Famed basketball player Chris Herren endured a great deal of controversy and criticism over the course of his career – infamous for his drug addiction and abuse, his surprising candor about these issues make him unique among professional sports players. Chris Herren’s heroin and painkiller addictions made his journey an incredibly tragic one; despite his successes, notoriety and incredible heights with the Boston Celtics, his American Dream turned into a tragedy. The tale of Chris Herren is one of a young, talented upstart who was unable to handle the amorality of the professional sports world – as his fame increased, the temptation to fulfill the rock-n-roll lifestyle of celebrities became greater and greater. The ESPN documentary Unguarded, which depicts the rise and fall of this young basketball phenom, is a surprisingly emotional tale that showcases Herren being chewed up and spit out by a combination of professional basketball largesse and the small-town, rough-and-tumble values of his home town of Fall River.
Chris Herren’s tremendous success came as a way to move on from small-town American basketball fame; growing up in Fall River, Massachusetts, a town with few prospects, it was difficult for Chris to make advances and get out of the town. (Hock, 2011). In the early parts of Unguarded, much time is spent illustrating the working class, machismo-driven world of Fall River, where the more stereotypical elements of the Bostonian’s love of aggression and macho pride are shown. Mike Herren, Chris’s brother, spends a great deal of time talking about the fights he and his brother would get into with their peers or anyone who would start a confrontation; this establishes his childhood as one already rooted in notions of hypermasculinity, feelings of immortality and invincibility, and more, which would serve him ill as his career would take off (Hock, 2011). This aggression played highly into his burgeoning drug addiction: “Fall River teaches you to ‘be a wolf,’ and his voracious appetite for drugs knew no bounds” (Barboza, 2011). The drug culture was high in Fall River, with many of the basketball players and Herren’s friends being able to score booze and marijuana to fuel their habits (Reynolds 60). This contributed to a rampant drug culture right from the start that Herren fell into almost as a matter of course.
In describing and showcasing the low prospects that most people from Fall River had, the story of Chris Herren starts out as a rags-to-riches tale of a local boy making good. Even his tremendous successes in his home town did not come without a price: “His 2,000point basketball career at Durfee High made him a supernova in a family of basketball stars a local legend. But the legend bore a curse” (Donaldson, 1998). During these years, there was a huge amount of pressure placed on him to fit the expectations of a budding basketball star, a representative of his destitute little town, which may have fed into his insecurity and turning to drugs: “Herren can relate to the pressures of being a nationally renowned prospect, the feeling of living life in a fishbowl as a teenager” (Barboza, 2011). This level of pressure clearly got to Herren, as his brother notes in the documentary that few people had ever gotten out of Fall River’s insular town culture; the entire community rallied around him possibly being the one to make it big (Hock, 2011).
It can be argued that Herren would not have become the drug addict that he became were it not for the fast-paced, high pressure lifestyle of collegiate and professional sports: “Fundamentally, college basketball is an entertainment extravaganza staged by institutions of higher learning for large profits” (Donaldson, 1998). Herren recalls a story of when he entered his freshman dorm room after a spread in Sports Illustrated to find girls and cocaine in his room, which he was essentially pressured into using (Hock, 2011). In this way, Herren’s story plays well into the idea of professional athletes being celebrities, as popular culture gives the impression of successful athletes and entertainers engaging in a rock-and-roll lifestyle that he needed to keep up with. By the time he realized the dangers of what he was doing, he was so entrenched in his close friend circle of drug addicts that he could not escape it. This adds to the tragic nature of Herren’s story, as he was sold an idea of fame without the sense of personal responsibility that was needed to cope with it.
Another part of the tragic nature of Herren’s story is the idea that Fresno State (the second college he went to, something that the documentary ignores) is considered to be one of the less reputable college sports cultures in the NCAA. Fresno State started to become Herren’s haven for his drug addictions, causing a distinct conflict between the professional expectations of sports and the small-town drug culture that he kept getting dragged into: “Fresno State is college basketball’s heart of darkness a volatile embodiment of both the best and the worst that highpowered sports programs have to offer” (Donaldson, 1998). Fresno State’s dedication to crafting players to sell to the NBA, and the prestige the sports department provided the university, cultivated a culture of short-term profits and gains that served the players poorly: “Herren and his teammates have, in many ways, flourished under the system at Fresno State, which allows their weaknesses to go unchallenged. But where else will they be given such leeway?” (Donaldson, 1998). Herren and his colleagues were allowed to get away with low grades, and were further sold on the idea of the lifestyle of professional sports players; when he was courted by coach Rick Pitino, he envisioned having the kind of lavish lifestyle he could never get at Fall River. “I felt awkwardintimidated by the lifestyle he had. The catered lunch. The fact that he had both a wine cellar and a movie theater in his house” (Herren and Reynolds 11). All of these things contributed to the building up and anticipation of the dazzling career Chris Herren would have had, and the high expectations that came with it. The tragedy of Herren’s American Dream is that he was expected to be able to juggle all of these responsibilities along with a drug addiction, leading him to his tragic downfall.
Herren’s reputation as a drug addict was very quickly established and made public; the documentary focuses on his cocaine busts in his early career, and how he would attempt to use that negativity as motivation for his own success (Hock, 2011). Spectators would often use Herren’s drug addiction as heckling calls during games, particularly during his January 1998 game against Southern Methodist University - "’Alcoholic! Druggy! Rehab!’ the frat yahoos screamed during pregame warmups. ‘White trash!’ they taunted” (Donaldson, 1998). However, he still managed to succeed in that game, winning for Fresno State and continuing his meteoric rise to fame. All the while, however, he maintained his drug habit, not able to really kick it (Hock, 2011). His time spent in a rehab clinic also did him no good, as he refused to take it seriously because of the good press people were giving him – he served his 28 days and came right back to playing (Hock, 2011).
Herren’s short but infamous tenure in the NBA started when he was drafted to the Celtics, which caused him to go clean for a year. At first, this seemed to work, but he soon got addicted to painkillers and pills once he returned to Fall River, with his college friends being a bad influence on him. The money and prestige he was getting from his NBA career gave him unlimited access to these drugs, thus making his addiction worse (Hock, 2011). There was seemingly no stopping him, and Herren’s ability to play despite being a complete junkie was one of the more fascinating aspects of his career. The documentary outlines many points at which Herren could not even function as a basketball player unless he had his fix; this is framed as some of the more especially tragic warning signs that he should have listened to (Hock, 2011).
Despite all of these red flags, and the previous reputation as a drug addict. Herren’s heroin addiction was his ultimate reputation-killer; after being caught with heroin in December of 2004, his career finally started to fall apart. When he was arrested for heroin possession, people finally started to pay attention – one interviewee in the documentary calls it the “magic words,” meaning that it was the ethical line that made his drug addiction serious and a real danger (Hock, 2011). To that end, he was released from the Celtics and started his long, international nomadic basketball bender – playing in various nations around Europe, always trying to get his next fix. This empty chasing of his personal American Dream (success and money through professional sports), along with his drug addiction, turned him into a shell of a man who was defined by his addiction, and his time in Europe seemed to exacerbate that (Hock, 2011). Herren’s post-basketball career was truly his rock-bottom moment of tragedy; selling and pawning everything he could to feed his drug habit, Herren apparently died for thirty seconds after a terrible, heroin-fuelled car accident (Hock, 2011). The fact that this happened in Fall River is very telling; many of Herren’s problems with drugs stem there, including his circle of friends and the ‘invincible’ macho mindset he learned there (Reynolds 270).
Herren’s slow but steady recovery has been an incredibly heartwarming story, though there is still a tremendous amount of work to do: “considering the long fight that a now-sober Chris Herren is winning over alcohol and drugs, his current issues are far from the end of the world” (Spears, 2009). After a long period of treatment and rehabilitation, Herren has been sober since 2008 (Barboza, 2011). He then started Hoop Dreams, a school for learning physical conditioning and basketball skills; teaching high school basketball is an incredibly centering experience for him, he says, and it certainly seems to show a tremendous amount of recovery. According to Herren, “I've made peace with my pastIt's hard for me to look back and reflect back and want to be there when I'm happy as I am right now” (in Barboza, 2011). To that end, it can be said that he has been allowed to come back from his tragic moment, though he will never again reach the career heights of the basketball world that he once enjoyed.
Chris Herren has had a tremendously arduous journey through the world of professional sports and beyond - “From his lost chance at Boston College to the resurrection of his basketball career at Fresno to the Denver Nuggets, the Boston Celtics, the European leagues and back to New England, drugs followed him each step of the way” (Barboza, 2011). The documentary Unguarded shows the values and history that led him to his ultimate downfall from the heights of professional sports fame: his early pressure to escape the drug-fuelled, adolescent and aggressive world of Fall River, the unscrupulous nature of collegiate football and its pressures, the rock and roll lifestyle he was expected to keep up as a professional basketball star, and more. Herren’s story shows a young boy reaching for and achieving the American Dream – reaching the top of his field, having a lucrative profession that pays him well, becoming famous – only to have it taken from him by his own lack of self-control, combined with the pressures and expectations of others.
Barboza, Scott. “The Rise, Fall and Recovery of a Phenom.” ESPN Boston. May 26, 2011.
In this ESPN Boston article, Scott Barboza reports on the current state of Chris Herren, new author and newly-sober coach. The author supports his argument with personal accounts of Herren at a book signing, as well as his own interviews with figures surrounding Herren. Barboza’s status as an ESPN sports editor lends him credibility in his reporting, and his position is roughly similar to mine – Herren being a tragic figure who is finding redemption after his downfall.
Donaldson, Greg. “Hoops and Misdemeanous.” Rolling Stone April 16, 1998.
In this Rolling Stone article, Greg Donaldson reports on Chris Herren and several other Fresno State players about their drug abuse and the insular drug culture of the university. The author reports on personal accounts and interviews with Herren and the other figures involved, as well as public knowledge of sports stats and the like. Donaldson’s status as a reporter for Rolling Stone provides him with credibility, and he also has a similar perspective to mine – the Fresno State drug culture provided Herren with the encouragement he needed to keep taking drugs.
Herren, Chris, and Bill Reynolds. Basketball Junkie: A Memoir. Macmillan, 2011.
This memoir by the man himself, Chris Herren, talks about his personal reactions to fame, glory and drugs. This comes from Herren’s personal accounts, which are backed up by writer Bill Reynolds; this lends the statements credibility as they come from the feelings and emotions of the man himself. I share and sympathize with Herren’s perspective that he was tempted by the fame of professional basketball and the drug culture of his hometown.
Hock, Jonathan (dir.). Unguarded. ESPN Films, 2011. Film.
This documentary by Jonathan Hock is the primary text of the paper, and shows Herren’s childhood, rise and fall from fame, and quiet redemption. The documentary uses footage of Herren, friends, family and coaches, as well as real contemporaneous footage, lending it real credibility as a source. I disagree with the documentary slightly in that I feel that his college career deserves more credit/blame for his drug culture, though the doc still supports that somewhat.
Reynolds, Bill. Fall River Dreams: A Team’s Quest for Glory, a Town’s Search for Its Soul.
This book by Bill Reynolds talks about Fall River and its high school basketball players, including Herren. Reynolds is a sports scholar who has researched this subject for years, lending him credibility, and he supports his work through rigorous use of sources and interviews with the real figures involved. I disagree with Reynolds’ assertions that it is only the Fall River drug culture that would contribute to Herren’s drug use.
Spears, Marc J. “Changing of a Guard.” Boston.com. May 31, 2009.
In this Boston Globe article, Marc Spears also talks about Herren’s post-sobriety life, and what the future holds for Herren. Spears uses interviews with Herren, friends family and colleagues in order to get an insight into his mental state, and his status as a staff member of the Boston Globe gives him credibility as a journalist. I largely agree with Spears’ assertions, as they are mostly reporting based on facts – Herren fell into a drug culture in his basketball career, it tore him apart, and now he is attempting to rebuild his life.