human as breathing. As Without Bias makes perfectly clear, people are still trying to find meaning in Len Bias’ death some 23 years later.
That he most likely saved lives, and many of them, is perhaps the most positive of the meanings that have been posthumously attached to life of Len Bias.
Unfortunately for Bias, and for his family, his friends, his fans, his contemporaries, and for those of us who never got to see him play, he wasn’t able to save his own.
A quick side note about ESPN’s 30 for 30 series: it is excellent. I have now seen Without Bias, the Muhammad Ali movie, and parts of the one about the Baltimore Colts’ band, and every second has been both compelling and educational. I am going to have to go back and watch what I’ve missed and be sure not to miss any more.
I’ve given ESPN lots of crap — it’s what we do as bloggers — but so far they have been absolutely pitch perfect with this project. Kudos WWL. My praise could not be more effusive.
* – Len Bias SI cover credit: The Halo Bender