The story of Len Bias’ death produced subject matter so deep that Kirk Fraser admits he could have gone on “forever and ever and ever.”
But he kept his documentary on the subject to a taut hour, leaving the words of those most impacted to describe the loss of one of college basketball’s most revered stars. There are Bias’ parents. His brother. His Maryland teammates. And the man who gave him cocaine on the night in 1985 when he celebrated being selected in the first round by the NBA’s Boston Celtics.
“You could go into so many different directions,” said Fraser, a Landover native. “I didn’t want to really expand but just focus on the people who were directly affected by what took place.”
Fraser’s effort, dubbed “Without Bias,” is one of 30 documentary films that will make their television debuts over the next year on ESPN. Starting Tuesday, the cable sports network will air a film a week on a wide range of subjects, from the fight between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes to Michael Jordan’s dalliance into minor league baseball. There is even a film about what happened in the sports world the night O.J. Simpson fled across Los Angeles in a white Ford Bronco.
In the words of directors and producers, these are movies about neighborhoods and families, about race relations, the media, the justice system and what it means to be a fan.
“As sports has become more powerful and more integral to our social culture, the desire to know more about these figures is just kind of natural,” said Keith Clinkscales, an executive producer of the “30 for 30” project and senior vice president of ESPN’s content development and enterprises division. “To get to different layers of that is what documentary filmmaking does best. It provides a layer of intimacy that you just can’t get from the normal way sports are covered.”
The “30 for 30” project begins Tuesday with “King’s Ransom,” a film about Wayne Gretzky’s trade in 1988 from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. Director Peter Berg, who adapted the book “Friday Night Lights” into a successful film and television series, drew on interviews with Gretzky, some of which took place on a golf course. He also spoke to former executives to explore the business side of the groundbreaking trade while also delving into the pained reaction of Canadian hockey fans at losing the most decorated player in NHL history.
Later in October, ESPN will air “The Band That Wouldn’t Die,” a film by Barry Levinson about the stealthy exit of the NFL’s Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis. The film focuses heavily on the team’s marching band, which refused to break up and began playing again when the Ravens arrived in 1997.
“I thought it was interesting to show something from the point of view of the fans, not the sport, but the fans and the commitment of the team,” said Levinson, a Baltimore native and director of feature films including “Diner” and “Rain Man.”
The “30 for 30” project is a sharp departure from ESPN’s normal weeknight programming. But executives were looking for a special project to celebrate the network’s 30th anniversary and were pushed along by popular ESPN.com writer Bill Simmons, an admitted fan of the sports documentaries produced by HBO. The plan was simple: Find 30 accomplished directors and ask them to make a sports-themed documentary - financed by ESPN.
There were no restrictions except that the subject matter had to have come from the last 30 years. ESPN tested the waters over the past year with three well-received documentaries, including a Spike Lee-directed film about Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. The network encouraged directors to find subjects personal to them.
“The beauty of this whole series is they didn’t want a series that looked like it was made by the same person,” director Steve James said. “They wanted them to be individual documentaries with individual visions of their makers. That was really important to the whole concept, and they’ve stuck by that.”
James was just finishing his award-winning documentary “Hoop Dreams” in 1993 when he heard the news that a high school basketball star from his hometown near Newport News, Va., had been arrested in connection with a brawl at a bowling alley. More than a decade and a half later, James is wrapping up production of “The Trial of Allen Iverson,” a film that explores the early life of the future NBA star and the heightening of racial tensions and media coverage surrounding his arrest and conviction, which was later overturned.
“It’s not a biography of Allen Iverson,” said James, whose documentary will air sometime next year. “Although the film delves into his life and experience, it really is a film that tries to look at what happened 16 years ago in my hometown and try to understand what happened and why it happened.”
Other films are more lighthearted. Mike Tollin was a former video producer for the now-defunct U.S. Football League and sought to find out why the league failed. The result - “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” - casts considerable blame on former New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump for insisting games be played in the fall instead of the spring. (After viewing the film, Trump labeled it “third rate” and called Tollin a “sad guy living in the past.”)
In the case of Fraser, he found himself personally affected by the story of Bias as a young boy living just a few miles from the College Park campus where the basketball star died. Fraser filmed extensive interviews with Bias’ family, with teammates and even with Brian Tribble, the man who supplied the cocaine that led to Bias’ death. While the film focuses almost solely on the events of that night, Fraser does devote the final moments of the film to the push by lawmakers to install mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug-related convictions. Perhaps unintentionally, Fraser has since become an advocate for the reform of drug laws governing crack cocaine. He is currently working on a feature film about Bias, titled “Frosty.”
“The passion thing was the biggest thing,” Clinkscales said. “We wanted to make sure there was a genuine way to reach the fans. The beauty of the documentary form and the beauty of having filmmakers that are great storytellers is you get to slow down the sports world just a moment, add some granularity, add some texture, add some perspective and add some emotion.”