News & Politics

Death of a Legend

A DC filmmaker revisits the drug overdose of local star Len Bias and finds a story much more complicated than first believed.

Kirk Fraser has made films about two local icons: cocaine dealer Rayful Edmond and now Len Bias. Photograph courtesy of Kirk Fraser.

The 911 call came from a University of Maryland dorm room around 6:30 on the morning of June 19, 1986. Len Bias—born-again Christian, a top pick in the NBA draft, and an athlete whose charisma and talent rivaled Michael Jordan’s—had overdosed on cocaine.

His death triggered years of scandal at Maryland and raised questions nationwide about special treatment given to top college athletes. On Capitol Hill, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill seized the episode to win backing for the country’s first mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenders. The Boston Celtics, who had drafted Bias days after winning an NBA championship, went without another title for 21 years.

Bias’s death, one commentator said, was “the most socially influential moment in the history of modern sports.”

This month, DC filmmaker Kirk Fraser releases Len Bias: The Legend You Know, the Story You Didn’t, an independent documentary that returns the focus to Bias, a star at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville before enrolling at Maryland. At the time he died, Bias was portrayed as a martyr—Jesse Jackson suggested that the 22-year-old in death might have the power of Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., or Gandhi. The prevailing story line—promoted by the media and supported by authorities—was that Bias had done drugs only that one time and may have been duped with a cocaine-laced soft drink.

The documentary suggests a more complicated story. Fraser—who grew up in Prince George’s County and whose first film was a 2005 documentary about DC drug kingpin Rayful Edmond—interviewed 100-plus people over more than a year, including Lefty Driesell, the legendary Maryland coach forced to resign following accusations that he had obstructed the investigation into Bias’s death; Brian Tribble, who was charged with supplying Bias with the drugs that night (he was acquitted); and Bias’s parents, who now crusade to educate at-risk youth about drugs.

But it’s Bias’s voice that permeates the film, captured from interviews rarely if ever seen. The reminders of his easy charm, along with the highlight-reel flashbacks of his incredible feats, make Bias’s death seem almost inconceivable once again.

Dressed in baggy jeans and a gray Polo jacket, Fraser—an unassuming 33-year-old—sat down in a booth in the Washington Plaza Hotel, near his Thomas Circle home and where many of the interviews were filmed, to talk about what he learned while working on the documentary.

Where were you when Len Bias died?

I was ten, and I remember watching the news with my father, who was a basketball junkie. Len Bias was the LeBron James of that time, and that one mistake cost him everything. People are quick to judge and don’t realize that we all make mistakes in life. Sometimes a second chance is what you need, but he never got a second chance.

The story really impacted my childhood. I still remember the sorrow of the city.

Your first film, The Life of Rayful Edmond, was a documentary, and now you’ve returned to the form.

Documentaries are a great way to educate. For the Rayful Edmond film, I wanted to get behind the story of the biggest DC drug dealer ever, a guy who sold hundreds of millions in cocaine in the ’80s. I wanted to ask: “How could something like that happen?”

I went into Len Bias thinking it would be a motion picture. I sat down with people to learn who he was so that I could write the script. But after these interviews and learning so much about him, I realized it had to be done as a documentary. I wanted the voices of the people who knew him best to be heard.

Is there a connection between the Rayful Edmond story and the Len Bias film besides the drug culture in the background?

Besides the fact that both of those stories were important to me growing up, I would say that the thing that connects the movies is the choices both those individuals made. Both were icons. Edmond made the choice to supply the city with cocaine. Bias made the decision to do cocaine, and that one wrong decision cost him his life.

As a father, I want to educate my son to be careful about the choices he makes. Go back to when we were young: If there were films like this that showed us the outcome of our choices, it would have changed our perspective about a lot of things.

How did you choose the people to interview?

We interviewed hundreds. It’s like when you have sugar and you sift it to get the clumps out. I had to get to the core of the story. Everyone in the film had a relationship with Len. In the course of narrating the film, this became their way of saying goodbye. It was their chance to exhale. But the most interesting thing about the film is that I was able to find all kinds of archival footage of Len playing and talking that nobody has ever seen or heard, which lets him narrate his own story.

What was it like to interview Len’s parents?

Len’s death came to represent what was wrong with college basketball at the time, but to them it was the death of their son. They were great parents to Len and had tried to raise him right. The minute his death happened, every news-media outlet was at the door, and they weren’t given a chance to grieve.

Both have used the tragedy to educate others, but this was the first time they told their story on camera. Looking back, they had these thoughts about something going wrong. A year before Len’s death, his mother, Lonise, started having dreams about losing a family member. She would wake up in the middle of the night crying.

Right after the draft, Len’s father couldn’t shake the image of his son driving away in a limousine. He said later that it looked to him like a hearse.

How did you get in touch with Brian Tribble?

Right after my first film, in the summer of 2006, I was in Miami at the American Black Film Festival. We were promoting the Bias film, passing out flyers. I walked up to a guy and handed him a flyer. He looked at it and said, “Do you know who I am? I’m Brian Tribble.”

We sat down later that evening. He wanted to talk about everything. The media had jumped on Brian as the bad guy in Len’s death. The University of Maryland was a revolving door to Tribble. He had taken some classes there and was a well-known dealer. He was the most wanted man in College Park at the time, but he was cleared in Len’s case. Later he served time for dealing. He told me he had a friendship with Len, and I met lots of people who confirmed that. People called him a monster, but the film contradicts that.

How were Len’s teammates and the University of Maryland affected by his death?

Teammates were blacklisted. The pros overlooked the University of Maryland for years.

At Maryland, there’s still a sense that Len brought about what they call the “dark era.” Researching the film, I went to campus looking for books about Len, but there weren’t any. Most of the books I found on the Internet were out of print.

Who was a better athlete, Len Bias or Michael Jordan?

They were both at the top of their game in college. People are always going to side with one or the other, but the bottom line is that we’ll never know, so it will always be just speculation.

The people I interview in the film—the elite of the sports world—certainly think he was on par with Jordan. You hear it from Dean Smith, John Thompson, Michael Wilbon, Bob Ryan.

Even Michael Jordan will tell you that they went at it. They first met at a five-star basketball camp. They had a relationship through college, and their careers paralleled up to that point. Both were cut from their junior-high teams.

Was Len Bias a victim or someone who was living a double life and got what was coming to him?

You get both answers. The parents say that their child was a victim, that people took advantage of him and his position. The last thing his father said to Bias was not to accept anything from anybody.

The autopsy report, which the film looks into, showed that Len had a lot of cocaine in his system—in his bloodstream but also in his stomach. That raises questions about whether someone could have slipped cocaine into his drink before he got back to his dorm room that night. Why, of all the guys who did it with him, was Len the only one who died?

His best friend growing up says he never knew Len to do drugs. But then you have people who met him in college who say they did it together a couple of times. It’s going to make you ask if what the media told us was what really took place or if that was just a Band-Aid to ease everybody of their pain.

Talk about Washington’s film scene.

DC is a political city. New York, that’s the financial capital. In LA, it’s the film industry. But moving to LA to be a filmmaker never crossed my mind. When you think of New York, you think of Martin Scorsese. If you think about Scorsese’s movies, they are almost always based in New York—Goodfellas, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver.

I want to be the filmmaker of DC. But I want to show the city from a different angle, not just from a political perspective. A lot that goes on affects people’s lives but doesn’t have anything to do with politics. There’s a story for every person who lives here.

What’s next for you?

For the 25th anniversary of Len’s death, in 2011, we’re going to turn this documentary into a motion picture. I’m also interested in doing something on Marion Barry, and not just about his drug issues but also about the things he did for the city. A lot of people don’t even know that Marion Barry became a hero after he was held hostage and shot by terrorists in the District Building in the ’70s. He gave a lot of kids in this city opportunities when he created a job program. All those things were overshadowed by what he did with drugs.

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.