Unguarded

Unguarded debuts tonight on ESPN at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Getting some people to understand addiction is a problem. They lack the patience for it; they take it as a sign of weakness, of irresponsibility, of indulgence, of squandered opportunities. And getting those same people to empathize with an athlete’s addiction is even worse. Here’s a guy getting paid incredible money to play a game in front of thousands of adoring fans, and that’s not enough to keep him off the junk? For the athlete, the problem is exacerbated: Not only does he have to cope with his addictions, but now he has to hear the “junkie” catcalls in opposing arenas and weather the headlines and tongue-clucking editorials from the sports punditocracy.

The prolific (and very good) sports documentary filmmaker Jonathan Hock—his previous docs include Off The Rez, about Native Americans and high-school girls’ hoops; the superb 30 For 30 entry The Best That Never Was, about Oklahoma Sooners phenom Marcus Dupree; and the Sebastian Telfair profile Through The Fire—deals sensitively with issues of athletes and addiction in Unguarded, his moving 75-minute portrait of Chris Herren, a major basketball talent who blew several chances to play in college, the NBA, and in leagues around the world. While angry fans and opinion makers will (and did) no doubt focus on all those blown chances, Hock reveals how each new situation often exacerbated his troubles. And when they didn’t exacerbate them, it didn’t really matter: Herren could score heroin and other drugs on corners in every city in the world, from Modesto, California to Bologna, Italy to Shanghai.

One of the striking observations in Unguarded is Herren’s ability to lead separate lives, keeping his coaches, teammates, and family in the dark as he pursued a habit that was grinding him down. Time and again, we hear stories of Herren staggering into the gym before game-time without having slept or doped out on Oxycontin, yet still posting huge numbers against the likes of UMass or SMU. Improbably, it’s stories like these that underline Herren’s greatness as an athlete, overcoming incredible obstacles that no one knew about, much less would celebrate. Even off the court, Herren’s ability to play the role of doting father and husband while feeding his addiction seems a testament to his physical gifts (and snaky charisma).

Hock also does excellent work drawing out the toxic atmosphere that drove a fragile kid down the wrong path. Herren grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, a dying mill town that’s described early on as “like Friday Night Lights” in its singular passion for high-school basketball. And Durfee High School basketball had seen few talents like Chris Herren, who could not only lead the team to the expected state champions, but had the potential to make it at the next level. “Born in Fall River, die in Fall River,” goes the local expression, which in Herren’s case turned out to be nearly prophetic. As a teenager, he and his teammates would play hard and party hard, none more vigorously than Herren, whose off-season/off-the-court troubles nearly always brought him back to the Fall River bog.

Framed simply and effectively by the lectures Herren now gives to high-school assemblies and treatment center patients on his wayward life, Unguarded follows him to Boston College, where his introduction to cocaine led to a quick exit; his second chance with outlaw coach Jerry Tarkanian’s Fresno State squad, which went swimmingly until his addiction flared up again; his promising rookie season with the Denver Nuggets, where concerned teammates looked after him; his disastrous trade to the Boston Celtics, which put him back in dangerous proximity to Fall River; and his various misadventures overseas. It follows his dalliances with cocaine, heroin, Oxy, and crystal meth, and the sad trajectory of his saintly wife and children as they circled the drain along with him.

Unguarded is filled with heartbreaking moments, like Herren slipping away for a fix two hours after the birth of his third child or being advised by a fellow rehab patient to do the noble thing by picking up the phone, calling his wife and kids, and telling them he’ll never see them again. Herren gives Hock a tour of his old haunts, too: The portentous bridge into Fall River; the alleyway behind a Modesto 7-11 where he slept one fateful night; the Fresno State arena where he can still see the regular fans in his mind’s eye.

Though Unguarded has the overly pat feel of documentaries that find troubled subjects in a good place, Hock and Herren both are careful not to declare Herren’s current sobriety as the end of his story. For Herren, there is no end of the story: He battles his addiction every day, and while he’s backed several steps away from the precipice, it’s out there nonetheless. It’s a harrowing thought, and if this film gets ESPN viewers to think differently about the next athlete consumed by addiction, it will have done a service.

Stray observations:

  • Four overdoses, seven felonies. “Homeboy, you’ve been dead for 30 seconds.”
  • A surprisingly sympathetic Jerry Tarkanian, whose name is synonymous with corruption and chicanery in NCAA basketball. Hearing of a troubled player getting a second chance from Tark would normally set off alarm bells, but Herren can lay none of his off-the-court failings on his coach.
  • Incredible story about Herren scoring Oxy outside the arena in his second game as a Celtic. How did he even get away with it?
  • As a sidenote, I’d love to see a great documentary about a journeyman professional basketball player. Herren played everywhere—including Tehran!—and I’m sure he has some stories.

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