Many people have seen the ESPN 30 for 30 Unguarded show about Chris Herren, the basketball player from Fresno State who fell deeply into the drug world, only to escape with a second chance, one he worked hard for and nearly didn’t get.
Yesterday Chris spoke to my last place of employment, Buchanan High School. He spoke in the afternoon to the BHS students and again last night to another packed house of 2600 in the Bears’ gymnasium. I witnessed both. Earlier in the day, I had lunch with Chris who got to Fresno State a couple months after I was hired as director of basketball operations by its new head coach, Jerry Tarkanian. Truth be told, Chris came to us after having to leave Boston College for failing drug tests.
When Chris came to Fresno, I hadn’t seen anyone with that kind of charisma since I was 12 years old and John F. Kennedy came through my little hometown (seriously). It wasn’t just the players and coaches who loved him but the other college students, little kids who attended games, adults around town and even the boosters (who bought tickets on the plane, enabling us to charter to away games). Some of them were in their 70s and 80s. As the old saying goes, “women wanted to be with him, men wanted to be him.” He was Fresno’s version of James Bond.
On the court, no one could guard Chris, whether conference foes or players on some of the best teams in the nation (and we played some of the best – I know because I was in charge of scheduling). Although we played teams from the ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac-10 (before the Pac-12 and Big East), we had a home-and-home series with UMass which meant so much to Chris because that was the state university of his state. In Amherst he scored a (then) career-high 25 points to lead the Bulldogs to a 102-81 win. It was the most points put up by an opponent in the Mullins Center and we became the first non-conference opponent to win in the building since it opened during the 1992-93 season.
The revenge game was the following year in Fresno and Chris was stoked. His mother and grandfather had flown cross country to see him play. Although he scored only 19 points, he controlled the game and Fresno State won, 82-64. Life was great – until our trainer came in the next day and told Jerry that Chris had tested positive. We were stunned. Deep down, Chris wasn’t.
While Chris could hold his own with anybody on the court, there was another battle he was losing. It was against his demons – and he had no idea how badly he was being beaten. Drugs will do that to a person.
A family friend of his came to me and said Chris and his mom respected me because I was honest and level-headed. He was getting getting bad advice regarding how to deal with his current problem. One idea was to claim he was being suspended for academics and that was why he would no longer be with the team. I told them I had an idea, stating it was only advice and if they didn’t take it, I’d have no problem with their decision. They wanted to hear it.
“Chris,” I said, “if it was any other player, we’d just send out a press release but, because you’re so good with the media, I think we should hold a press conference. But . . . here are the ground rules. Number one, you have to write it. You like to “wing it” when you’re with the media. There will be no winging it. Number two, you have to practice it. You don’t have to memorize it but it’s going to be hard so you need to understand what you’re saying to get through it as smoothly as possible. Number three, you have to read it. You know you’re going to become emotional. Keep your head down until you get to the end. Number four, when you’re done, get up and get out. Let Coach Tark handle the questions.” They were in agreement.
The evening of the press conference, as expected, the room was packed. Everything went off as planned and, when Chris completed his “speech,” there were few, if any, dry eyes in the room. Only the most reproachful and heartless person couldn’t be affected by a 21 year old kid, telling a national television audience, he was a junkie and needed to go away to “dry out.” Jerry was also emotional answering the media’s questions, stopping several times for water, his way of controlling himself.
At the end of the presser, my cell phone vibrated. I looked down and saw a 203 area code. Since I’d recruited for so many years (and was a “numbers guy,” having majored in math), I knew most of the country’s area codes. “203,” I thought, “that’s Connecticut. Who can be calling me from there?” I answered, only to hear a concerned voice on the other end.
“Jack, it’s Digger.” Earlier in the season, Digger Phelps had done the color commentary for one of our games and he and Chris really hit it off. “What happened?” he asked. I explained the situation and could tell he truly sorry he felt – for a kid he’d met once. Like I said, Chris had charisma.
The next day, our office as flooded with faxes and emails. All our phones had texts and we were receiving calls from all over the country. As days went by, we began getting a torrent of mail, all addressed to Chris Herren. Most carried the same message. “You are so brave. My father/mother/brother/sister/friend has addiction problems and . . .”
After Chris got back from the 30-day stay in the Utah facility, he received a call from Chris Mullin who had battled alcohol dependency. “I’d like for you to come and live in my house as you prepare for the upcoming draft.” It was the greatest example of turning a negative into a positive I had ever seen.
Until I witnessed Chris Herren speak. For the afternoon session, the high school kids were shown the 30 for 30 in its entirety, since none of them were born when he played at Fresno State. I wondered how Chris could hold their attention after so long a video. Was I ever wrong! The 2600 students were mesmerized and he held their attention for over an hour. Then, held a Q&A. During the evening session, the video was condensed but the audience’s reaction was identical.
Chris says he speaks 250 times a year and enjoys the high school groups best because he feels he has the greatest impact on them. However, he has spoken before both of the Super Bowl teams, each of the “final four” teams from this year’s College Football Playoff and, yearly, speaks to the NFL and NBA rookies. He has started Project Purple (to bring awareness to the dangers of substance abuse) and that has become his passion now – in addition to his speaking.
No matter how many times he tells his story, he genuinely struggles sharing it. It’s not easy baring your soul in front of, mostly, strangers – especially when he has to relive so many years of what was such a dreadful life. Far and away the best word to describe his message is powerful.
The best quote I’ve seen to explain Chris’ talks is by Jaeda DeWalt:
“I don’t like and even resist, being broken wide-open. But, when the contents of my unconscious self spill out of me and I sift through all the disowned parts of who I am… it’s an uncomfortably enlightening and eye-opening experience. It feels a bit like emotional bloodletting. I guess every now and then, I need that release valve to open all the way…”