Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On Leonard Bias

I've spent an unimaginable amount of time in the past two years studying the life and death of Len Bias, both for this story and this book, and so it's kind of hard for me to have an objective viewpoint on anything even remotely related to this story; I have so much information swimming through my head that I've essentially lost all perspective. I did know Kirk Fraser's documentary, which aired last night as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, was coming, and I did know he had gained extraordinary access to a number of people; most notably, Fraser interviewed Brian Tribble, the friend of Bias who was later accused (and acquitted) of providing him with the cocaine.

Anyway, I've just watched it, and I admire the work Fraser's done here, and I'm sure it wasn't easy to try to shoehorn every angle of the story into a 60-minute package. And of course, knowing as much as I know, having studied as much as I have, it was hard not to concentrate on the aspects of the story that I felt were overlooked--on the overwhelming complexities of this moment, on the decisions that may or may not have led to it, on the culture (both locally and nationally), on the death of Jay Bias, Len's brother (which seemed especially limited by time constraints), and on the societal changes (both good and bad) that it fostered. I hope I got at these elements in my own work, but I'm sure there are things I've missed, as well, so I'm not going to delve too deeply into criticism here, out of respect for Fraser and his medium and the considerable amount of work he did do (and I know first-hand how hard it is to delve into this story). But I will admit that there are some things that I hoped would be answered that instead raised more questions: For instance, I listened to Tribble conduct a radio interview with ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt today, and Tribble assured Van Pelt that he was, in fact, scared away from cocaine and never did it again upon Bias's death--and yet, a few years later, after Bias's death, Tribble was sent to prison for distributing cocaine*. That doesn't exactly compute with me. But then, I often think maybe that's just the nature of this story: None of it ever seems to piece together the way it should, which, given the nonsensical nature of the death itself, seems strangely fitting.

It's late, and I know I'm rambling, but all I'm trying to say is that this is a hell of a complicated story--it's never taken me longer to write a single piece than it did with this one, largely because I needed to somehow reconcile all these disparate pieces. Fraser did his best with the hour he had (I believe his original cut was somewhat longer), but there are so many layers here. And I hope my book--which focuses on several major characters and storylines in that time period, and not just Bias--can complement and expand upon the work that Fraser's done, not to mention the labor of reporters like C. Fraser Smith and Sally Jenkins and all the others who spent months (even years) chasing details and staking out courthouses and holding authority figures accountable and desperately searching for the truth. This is, after all, the kind of story that goes on and on, and builds upon itself, and I've always felt kind of humbled by the hugeness of it. That feeling was reinforced tonight.

*Tribble also declined to say whether he provided the cocaine to Bias that night, and seemed to imply that he never would say, out of respect for the fact that Bias could not speak for himself. And I have to say, I'm not sure what that means.

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