Back a few of summers ago I read Chris Herren's bookBasketball Junkie, constantly feeling like I was rubber-necking a bad auto wreck on the highway. The memoir traces Herren's tumultuous life as a high school basketball prodigy, Fresno State star under Jerry Tarkanian, and NBA player--much of this time operating under the haze of addiction.
Bill Reynolds has written about Herren more than anyone, and has done an amazing job in two books that involve Herren. Fall River Dreams (1995) is a classic tale of small town prep basketball that follows the championship run of Durfee High School in Fall River, Massachusetts. A central character in this Friday Night Lights read-alike happens to be Chris Herron, one of the best players to come through the Fall River pipeline. Years later, Reynolds helped Herren pen his memoir Basketball Junkie, which provides a more intimate look at Herren's life.
Herren is a fascinating study. You really want to like him as you are reading Basketball Junkie. You grow to like him, and every time he turns the corner and swears off the drugs, you are teased with hope. But then he lets you down again, screws up, and you want to knock some sense into him. For Herren, it's a self-defeating pattern that repeats itself with one crazy episode after the other. But isn't that the reality of addiction? A scourge so powerful that it can cause a man who seemingly has everything going for him--ridiculous basketball talent, a loving family, a wonderful soulmate, supportive coaches-to throw it all away for a fleeting high? Herren isn't the first athlete, and he won't be the last, to live out this nightmare. Athletes facing the weight of fame, enormous performance pressures, and friends who want benefits are an easy target for the ever-accepting safe havens of drugs and alchohol.
Herren's story has a positive ending, however. For every athlete who has lost it all, there's one who held on to a single thread during the dark days and came out on the other side. Herren not only made it, but he has dedicated himself to being sure others don't make the same mistakes he has made. He created The Herren Project, which helps people struggling with addiction, and regularly speaks to high school and college audiences on the dangers of substance abuse.
If you don't have these books in your library or house, please get them. Teens need to read Basketball Junkie. Yes, it is graphic and not pretty--but neither is addiction. Increasingly we are seeing young athletes succumbing to substance abuse. Is the next generation of athletes who emmulate the every move of their stars smart enough not to follow them off the cliff? Herren's book needs to be part of the package of conversations for educating our young athletes of the dangers that lurk in the shadows of the competitive heart.
( As an aside, I was so moved by the story that in 2014 I inquired about Chris coming to Wisconsin to speak at my school. Well, I didn't have that kind of money. But Chris, as an aging runner, I will lace up my shoes, wear my "Jockbrarian" blazer, carry a copy of Basketball Junkie, and run any of your sponsored races to raise awareness of your cause in exchange for a visit to Milwaukee!!)