The Len Bias documentary, which has been shelved for a couple of years, trapped in distribution hell, will be released June 19. If anybody sees it, will his legacy be ruined?
Every year around NBA draft time, the overwrought stories about Bias' legend and place in basketball history come trickling out — most of them positive — treating the Maryland star's death like a life-altering event for the sports world. For many people alive during that time period, it was. For Celtics fans and Terps fans, it's always been a particularly uncomfortable subject, and even though there's plenty of evidence that suggests that, no, Len Bias wasn't a naive, overexcited kid who was peer-pressured into snorting a lethal amount of coke that fateful night, it still feels that way. Many people like to hang onto the idea that one poor decision by Bias is what denied basketball fans of his presupposed greatness; it wasn't snorting five grams of blow in one evening that killed him. I think anyone with little knowledge of drug culture knows that five grams isn't something a first-time user (or even a casual one) takes. So,I'm pretty sure — I could be wrong — that Bias had seen a straw, a plate, and massive amounts of blow before.
Last year, on the anniversary of his death, ESPN's Michael Weinreb, wrote one of the most truthful (and excellent) essays titled "The Day Innocence Died" about the Bias Myth. If any modern day athlete suffered the same fate as Bias, I doubt Maryland and Boston would hold those thoughtful jersey retirement/presentation ceremonies like they did back then. But back then America was more willing to accept Bias' death as a fluke accident, as if he'd been struck by lightning while asleep in his bed:
Over the years, we have come to expect the worst from our public figures, and there is little question, if Len Bias died today, the immediate speculation would have been unfettered. But the television news was different back then, still in the middle stages of its transition from sobriety to sensationalism. This was eight years B.O.J. (Before O.J.), and the market was not yet saturated, the cable news channels were in their infancy, and the broadcasts themselves had not been subsumed by the modern troika of scandal, cynicism and splashy graphics. An athlete's personal life was still sketchy territory.
"I think today, it would be different," Statter says. "We've seen so many of these things happen to athletes, people expect it more now. We're so jaded now that if it's a real medical condition, we're almost surprised."
Also, it should be noted that we were in the heart of the Reagan era, at the midpoint of the second term of a president Time magazine put on its July 7 cover. Headline: "Why Is This Man So Popular?" As a nation — even in the wake of the January space shuttle explosion that the president blamed on "a carelessness that grew out of success" — we were generally optimistic. Iran-Contra had yet to break; a month earlier, Ivan Boesky had delivered a commencement speech during which he declared, "Greed is all right, by the way. ... I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself." We maintained a certain amount of faith in public institutions, and in the notion of laissez-faire democracy that dictated the Reagan philosophy. We were in the mood to believe in dreams.
Based on some of the people who were interviewed for the movie, including Brian Tribble, the convicted coke dealer who was childhood friends with Bias and who made the 911 call to cops that night, the truth might finally come out. (Or, at least, 20 different versions of the truth.) The director of the movie, Kirk Fraser, has been putting this together for a few years with the blessing of Bias' mother, who is a motivational speaker and still, to this day, refuses to believe her son tried cocaine more than once. Fraser was promoting the movie at Sundance in 2008, even though it wasn't finished and had yet to have a distributor. To my knowledge, the website hasn't had a release date on it until recently.
But is this even a movie sports fans would want to see? It's doubtful. 23 years later, shattering the image of Len Bias, who probably kept thousands of people from ever touching cocaine in their lives, feels like a risk. And Fraser's claims that the need for this movie now are to "prevent another Len Bias" from happening seems a little suspicious. Especially since it'll be released (most likely in Boston and D.C.) on the anniversary of his death. Hey, it could be good, and sports fans still haunted by that day may need to be smacked in the face and told the awful truth about their fallen hero, but I get the sense that what was initially supposed to be a tribute film may have turned into something a lot more sinister than that. Unless the tagline "The Legend you know, the Story you didn't" refers to something else altogether.