Len Bias' Legacy, Family's Struggles Captured in Documentary
Bias's mother, Lonise, attended the screening of Without Bias at a downtown theater, and afterward spoke to the roughly 75 attendees. "We are firm believers, my family firmly believes, that Len did more for this nation in death than he ever did in life,'' said Bias, who has been a public speaker and lecturer on drug use and other dangers to youth since her eldest son's death from a cocaine overdose in 1986, two days after the All-America forward and Maryland's then-all-time leading scorer was drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics.
Bias and her family gave their blessing for the hour-long film to Kirk Fraser, its director. She appears in it, along with former Maryland head coach Lefty Driesell, several former teammates and classmates, reporters who covered the story at the time (including FanHouse columnist Kevin Blackistone), and prosecutors who eventually brought charges in Bias's death -- as well as Brian Tribble, who was charged and later acquitted of providing the cocaine to Bias. Even former Washington mayor Marion Barry, whose own battles with drugs since Bias's death are well-chronicled, appeared and spoke of the positive image Bias had presented to the world, and how it was shattered by the circumstances of his death at 22.
The 33-year-old Fraser, who like Bias grew up in the D.C. area and whose production company is based there, had sought a distributor for Without Bias (the original working title was Len Bias: The Legend You Know, The Story You Didn't) for nearly two years, and had mounted a memorable marketing campaign at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2008, when he had yet to complete the movie. Now, it will air November 3 on ESPN, and Wednesday's screening was the first of two this week in Washington (the next is planned for Friday at the historic Lincoln Theater), in conjunction with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation convention.
Wednesday's invitation-only showing was hosted by the National African-American Drug Policy Coalition, an advocacy group for drug-sentencing reform; the latter portion of the film focuses on the stringent mandatory-minimum sentencing laws rushed into place in the aftermath of Bias's death, most of which are being challenged today as some of the lawmakers who once championed them have since admitted that they were harsh and disproportionate to the crimes.
The official world premiere is scheduled for late October on Maryland's campus, Fraser said. Having a chance to partner with the drug-policy group, he said, made sense, because originally he had not planned to devote much of the film to the so-called "Len Bias laws'' until he and Bias's mother talked extensively about it during production. "I was naive about the policies that were part of this,'' he said.
Still, much more of the extensively-researched film is devoted to Bias himself and those who knew him, particularly his family. Four years after Len's death, younger brother Jay was shot and killed at a shopping mall near campus.
The Biases have a daughter and son and five grandchildren. The eldest boys, Lonise Bias said, are basketball players. She said she stays on all of them to be sure that, at least, if the worst happens to them, it will not be because the family was unaware or that it neglected to make any of them aware of the pitfalls that caught her two other sons.
Claiming that she used to hate to hear people tell her that if life handed her lemons, make lemonade, she said, "I'm proud to say, 23 years later, that the Bias family has lemonade."