(Originally posted on http://www.iamagm.com on November 1, 2011)
“I was sick.”
The haunting words of Chris Herren haltingly come out as he reflects on photos from 2000 during his drug-filled days and nights with the Boston Celtics. The sentiments still sound harrowing even as we speak over the phone. They echo the desperation of a hometown hero from nearby Fall River, Massachusetts wearing his Celtics warm-ups minutes before tipoff feinding for a fix in the rain outside the Fleet Center waiting for his pusher man.
It would get worse.
Several years later after playing and getting high all across the globe in Europe, China and Tehran, Iran his career ended. He came back to Fall River and was still heavily using.
Then, in 2007, he died.
He was dead like Freddy for thirty seconds according to the police who found him slumped over the driving wheel of his car at a the gates of a cemetery overdosed on heroin with the needle still sticking in his arm.
The irony does not end with the location of his short-lived death. Herren recalls that as the best day of his life as it started the turnaround from living a lie that began with swigging vodka as a 6-2 McDonald’s High School All-American at Durfee High in Fall River.
The long road to recovery is often lonely and never ends. But the 36 year-old whom former college coach Jerry Tarkanian labeled as the next Jerry West finally feels free after just completing his third year of sobriety.
“I am amazingly blessed,” said Herren.
This past May, his story with the help of co-author Providence Journal-Bulletin sports columnist Bill Reynolds was shared in the publication of his memoir Basketball Junkie. Now, on November 1, ESPN will broadcast Unguarded, a documentary film that will let us peer into his rise, fall and recovery.
The film was directed by Jonathan Hock who also directed Through the Fire that followed Sebastian Telfair through his senior year at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, New York. Last year, Hock also delivered for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, The Best That Never Was, a film on former University of Oklahoma and NFL running back Marcus Dupree.
“I see a lot of similarities between Marcus and Chris in that both have no regrets about what happened in their lives,” said Hock. “But they have accepted it with grace and embraced their destiny. Most people tend to portray sports films with the game itself as the source of the redemption. But with Chris it was the opposite. It wasn’t until he was able to give up the game that redemption came.”
Just as there are similarities between the subjects Dupree and Herren, the two documentaries share a similar aesthetic. Although Herren’s book gives up more grimy and gritty details of his dope sickness, Hock’s camera with the help of another documentarian group’s footage from the late 90s that was never released reveals the beautiful story of loyalty, love and hope.
Many basketball fans may not remember Herren who was drafted with the 33rd pick by the Denver Nuggets in the 1999 NBA Draft and only played two seasons in the NBA. However, before he hit high school he was in the media spotlight. And Hock appreciates how the heat of the spotlight has not scorched Herren.
“Chris was born into a basketball cauldron where his destiny was assumed to be a basketball star,” says Hock. “But the truth, that wasn’t his destiny.”
His grandfather, father and older brother Michael all starred at Durfee High in Fall River. Michael was always bigger and stronger who never lost a fight or a game in the town’s Milliken league for youth basketball and captured two state championships. Although the film allows Michael’s devotion for his brother to shine through as it does his tough-guy humor, the Herren household led by their father was a pressure cooker where winning was demanded.
There was also the burden placed upon his shoulders by the entire town to be a legend. During Herren’s junior year at Durfee he was the focus of the book Fall River Dreams by the same Bill Reynolds who two decades later would co-author Herren’s memoir. The earlier book examined an old mill town with deep high school hoops roots during its economic demise that procured hope by obsessively following a few teenage boys bounce a basketball.
And on the other side was the caustic barrage of opposing fans spewing hate toward the so called superstar. This was from kids and adults alike.
It was all so confusing and overwhelming that he numbed the chaos with drinking.
In Unguarded, Herren is seen as loyal to his town and its people. The loyalty that supersedes the pressure heaped on him to perform and bring multiple championships to Durfee. The loyalty that trumps the town’s expectation that no more was projected of him beyond his talented schoolboy exploits. The loyalty that speaks to the fatalism of the town’s unofficial motto, “Born in Fall River, Die in Fall River.”
This same sense of loyalty sent him to the local Big East school Boston College. He had turned down Rick Pitino and Kentucky along with Syracuse and Jim Boeheim, two schools that fit his open court playing style. But he chose BC because it was close by and then head coach Jim O’Brien had recruited his older brother Michael to the Chestnut Hill campus until an injury ended his career.
However, at BC, he found cocaine or cocaine found him and he was dismissed from the team for failing several drug tests and left school. Herren landed on his feet like a cat on his third life at Fresno State under Jerry Tarkanian. He was among a cast of many receiving last chances such as future NBA players Rafer Alston and Courtney Alexander.
The team was also full of Bloods and Crips from Southern California who Herren had no problems meshing with due in part likely to his on court swagger usually associated with inner-city black players. But soon enough, he began using a new drug in ecstasy and arriving at games high on coke without sleeping for days.
However, he somehow was able to still excel and was eventually drafted into the NBA. But the summer after his rookie season where he was relatively clean under the guidance of some caring veterans, he was traded to Boston.
The return trip home was Wolfeian and the worst thing that could have happened to him. His downward spiral accelerated on Oxycotin that he was introduced to as part of his recovery from an injury. Also, back in familiar territory he knew where all the drug dealers were like they were Dunkin’ Donuts.
This is where love kicks in.
Through it all, Herren’s wife Heather was his anchor. The two have been together since they met the summer before they both entered the 7th grade. In the film, she admits to enabling the situation where Herren could only function when he was high but she never gave up on her husband and father of their children and finally demanded he kick the habit or get out of their lives.
Herren got sober at Daytop Village in upstate New York where he completed a successful rehab stint. Since then, he has resettled in Portsmouth, Rhode Island near Fall River and started Hoop Dreams with Chris Herren providing basketball training as well as educational talks.
His case manager at Daytop Village, William Spooner, a recovering alcoholic who began his counseling career after treatment at the facility is mindful that recovery is a vigilant process.
“The work doesn’t stop once you leave here,” says Spooner. “I always think positive about a person when they leave but you have to be able to live life on life’s terms. Chris got through it because of the love for his wife and children.”
Then there’s hope.
The cameras in the film capture Herren’s talks with students, military personnel and prison inmates that provide the film’s narration for his nightmarish journey. Hock reveals that Herren is so emotionally present and unguarded about his life (hence the title of the film that doubles as an unintended basketball pun).
“He doesn’t walk in there and speak about achieving your goals,” says Hock. “Chris tells them about his past but there is a message of hope. It’s a dark and difficult place to go but he does it.”
The paradox is inescapable that telling his story only brings notoriety and the notion that such attention could be a trigger like with his prior drug use. And he realizes that to be there for his family he must – as selfish as this sounds – take care of himself first.
“I can’t lie about the attention, it does add pressure but it’s more important that I get out and tell my story,” said Herren. “I believe in it and there are millions of people out there struggling who could use this. I just got an email from an overweight teenage girl who was bullied and teased in school and so she would cut herself to relieve the pain. But after hearing me talk about my life, she got the courage to confront them and begin healing.”
The film itself has been a gift to the Herren family allowing them to reconcile the pain of the past and poignantly reveals how Herren can now literally look into the mirror.
Herren never bought into Tarks’ comparison to Jerry West but he had the opportunity to meet and talk to him while he was at Fresno State. He recollects that he would be giddy with joy whenever West would say a few words to him. Pausing now to reflect on West’s revelations about depression through interviews concerning his impending book release, Herren is still in awe.
He’s a legend-the NBA symbol,” said Herren. “But he will be better remembered for his courage educating people about his illness.”
It seems that Herren is the next Jerry West.