Chris Herren’s documentary Unguarded shows bravery and triumph is bigger than the game.
by Jonathan Evans / photos courtesy of Hock Films
The game of basketball is full of legends. Legends born based on displays of strength, toughness, and perseverance. Legends born based on feats accomplished on local and national levels. For better or worse, former Boston Celtic Chris Herren—the pride of Fall River, Massachusetts—knows all about what it takes to become legendary. While painfully public battles with drugs and alcohol derailed his promising playing career and nearly cost him his life, Herren has recently found strength and redemption in sharing his harrowing tale with others.
This past spring, with the help of co-author Bill Reynolds, Herren published Basketball Junkie, a revealing memoir. Now, with Herren’s full cooperation, noted filmmaker Jonathan Hock tells the story of the ubertalented guard’s fast rise, hard fall and unlikely salvation in Unguarded, a documentary slated to air on ESPN this coming Tuesday night (Novemeber 1, 2011).
Last week, in Boston, the emotional and gripping documentary made its world premiere to an audience that included both Hock and Herren, along with Herren’s wife, children, and close friends (including long-time pal Chris Mullin, an NBA Hall of Famer and fellow recovering alcoholic). Emotions were palpable as the packed theater watched a hometown favorite recount his lifelong journey of vulnerability and struggle, bravery and triumph.
“It’s not easy, but it’s something that’s necessary,” Herren said shortly after the Boston premiere. “If I’m able to inspire one person who was living like I was than it’s well worth it.”
The goal of reaching others is one that Herren takes seriously, and approaches earnestly, speaking to college kids, community groups, therapeutic communities and members of the US armed forces—pretty much anywhere he thinks his story can make a difference. This devotion to retelling his tale for the benefit of others serves as the narrative foundation for Hock’s film, which takes its audience from high school in Fall River to basketball and drugs in Fresno State, from a drug-riddled stint with the Celtics to an even worse existence while playing in China.
“Go through the nightmare to get to the hope,” Hock said, describing the structure of the film. “Chris goes to these dark places but speaking from strength and sobriety made the whole thing different because you could see the hope.”
Hock, an eight-time Emmy winner adept at finding and unspooling stories that resonate, realized the power of Herren’s story and ability to recreate it for audiences after seeing footage his lead cameraman, Alastair “Gee-Lock” Christopher captured at the Brandon Jennings Invitational this past January. Hock recalls thinking, “Wow, Chris is really good at this. The solution is right here; it’s Chris and the people he’s reaching out to.”
Through the film, Herren connects with a range of captivated groups: students, young ballers, military personnel and patients at a rehab facility. In their faces you see the power of the Herren’s delievery and remarkable story. You see the shock and awe when Herren vividly describes the first time he saw cocaine in his Boston College dorm room. You see the disappointment and empathy as he tells of the time he left warmups minutes before gametime to meet his dealer on a corner outside of the Boston Garden so he could his fix before a game started.
Threaded between the heartbreak and tears is gamefilm from Herren’s high school and college career; gamefiln that bleeds Massachusetts grittiness, punctuated by tough drives to the hole, a jumper with unlimited range, emotional outburtsts and charismatic dances. Highlights that once whet scout’s appetite serve in the documentary as bittersweet reminders of brilliance that wasn’t meant to be.
“It’s painful,” Herren said about watching himself. “I’m seeing that 21 year-old and I want to grab him by the shirt and say, ‘Smarten up!’”
Reliving the story is no easier for Herren’s wife and children. The process of recovery and redemption has brought up painful memories for the entire family. But ultimately the Herrens are grateful.
“To have that moment with my children and get past it, you can’t put a price on that,” Herren said.
Unguarded seeks to builds on the success of his autobiography Basketball Junkie. Readers’ response to the book led Herren to develop The Herren Project as a way to help others recover and take steps towards sobriety.
“I started a foundation to pay for people’s treatment,” Herren said. “Doing this and the book is part of giving it away and letting others see that there’s hope.”
After losing what was suppose to be his ticket out, basketball is once again a central part of Herren’s life. In 2009 Herren started Hoop Dreams, a basketball skills school that pairs Herren with youth of all ages and ability levels. After years of abusing and neglecting the game, Herren is using his experience to help others reach their potential, both on and off the court.
Truly the stuff of legends.