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(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.

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(Originally posted on http://www.iamagm.com on August 29, 2011)

The sleepy-eyed Kyrie Irving’s unflappability displayed moments after being selected number one overall by the

Kyrie Irving will have to battle some New Jersey demons to succeed.

Cleveland Cavaliers at this past June’s 2011 NBA Draft will be tested because the future may be full of false hopes and unfortunate fate.

The 6-3 point guard didn’t face any summer scrutiny on the court as the rookie leagues were a victim of the lockout.  But cloistered away on the Duke campus attending summer school he may have some time to reflect upon what’s in store for him.

Not only does his surname sound reminiscently familiar to Julius Erving and Earvin Johnson but he has to follow LeBron James only one year after his exodus.

And although, not even a toe injury that limited his freshman season to 11 games would prevent the former St. Patrick’s (Elizabeth, NJ) star from being the first New Jersey high school player to be drafted with the No. 1 pick, the NBA, mysteriously, has not been kind to high-drafted Garden State guards.

The state has a rich basketball tradition such as hosting the first professional game in Trenton, NJ.  One of the first high school players drafted directly to the NBA was Bill Willoughby from Englewood, NJ.  And while many  New Jerseyans have made it to the NBA, the last great NBA player in my opinion who played high school basketball in the state is Rick Barry (Roselle).

Despite that annually there are a couple of high schools from the state rated at or near the top of the national rankings, many of the players’ All-American status has meant little to predicting pro success. Good coaching could be the reason why team success may outdistance the individual success. But the high esteem may also be the result of these generally North Jersey area teams and players getting a biased view from the New York metropolitan media hype machine.

Irving was born in Australia but he’s Jersey-bred much like sweet Jersey corn.  Down-under just happened to be the place where his parents were living at the time of his birth as his dad pursued his professional basketball career.  The younger Irving was reared in West Orange, NJ and as mentioned played his school-boy ball in the state.

Conversely, Shaquille O’Neal who wears his Newark roots as a badge of honor was first recognized overseas stationed with his military step-father and then playing high school ball in San Antonio, Texas.  And recently Hall-of-Fame enshrined Dennis Rodman born in New Jersey (Trenton) does not claim the state as home as he quickly left and grew up in Dallas, Texas.

Busts and disappointing players may not be regionally discriminatory but the spate of bad luck that has befallen Jersey ballers like Irving is eerie. His predecessors have met some Sopranos-like shit sidetracking their NBA careers.

Bobby Hurley, a six-foot point guard also from Duke born in Jersey City, NJ who played high school ball at the city’s St. Anthony’s was drafted 7th overall in 1993 by the Sacramento Kings. In his first 19 games, he was playing well for the Kings producing 7.1 ppg and 6.7 apg.

But on the way home from that 19th game, he was driving down a dark road without a seat belt when he had an accident that threw him100 feet into a ditch. His lungs collapsed and he had broken ribs, a fractured shoulder blade, a compression fracture of his lower back, a torn tendon in his right knee and soft tissue injuries.

His rookie season was done and the next five years he was in the league but only played a total of 44 games.

Another New Jersey and Duke point guard faced a more definite ending to his career. Jason “Jay” Williams from Plainfield, NJ played scholastically at St. Joseph in Metuchen. He was drafted third overall at the 2002 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls and finished his first season on the All-Rookie Team.

However, that summer, Williams crashed his motorcycle into a streetlight. He was not wearing a helmet, nor was he licensed to drive a motorcycle and it was in violation of his contract. The accident severed a main nerve in his leg, fractured his pelvis and tore three ligaments in his left knee including the ACL.

He never played another minute in the NBA.

Finally, DaJuan Wagner, 6-2 guard from Camden, NJ who played one college season at Memphis and was selected sixth in the same draft as Williams.  Wagner, as Irving, was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers.  He missed the first few months of his rookie season with an injury but burst onto the scene scoring in droves.  He finished the year scoring 13.4 ppg.

After 11 games into his second season, he was hospitalized for ulcerative colitis and eventually had to have his colon removed.  His Cavalier career was over and a comeback with the Golden State Warriors was aborted when they brought out his two-year guaranteed contract due to his poor health after just one game.

But Irving has already been through what most can not imagine. At the age of four, his mother, Elizabeth, died from Sepsis Syndrome and a multisystem organ failure. And he almost lost his father, Drederick, ten years ago when his dad witnessed the mayhem while narrowly escaping death at the World Trade Center during the 9/11 tragedy.

So, maybe these macabre musings pale in comparison to his actual experiences and he will remain unflappable.

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(Originally posted on http://www.iamagm.com on July, 7, 2011)

Imagine it’s the early 1980s as hip hop, crack cocaine, the Big East and Reganomics have hit the hood, and you’re on a New York playground basketball court.   It’s your turn to ball and the guy who picked you up says, “I got him with the wave cap on.  You got The Truth.”

It might be time to tighten up the laces.

Last week at a ABS Sports & Entertainment Grouplaunch party for Better Baller Athletics at Riverbank State Park in Upper Manhattan, I ran into The Truth aka Walter Berry.

Before I get too deep into the truth let me sidetrack you all. Berry and I go a long way back.  When I was at NBA.com, one year our office fantasy basketball league decided that your team name had to incorporate a current or former NBA player’s name with a same or similarly named beautiful female celebrity.

Someone went esoteric; Suzette Charles Barkley (Suzette Charles was Miss New Jersey and runner-up to Vanessa Williams as Miss America until the photos).  Some went the combo route like Joakim Kardashian or Chris Paulina Porizkova.  Another went alliterative funky with Kerry Kittles Washington. Others went classic like Earl Marilyn Monroe.  I intertwined by acclamation a true beauty with the truth and came up with Walter Halle Berry.

Try this at home; you can come up with your own all day long.  But let’s get back to the truth.

Although philosophers ponder about what is truth, in the New York City basketball circles it was former St. John’s University star Walter Berry.

The 6-8, left-handed, power forward had a game that featured an array of almost unstoppable inside moves and shots from acute unique angles.  He finished fastbreaks with enormous efficiency or settled down on the block to splash the twine with short floating jumpers. All the time, he did it with a southpaw ease that seemed like he wasn’t trying.

Many also recognize Paul Pierce as The Truth after he dropped 42 points in a 2001 losing effort against the Los Angles Lakers. Shaq pulled a Boston reporter over and gestured toward the scribe’s notepad. “Take this down,” said O’Neal. “My name is Shaquille O’Neal and Paul Pierce is the motherfuckin’ truth. Quote me on that and don’t take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn’t know he could play like this. Paul Pierce is the truth.

A great story and even more special when you realize that Pierce was about a year removed from a knife stabbing attack that required lung surgery.  However, New York’s reverence for basketball is awash with colorful basketball aliases such as Lloyd “Sweet Pea” Daniels or Dwayne “Pearl” Washington. But the Mecca anointed Berry with the most supreme compliment in The Truth.  Not “Truth” as the basketball bible, basketball reference.com mistakenly lists.  Then again, even the bible has human editors.

It may be futile to find a particular person to give credit or a precise moment he became The Truth.  At some point in time a mass of people believed he was it. Alas, I wonder how it is to live with such mythological expectations.  As you may have surmised, New York playground phenoms being accorded such proverbial nicknames seem less a blessing and more of curse to a successful NBA career.

And three decades removed from being declared as The Truth, Walter Berry is considered by basketballdom as a bust.  But ironically, that conclusion fails to actually consider many truths that emerge upon a further evaluation.

On the eve of the 2011 NBA Draft, held a few miles away across the Hudson River in Newark, NJ, Berry was present at the event as a mentor to the CEO and founder of the ABS group, Alexis Stanley.

“He is right behind me in the background telling me this is what I should do, this is who you should talk too,” says Stanley, a former NBA and New Jersey Nets intern and current law school and MPA student. “He’s like a godfather to me.”

This godfather is now living in Georgia, but he took the time to come up to New York to see this fledgling venture get off the ground.  “I’m working with providing low and moderate income housing in Atlanta,” says Berry.  “But I’m here for support.”

Berry reveals that he’s back in New York so often though that he never misses it but that coming home is always good.  He played all over the city’s playgrounds and went to two high schools in the Bronx (DeWitt Clinton and Morris) before finishing his school-boy career at Ben Franklin High School in Brooklyn.

All the transfers cost him credits and ultimately his degree was not recognized by the NCAA denying him the chance to play Div. I basketball.  A federal court upheld the NCAA’s position and that led Berry to attend San Jacinto Junior College in Texas.  But after one year, he was eligible to play for the big schools and they came hard.

“There were a bunch of other schools recruiting me like Duke, North Carolina and Georgia,” says Berry.  “But there was no question, I was coming home.”

At St. John’s, along with teammates Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson, he led the Redmen (since changed to Red Storm) to the 1985 Final Four.  The logos and signs around Adolph Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky may as well have read Big East Tournament rather than NCAA Final Four as joining the crew from Queens was Villanova and Georgetown. The next year, he averaged 23 ppg and 11 rpg, and was the best college player in the land winning the John Wooden Award and voted the AP Player of the Year.

In the infamous 1986 NB Draft, he was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 14th overall selection.  However, he was shipped off to the San Antonio Spurs after just seven games. Yet, in his rookie campaign he averaged 17.6 points on a .531 shooting percentage (fifth in the league) while grabbing 5.4 rebounds per game.  He had just about the exact same production in his second season.

Almost mysteriously, his production declined in short stints with the Nets and Houston Rockets, and he was out of the league. What happened?

Rumors abounded that he couldn’t get along with this or that coach.  However, in his words, “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” says the chuckling Berry referring to his 1989 signing with Basket Napoli (Italy).  He would play international basketball until 2002. His travels also took him to Spain and Slovenia but mostly in Greece where he learned to speak the language fluently.

Berry was earning about $300,000 in the NBA while he likely received millions per annum in Europe with the teams’ also paying taxes and living expenses. But there may be more to the truth of the matter than just money.

“Walt needed to be the man. It’s not like he was selfish, but Walt is not a role player,” says former NBA player Jaren Jackson (Georgetown, 1985-89).  Jackson, who was at the launch party, played against Berry in college and the NBA before earning a ring with the1999 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs.

“The NBA was stifling to him.  They wanted him to be content with a limited role but that’s not Walt’s game.”

In other words, the truth doesn’t compromise.

Ron Naclerio, the legendary high school basketball coach at Queen’s Cardozo High, who was there supporting the Better Baller Athletics’ president, Melvin Robinson, a former player of his, more or less agreed with Jackson.

“Walt was a little stubborn and he didn’t want to change his game,” says Naclerio.  “But they didn’t seem to understand that the unorthodox way he played is what made him effective. And it’s hard to come back with all the success he had overseas.”

It may have been the good living in the Mediterranean as Berry looks happy and content.

He relishes in the recent success of former teammate Mark Jackson wishing him well in his new coaching endeavor with Golden State.  And he’s even contemplating being back in the game with Chris Mullin, his other college running mate, if Mullin lands another executive position with an NBA team.

Berry seems to have no regrets about how his playing career evolved and could care less about the bust label.  The Truth knows the truth.

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