A Great Fall from Fall River

In a town already renown for its basketball, and a family that had its share of stars, Chris Herren was a whiz.

He was a once in a generation point guard who could do it all. The film now of his work for Durfee High School still amazes. Little wonder he was picked up by top name college coaches and drafted into the NBA, eventually playing for his dream Boston Celtics.

But the fall for Herren was as dramatic as the rise. Down the wormhole of drug addiction and a cycle of failed rehabs, he kept a habit while putting up big numbers – routinely playing big games following nights of partying. Few knew his double life until he got into the headlines for crashes following drug binges.

As a teen representing gritty Fall River, Mass., he had a lot carrying on his shoulder and there was only so much he was take. That’s the story that attracted filmmaker “Jonathan Hock,” who turned out the documentary “Unguarded” that debuts tonight on ESPN.

“Fall River, Massachusetts, is this place where basketball is everything to the people who live there,” Hock says. “And here was the most talented player to ever come out of that town playing basketball. And in a way, that brought with it that was more of a curse than it was a blessing, maybe.

“And in dealing with that and in dealing with that pressure and the idea that this should be your dream come true, but it’s actually imagine pick your favorite pick your ultimate dream, and it’s coming true, but it turns out, when it comes true, you discover it’s not good enough. Where do you turn? Well, there’s nowhere left to turn, and you turn down the very dark path, those dark alleys that Chris spent 10 years turning down.”

Speaking with reporters at the TV Critics Association summer press tour, at about the time he became sober for three years, Herren was marveling on that achievement.

“That’s pretty amazing,” he said. “It’s a miracle from where I’ve come from.”

“Chris Herren, to me, was someone in similar to Marcus Dupre, who is the subject of the
‘30 for 30’ film ‘The Best That Never Was,” Hock says. “It’s  a story that I’ve been carrying sort of with me for years.”

Lately it’s been the subject of a couple of books as well.

“ ‘Fall River Dreams” is for many of us, you know, right up there with ‘Hoop Dreams’ as one of those seminal works of art that carry with you,” he says.

“Chris is one of those magical individuals whose charisma on and off the playing field, or the basketball court in this case, just, you know, penetrates your soul as a fan, and you don’t let go of him. What fascinated me about his story is that we tend to look to sports to provide the stage for redemption in life. And for Chris, it was when he gave up his sport, where he was able to find his redemption. And that twist was very compelling to me.”

Only after giving up basketball, concentrating on getting sober and eventually turning to lecturing about his story, or teaching basketball, do we see the redemption of Herren. And a lot of “Unguarded” comes from his own narrative given in speeches to different audiences – each of them rapt, be they in school, prison or West Point.

“A big part of Chris’s life today is sharing his story of despair and redemption with other people,” Hock says. “And what we found when we started filming these is that they’re — we were able to go to very, very dark places in these rooms, and this kind of therapeutic environment that we found that was really fascinating and really energetic. Because if you just do a sit-down interview and somebody tells you their stories of woe, it feels kind of — you know, it’s kind of glorifying bad things that happened, or it’s just asking somebody to drag you through their own mud, you know, the wreckage of their past, in a term that Chris uses. But when we discovered that when we did it in this environment, we could go much darker because there was still that sense of redemption in the room, that sense of healing and share. So we’re able to tell a very positive present-tense story by going to some very dark places in the past which we were not expecting to be able to do the way it turned out.”

Some of that involves returning to the actual places where Herren’s story unfolded, from the distinctive bridge of the working class former mill town Fall River to his college of redemption in Fresno to the alley in Modesto where he nodded off one night.

“This life of sobriety and the steps that I’ve taken has allowed me to look at my darkest days and turn them into my brightest,” Herren says. “Playing for the Boston Celtics as a Fall River kid in Boston, Massachusetts, which I dreamt of my whole life, you know, people say, ‘What a waste.’

“The silver lining in that story is that, you know, when I come to a room like this and I see a bunch of college kids or, you know I’m speaking at West Point tomorrow, and when I see the kids in front of me, they tend to pick their heads up off the desk because I have that title, you know, that I played in the NBA,” he says.

“So the beauty of this film for me is I can go back to those moments, and I can walk back to where I woke up on a side street in Modesto, California, after being locked up and woke up by two homeless men. And I can go back there and look at that spot and know that that’s a moment that turned my life around and embrace it. And I think that’s the beauty of doing this documentary is that I can go back to those dark moments and shed some light on them and see some peace in them.”

“When he was able to see, after the birth of his third child, that there’s another path that might hold some hope when there was really no hope left, to be able to go to that place of redemption and follow him and walk with him during this past year is really as a filmmaker, it’s a great experience to be able to be in the present tense during the happy ending while it’s happening,” Hock says.

“The basketball, it’s important in the film,” he says. “You’ll see Chris playing, and you’ll appreciate just how incredible he was, and that it makes the fall harder to take when we when we get into the fall, but it makes the redemption of a family man who is not a basketball player anymore that much that much more powerful.”

“Unguarded” premieres on ESPN tonight at 8 p.m.

This entry was posted in Television. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.