Basketball Junkie

Ben Steele, of the blog Order of the Court, discusses the best basketball documentaries ever. He goes into some detail discussing Between the Madness, which is the story of Jerry Tarkanian's Fresno State teams. The conversation, however, turns to shooting guard Chris Herren, who played briefly in the NBA. What caught my eye was the discussion of a fascinating Herren book that sounds like it's in the works.

The governing idea of the film was to profile Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian, who was infamous for providing safe harbor to troubled hoopsters. So there was obviously the strong possibility that the Bulldogs would be beset by off-the-court issues.

Troubles started piling up early in the season for Fresno State, which boasted several former McDonald’s All-Americans and was ranked in the preseason top 15 by most publications. Point guard Rafer Alston was suspended for the first few games for a domestic incident, and Terrance Roberson and Daymond Forney were out a couple weeks because of testing positive for marijuana.

The cameras found their leading man in charismatic shooting guard Chris Herren (who incidentally is also the subject of a tragically underrated basketball book, Bill Reynolds’ “Fall River Dreams”). To anyone who watched Fresno State’s late-night WAC games on ESPN in the late 1990s, it was plain to see that Herren was the driving force of those teams. The best on-court action in “Between the Madness” shows the fiery Herren igniting the crowd and his teammates. There’s no denying that Herren, with his frosted tips and “Good Will Hunting” accent, had a magnetic presence, something that didn’t escape the notice of Rolling Stone. The magazine profiled the team and singled out Herren for shirtless photos inside the Bulldogs’ locker room.

Herren partied as hard as he played, which is how he washed out of Boston College a few seasons earlier and became another of Tarkanian’s reclamation projects. Three games into the 1997-’98 season, Herren left the team for a few weeks to enter drug rehab (Nothing is specifically mentioned, but Herren admits that his drugs were harder than marijuana). The team’s play deteriorated without its leader. Herren’s demons would continue to plague him, even during his 70-game NBA career. He was busted for heroin possession twice, but now claims to be sober and is working on another book with Reynolds, called “Basketball Junkie.”

Last winter, Herren talked about the book with columnist Bob Kerr and said things like: “I played basketball in seven foreign countries, and I did heroin in every one of them.”

Marc Spears wrote a great article about Herren for the Boston Globe in May 2009. It includes this passage, with a key role being played by Chris Mullin, who had met Herren a few years earlier:

As odd as it sounds, Herren's life finally changed for the better on June 4, 2008, when he was still a heroin user and heavy vodka drinker. He was found unconscious over the wheel of his car after it crashed into a telephone pole in Fall River, with a bag of heroin on the passenger seat.

He was taken by ambulance to Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River for treatment and turned to his cellphone in hopes of finding someone to call for help.

"I looked at my phone and I had no friends left," Herren said. "All I had in my cell phone were people you don't call to be there when you need them except my brother's phone number and I was too ashamed to call my wife. I called my brother and told him what happened. Then I started crying.

"I was in the emergency room and this lady, her name was Mrs. Roy, she said, 'I know your mom. I was friends with your mom and we are going to get you some help because you don't need to be walking out of this emergency room by yourself and try to figure this out.' "

Upon his release four days later, Herren went to a nearby detoxification facility. Mullin and his wife, Liz, read about Herren's incident in a California newspaper and reached out to him. The Mullins sent Herren to a residential drug rehabilitation program in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where he was without outside contact from June through August of last year.

"People that go there, it's real, real hard-core," said Mullin. "Like a lot of things, it's nice for people to help each other. But doing that helped me. In life in general, the more you give away, the more you get back."

Said Papile, "Chris Mullin is a saint."

If that "Basketball Junkie" book is still in the works, I'd be very interested to read it.