(Editor’s note: Thanks to a power outage that lasted a week, I didn’t see the ESPN documentary Unguarded until last night. What follows is a review of sorts but, mostly, just my rambling, semi-coherent thoughts.)
In the game of basketball, Chris Herren wasted talent. That’s indisputable fact. He was good enough to become an NBA starter while doubling as a painkiller and heroin junkie, leaving the amount he could have achieved without such destructive living habits nothing more than tantalizing what-if — top five point guard? Perennial All-Star? Solid starter? Who knows. Herren was talented enough, strong and skilled and confident and creative and fearless enough, that hefty goals could have been within reach. Yet now, years after pills, needles and an inability to say no effectively threw his natural ability into the garbage can, his wife Heather can’t stop smiling.
“He is who he’s supposed to be,” she says during Unguarded, a documentary on the former Celtics’ career, which was spent juggling basketball and addiction. What he is now, most importantly, is a sober father, husband and friend. Herren also runs a basketball academy, where he teaches young children how to play the game and guides them based on the experience of lessons he learned far too well. Those lessons, Herren’s story, are the message he delivers as a motivational speaker, in schools, prisons, rehab facilities and wherever else, hoping to get through to someone, because, as he puts it, he wishes he had listened to similar speakers during his youth.
After one of Herren’s speeches in the documentary, an older man looks at him and smiles. ”You make me feel like I’m going to recover,” he tells Herren. And maybe, just maybe, you think, watching the scene unfold, viewing the hope Herren provided for this man, Herren’s talent wasn’t entirely wasted. Sure, he never became an NBA All-Star. He squandered much of his vast basketball potential, spent most of his career earnings on drugs and used to bike twelve miles on the highway to his drug dealer once his wife left home, because his wife didn’t trust him with the car keys. But what he’s doing now, helping young kids hone their skills, trying to reach addicts and convince them to change their lifestyles, is more important than anything he could have accomplished in the NBA.
Kids may not listen to the recovered neighborhood drug addict working at the local factory, but the message is different when it comes from Chris Herren. Herren’s voice can shout louder, his story can reach farther, because of his NBA fame. People are more likely to relate with Herren’s struggles because of who he is.
Herren grew up dreaming the same dreams I did. Massachusetts boys from Herren’s era who love basketball shoot hoops in their driveways, count down the clock — five, four, three, two, one — and launch buzzer-beaters, pretending to be Larry Bird. Massachusetts kids grow up listening to Tommy Heinsohn’s heart-felt musings and Mike Gorman’s voice of reason. We want to become Larry Bird (or Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and/or Ray Allen now). We want our sneakers to touch the parquet floor, our chest to be adorned with Celtics green, and our names to be stitched on the back of a white home jersey, 20,000 fans chanting our name. Unlike me, Chris Herren had a winning lottery ticket that would have allowed him to live every Massachusetts boy’s dream. He was just too high to cash it in.
There are many factors that led to Herren’s drug addiction. He was a fragile youth who achieved basketball stardom at a young age in Durfee, Massachusetts, a run-down mill town whose worth is often tied to basketball success. His friends loved to have a good time, and considered having a good time drinking (a lot of) beers and doing drugs. He idolized his older brother Michael, and Michael and his friends were known to win a basketball game on Friday nights, then spend the rest of the night getting hammered. Basketball success, especially in Durfee, put Chris in the spotlight, and he wasn’t equipped to handle the pressures that came with success. He was fragile, easily hooked and found it nearly impossible to say no when dealing with peer pressure. There are so many factors that lead to substance reliance, so many reasons a person falls victim to a high. Yet during the worst of times, Herren couldn’t stand to look at himself in the mirror. Ultimately, despite all the factors leading to his addiction, he understood that his destructive habits were nobody’s fault but his own.
The Denver Nuggets did their best to protect Herren during his rookie NBA season. Nick Van Exel and Antonio McDyess took him under their wing and kept him sober. Instead of bars, they took him out to dinner. They gave him a set of rules and checked in on him periodically. He didn’t know where to score drugs in Denver, and he didn’t try. Instead, he used McDyess and Van Exel as a crutch. Then, he was traded to the Boston Celtics. Sent back home, where there were no teammates like McDyess. Sent back home, where the pressure of being the local star left him weak. Sent back home, where he knew drug dealers.
“Fuck the Celtics,” Herren’s brother said during the documentary. But it wasn’t the Celtics’ fault for acquiring Herren. Herren still had deep issues that hadn’t been resolved. Van Exel and McDyess did their best to hide those issues, but all they really did was put a band-aid on top of a broken bone. Herren’s issues couldn’t be resolved by a set of rules, or one year of going out to dinner instead of hitting the bars. He needed serious help. Instead, when he returned home from Denver for the summer, he picked up an OxyContin addiction. By the time he was traded to the Celtics, Herren already relied on the pills. Relocating to Boston just made them easier to find.
In the film, Herren admits multiple times the reality that his addiction will never end. Herren is sober, has been for three years now, but he lives every day fighting back demons — the demons that once left him high on crystal meth, drinking beers with homeless men in Modesto, California, when he was supposed to pick up his wife and children from the airport — that could return at any time. His brother Michael doesn’t necessarily expect Chris to fall back into drugs, but he worries. At one moment in the film, Michael talks about Chris’s sobriety and pauses just afterward to say, “Knock on wood.”
It’s that tenuous nature of sober living that makes living with a drug addiction so difficult. Herren needs strength to say no every day. He needs strength to keep himself away from situations that could challenge his decision making. He needs strength to look at his children, look at his wife, and remind himself why he became sober in the first place. Three years now, Herren hasn’t touched a drink, hasn’t done a drug. But he still won’t say he’s recovered. Fact is, drug addicts don’t recover. They learn how to cope with their debilitating disease and hopefully stop making the same mistakes.
At one point during the film, Herren discusses when he found himself. It was after at least two arrests on drug charges, after he’d blown through almost every penny he earned playing basketball, after he’d continuously let his wife and children down by turning to drugs. Herren checked out of his rehab facility for one day to see his son’s birth, left the hospital to smoke a cigarette, and kept walking straight to the liquor store. He returned to the hospital the next day still buzzing from the vodka and whatever drug he’d done that night. His wife just shook her head and told him, “You can’t be here.”
She gave him an ultimatum: return to rehab or leave the family. He chose rehab, but a punishment awaited him there. For anyone who has ever dreaded washing dishes after dinner, the scene sounds horrible: Herren was forced to wash dishes 20 straight days for 16 hours per day, stuck in a tiny washroom all by himself. That sounds like torture. Like hell. But Herren called it “the best punishment” ever. It was there, washing dishes, sober and alone with his thoughts, that Herren decided he wanted to become a good father and husband again.
The worst part about drugs is that they change you. Underneath Herren’s addiction was a man who loves children and wants to help people. He’s quick to smile and seems to make everyone feel important. He kisses his children, adores his wife and enjoys imparting advice on anyone who enters his basketball academy. That part of Herren always existed. It just remained hidden for 15 years, because he was too busy A) being high, or B) chasing his next high.
I have too much personal experience with addiction. Not first-hand experience, but I love a few people with addictions. Two years ago, one of my cousins would enter my living room for an Easter celebration, the happiest person there, sober and cracking jokes and telling stories and making my entire family laugh. His wife cherished him. Everyone loved to be around him. Less than two months ago, he stole his mother’s car, took it for a week, told nobody where he was and binged on who-knows-what drugs. His wife has left him. He lost his job. He entered rehab, stayed there for a month, and now, every day, I just hope he’s okay. Deep down, somewhere underneath his addiction, I know he’s still the happiest person at the party, reliable and sober and making everyone laugh. But drugs change people. Drugs hide the good and keep it suppressed, yet not everyone who falls victim to them is an awful person.
That’s what to take from Chris Herren’s story. You don’t need to be a fuckup to develop a drug addiction. Sometimes, you’re an NBA player. Other times, you’re the happiest man in the room, with a loving wife and dozens of cousins who look forward to holidays just to hear you crack jokes.
At one point in his life, Herren said he seriously contemplated suicide. He felt his family would be better off if he died. Instead, he turned to sobriety. It’s a battle against demons every day. But imagine everything he would have missed, everything his family would have missed, everything his friends would have missed, everything that old man who received the gift of hope from Herren would have missed, if he made the wrong choice.