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Television review

Len Bias tragedy gets ESPN replay

Brian Tribble, friend of Len Bias, retells what happened that fateful night of June 19, 1986, on ESPN’S “Without Bias.’’ Brian Tribble, friend of Len Bias, retells what happened that fateful night of June 19, 1986, on ESPN’S “Without Bias.’’ (Espn
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By Doug Most
Globe Staff / November 3, 2009

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Sports fans live in a “what if’’ world. What if Bledsoe hadn’t gotten injured? What if Grady had pulled Pedro? But only one “what if’’ isn’t so much a barstool debate in Boston as a moment of reflection, and it’s a moment ESPN captures provocatively, if with a slightly preaching tone, in “Without Bias.’’

The moment comes toward the end of the documentary, which premieres tonight and will air six more times this week on various ESPN channels. Boston Celtics patriarch Arnold "Red" Auerbach, who drafted Len Bias to take the torch from Larry Bird, only to see him die two days later of a cocaine overdose, trudges over to Bias’s mother during a memorial service and hands her a No. 30 Celtics jersey with the name "Bias" on the back. Lonise Bias reacts the same way Boston sports fans will after watching this scene 23 years later. She holds up the jersey and shakes her head in disbelief.

One of 30 documentaries airing this fall as part of an ESPN series to mark its 30th anniversary, “Without Bias,’’ is an unvarnished look at the University of Maryland basketball star drafted second by the world champion Celtics in 1986. Director Kirk Fraser mingles highlights of Bias as a high school and college star with interviews of teammates, sportswriters who covered him, authorities who investigated his death, and his family.

Fraser does a compelling job convincing viewers that Bias’s death triggered a national debate on drug use. And he aggressively questions the long-held belief that the 22-year old Bias was not, as has long been held, a naive athlete succumbing for the first time to the temptations that came with his stardom. The cocaine Bias took was so pure that whoever obtained it was no amateur.

But the documentary relies too heavily on Brian Tribble, Bias’s friend and a Maryland dropout, who was with the player when he overdosed. Though Tribble was acquitted of being Bias’s drug source, he later was sentenced to 10 years for cocaine distribution. He was the one who, with slurred words, called 911 on June 19, 1986. “This is Len Bias,’’ Tribble told the 911 operator in describing his friend having seizures. “You have to get him back to life. There’s no way he can die.’’

Tribble used Bias’s name with the operator because he assumed everybody knew Bias. As his mother would learn in the coming days, Tribble was right. She received flowers from Michael Jordan, Bird, even President Reagan. “I did not know who this young man was in terms of how prominent he was,’’ Lonise Bias says of her son.

Boston sports fans know. Though the Celtics would reach the NBA championship the year after Bias died, they lost to the Lakers. That defeat marked the beginning of a descent they would not emerge from for another 21 years, when a new savior, albeit a taller and more mature one, arrived.

Doug Most can be reached at dmost@globe.com.

TELEVISION REVIEW
WITHOUT BIAS Director: Kirk Fraser

On: ESPN

Time: Tonight, 8-9 p.m.

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