ESPN Films' Unguarded, which premiered this week on the network, tells the story of former second-round NBA draft pick Chris Herren through his own words and those of the people closest to him. Herren grew up in Fall River, Mass., and fell into alcohol and drugs while starring for Durfee High School and drawing national attention. He committed to Boston College, which allowed him to stay near Fall River, which ended up being an awful decision. After an early-season injury at BC, Herren fell deep into his vices, tested positive for cocaine and was booted from the team.
He surfaced a year later at Fresno State under the guidance of Jerry Tarkanian. While Tark watched Herren thrive, getting his basketball career back on track, supervision there lacked too, and Herren continued to party hard. It cost him games and plenty of opportunity in the 1999 NBA Draft. Once considered a sure first-round NBA pick, Herren instead fell to No. 33.
He had a successful rookie season with the Denver Nuggets -- more on that shortly -- before a trade leading into his second season sent him home, to the Boston Celtics. That was the beginning of the end of Herren's basketball career. He fell into old crowds with familiar crowds, and developed an Oxycontin addiction. Another injury knocked him out of the league, and he never recovered, eventually surfacing in Bologna, Italy, with an addiction that had progressed to heroin. The drugs and alcohol lasted through tours in Turkey and China, through his marriage and the births of his first two children. The documentary details a series of heart-rending tales from Herren's worst days: sleeping behind a convenience store in Modesto while his wife and kids wait for him at an airport hours away, getting hammered hours after leaving a treatment center to witness the birth of his third child, overdosing in a Dunkin' Donuts drive-through.
The upshot is that Herren is now sober and working as a motivational speaker; it's pretty clear that he has the gift to reach people, and not just because he's been there. There's no narrator in the documentary: just Herren, through powerful storytelling at these public speeches and in face-to-camera interviews, archived video from the 1990s and interviews of those closest to Herren. (His brother Mike Herren is easily the most powerful voices outside of Herren himself; the footage of Tark welcoming Herren back to Fresno State to speak to a group about his struggles is piercing.)
Beyond Herren's struggle itself, what struck me most was the failure of "adult supervision" at every single turn to save Herren from himself. That's not a surprise: we've seen it all too many times before. (Hell, we're seeing it right now.) But it's almost stunning in Unguarded that not once does a coach, general manager or authority figure do anything to keep Herren away from those who enable his self-destruction. Bless Tark, patron saint of rehabilitation. But he allowed Herren to put bandages on a critical problem by sending him to rehab for a month and putting him back on the court. The same can be said for the athletic department at Fresno State. Shame on Boston College for letting Herren destroy himself while injured; shame on the Boston Celtics for missing what must have been completely obvious signs. (Herren relays a story about his first start as a Celtic at the Fleet Center. Up to just a few minutes before tip-off, Herren -- who was starting -- waited outside in the rain, in his warm-ups, for his Oxy dealer so that he could play without being dopesick. You're telling me that didn't raise any eyebrows in the Celtics' organization?)
Other than those who ran the treatment center that helped Herren turn his life around, the only people mentioned in Unguarded who actually kept Herren from destroying himself were Antonio McDyess and Nick Van Exel, veterans on the Nuggets team that drafted the guard. During training camp, McDyess and Van Exel pulled Herren aside and told him that they knew all about his struggles with addiction, and that he wouldn't be partying at all that season. Every night, he would be checking in with them, and when the Nuggets were on the road, he would be joining them for dinner instead of going out drinking.
And it apparently worked. McDyess and Van Exel did what no coach, no family member, no friend, no mentor had been able to do for Herren: they held him accountable. When the Nuggets sent Herren to the Celtics, that support system was gone and Herren reverted.
As sports moves progressively toward a quantitative economics model, those of us inclined toward numbers tend to deride ideas like "intangibles," "veteran leadership" and "locker room chemistry." Herren's story and the heroic role of McDyess and Van Exel are pretty good slaps in the face on that point. So many men who enter the highest level of this sport are so vulnerable, so in need of positive mentoring. Herren is just one example. Look around today's NBA, and you'll see more young players in trouble. The system and power structure in the NCAA and NBA has shown itself incapable of helping. Let's hope all of the young players in situations similar to Herren get the help they need from their brothers who have made it through in one piece.