Right up front, let me say that this isn't a story about Chris Herren's ESPN special. Others have covered that very well. This is just a short story about how I once played against a guy that would go on to briefly become a pro player and then flame out of the league due to his personal daemons. Apologies in advance for inserting myself into the story, but it is the only point of reference I have.
It is easy for us to sit here as fans and bloggers and discount how hard it is to be a professional basketball player. Flims such as He Got Game and Hoop Dreams (not to mention Darcy Frey's book The Last Shot) do a pretty good job of laying out some of the pitfalls and quicksand that countless pro-talented young men have fallen into. Still, you never really understand until you've been on a court with such a clearly superior talent that it sinks in. The level that these guys play at is nothing short of incredible. The gift that they've been given is amazing.
Dial back 18 years. I was a senior at Plymouth North High School. "Starting" center, though that designation was a bit of a sad joke. I was actually the designated tipper. Semi-talented but uncoordinated and inconsistent. I had the height and potential to win a game but the clumsiness and carelessness that could easily lose one too. So my coach played it safe and let me play until my first mistake then sat me on the bench to be a spectator for the rest of the half and the process repeated in the 2nd half.
Now, as a team we were't that much better. We had a couple of guys that would go on to D-1 schools, a few football players that were also good at basketball, basically a typical high school team. Of course we only won 2 games in the regular season but we doubled that number in the playoffs, so there had to be some talent there.
In fact, in the 2nd round we really put on a show and it started in the warm up lines. We had 4 guys that could dunk (here's where I brag) myself included (I know, pics or it didn't happen). At the time it was against the rules to touch the rim in warm-ups but our coach was doing some last minute game planning (napping probably) and the refs were running late. So we took it upon ourselves to show everyone how much swag we thought we had. With each passing rim-rattling dunk you could see the fear creep into the opponents eyes. It was an easy victory (that I watched mostly from the sideline as usual).
In round 3, we were to face Chris Herren and his Durfee squad. Talk about the tables being turned. It was like we were introduced to SWAG himself and he was sneering at us. Laughing at our prior attempts to imitate him.
Everyone in the state knew Herren's name and his second fiddle would have been a star on most teams. The Durfee crowd was louder and fiercer than anything we'd heard before. The team apparently all decided to shave their heads, which had the dual effect of unifying them and scaring the too short polyester shorts off of us. When the ball went up, it was a rout from the start.
They knew all (3) of our plays and how to defend them. I actually heard someone calling out switches by saying "watch Clark up top." How they got enough information from my 5 minutes a game to know where I'd be is beyond me, and it really took me aback that they actually knew my name.
Heren? He was nuts. A cut above in talent, athleticism, and passion. At 6'5" I was the tallest guy on our team, I went to defend one of his shots in the paint, stretched out to my full length (I would have blocked most guards on that play) but he calmly swished a pull up jumper with my hand brushing the bottom of his palm.
He got two breakaway dunks on us with that signature hop-straight-up-off-two-feet tomahawk dunk style of his, punctuated with a primal scream that would have made Kevin Garnett proud. Meanwhile his teammates were burying three pointers and otherwise making us pay for double and triple teaming Chris.
Naturally a part of me admired and envied him. "Good for him," I thought. Now I can say that I played against him in high school.
I don't remember if they won the state championship that year but I remember seeing Chris in a BC uniform in Sports Illustrated. I remember hearing about him transferring to Fresno State because of some off court issues. And then he made it to the pros and was even playing for my Celtics for like a minute or two. I didn't pay too close attention but somewhere along the line (apparently all along the line) the wheels came off and it all went down the drain. All that talent, all that opportunity, all that gift was wasted.
Well, perhaps not totally wasted. It just depends on your perspective. Consider Heren's words before you judge.
WEEI's Interview with Chris Herren
D&C: There was one poignant moment where you said, "I was out the entire night before the game with two girls, cocaine, the last thing I had before I took the court was a Budweiser," and yet you played your ass off and you played well. Did you spend or do you spend much time wondering how good you might have been without the drugs and alcohol?
CH: I really don't. I don't look back and say, "If I did this, it would be different," because I'm Ok today. Sometimes, you look at it and say, "Oh, man, here he goes. That sounds corny." But that's the reality. I spoke to 2,800 Durfee students the other day, and I said, "What's the perfect ending to my story? Coming in 10-11 years retired from the Boston Celtics, long career in the NBA, telling you about how it was playing with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and winning a championship? Or is it coming back a recovering drug addict and telling you my story to try to get out in front of you?" Most of those kids in those bleachers have a much, much, much better chance of becoming an alcoholic or a drug addict than an NBA basketball player.
Like I said, it is all about perspective.
I no longer envy him, not by a long shot. But I do admire what he's done lately and what he's trying to do.
He was a great basketball player (I can attest to that personally). He had a great fall from grace. He's doing what he can to be a good man. Hats off to him for it.