By the time I got traded (to the Celtics), I was happy for all the wrong reasons. I wasn't happy because I was back home and had grown up idolizing the Celtics. I was happy because I was back home and I knew where to get drugs.
Weed, coke, crystal meth. Alcohol and ecstasy. Heroin and oxycontin. Chris Herren’s been there and done that. And he’s not afraid to shy away from it. If you have a chance to read his biography Basketball Junkie, do it: it’s one of the better sports books I’ve read. Chris doesn’t cut corners. He doesn’t filter out stuff that didn’t take place. He tells it how it was. Some of it is mind-blowing and it’s truly remarkable how he’s alive today to tell his story. This week in What the Hell Happened To, we look back on Chris' story.
From growing up in Fall River (1 hour outside of Boston) in the shadow of his father and older brother, both standout athletes, Chris was faced with pressure from a young age. As he became better and more athletic at sports, he became the face of Durfee HS Basketball, a school that reminded me of those passionate Texas HS football programs where everyone and anyone in the community knows what's going on with the team. In Fall River, people lived for Durfee Basketball. It's like their own professional team.
After being named a McDonald's HS All American, Chris decided to attend nearby Boston College. At BC, he was injured in his very first game. Unable to play, he became reckless, even experimenting with cocaine, something he had said he'd never do after Len Bias' tragedy. He had been a big drinker in high school and soon he'd be doing the two things in tandem. With no urge to attend classes, Chris' life was quickly spiraling out of control. He'd be expelled from BC and a Boston Globe write-up detailing the specifics was especially demoralizing to his character.
Fortunately for him he connected with Jerry Tarkanian, who was at Fresno St, assembling a vagabond collection of castoffs who were once very talented players but went down the wrong path. Chris was a natural fit. His flair and eclectic ways fit Tark's run and gun system and he'd be drafted in the second round of the 99 NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets.
Some highlights of the book includeChris candidly talking about certain guys that I found real interesting:
- He didn’t like Kareem Reid (he played collegiately at Arkansas but never made the NBA because he was like 5’8). “On my team (at the McDonald's All American Game) was a little guard from NY named Kareem Reid who belonged in midget wrestling. He always had the ball, and it didn't take me long to realize that he was never going to pass it to me, that I was just part of his act, just a prop for what he thought was going to be his show. A few weeks later I went up against Reid in an AAU tournament in Providence. "I’m going to fuck you up" I said to him. So every time I got the ball I went right at him, made him pay for the McDonalds game. Over and over I went right at him, and I kicked his ass."
- He didn’t care for Rafer Alston, his college teammate at Fresno St: "I never got along with Rafer. Yet I respected his work ethic, the way he worked at his game, something I wish I had done. We were in the semifinals of the NIT in MSG that year and Rafer would never pass me the ball because he was back home and wanted to put on a show. I wasn't surprised."
- He didn’t much care for Antoine Walker either. "Antoine thought of himself as the leader, thought of the Celtics as his team. He was showy, liked to be the man, from his famous wiggle on the court then coming into some club on the road and throwing a couple of grand on the table where a few of us would be sitting and letting us see him spend it. Then again, he once said that he 'wiped his ass with hundred-dollar bills.' "
- He had many good things to say about Paul Pierce. "Pierce was very hardworking. You could see he wanted to be great. He came to practice early and stayed late. Some days I'd be coming to practice, arriving often at the last possible minute, and he'd already be drenched in sweat. Paul was a regular guy, likeable."
- And an amusing story about Vitaly Potapenko: "He looked like he could be an enforcer in the Russian mob. A tough, blue-collar type, he wasn't afraid of the black guys, and no one fucked with him. In one of his first practices with the Celitcs he had gotten into a beef with Mark Blount. Vitaly said "You mess with me and I will skull fuck you." "
After it didn't work out with the Celtics, Chris tried playing overseas in China and even Iraq. But drugs were always in his path and he could never get past it. This was a guy who would be in the fetal position without his daily fix. He couldn't function without them and was at one point spending $500 on them daily. He mentioned always going near the train station and the bus depot in cities, that you'll always find someone to buy from there.
After retiring from basketball he got a job shoveling cement in Rhode Island. He was convinced while doing this in the blistering sun that it was where the devil lived. He then got a job at the Institute for International Sport at URI. But he was still suffering from withdrawal. Eventually, Chris would end up at Miller House and get his life in order. In the fall of 2009, he was hired as a relations consultant. He specializes in talking to crowds, sort of like this:
I was a part of that unbelievable Celtics tradition, as small and insignificant as my role had been. I had never felt that before. That night in 2009 I saw it all through my son's eyes, and for the first time I felt pride that I once played for the Celtics.As fans, we all loved you too Chris. Keep up the stellar work with the motivational talks.
For a list of all the "What the Hell Happened To" Series please click here.