Thursday, December 1, 2011

Book review: Basketball Junkie, by Chris Herren and Bill Reynolds

Oh to be young, rich and talented.

Over the past twenty years the NBA has a remarkable success rate at weeding out drug addicts. In the mid-eighties, the league instituted a three-strikes policy aimed at ridding the league of the American popular image of '70s pro basketball: that of overpaid and over-coked players who cared more about fighting than defense. Several of the league's top talents fell victim to nose candy in the 1980s: David "Skywalker" Thompson and Walter "The Greyhound" Davis managed to sustain effective NBA careers. However, guys like Chris Washburn, Richard Dumas and Roy Tarpley - I could name a dozen more off the top of my head - couldn't, and found themselves banished to eternal European ball.

Of all of these players, the one common denominator was talent. Each of them, from Thompson, who could have been the best player in the game, to Washburn, who was drafted third in 1986, was supremely gifted and capable of multiple All-Star games. Many were unable to control their habit, let alone sufficiently enough to function at NBA levels.

The same could be said of Chris Herren, one of the best ballers ever to come out of New England. His memoir "Basketball Junkie" portrays the life of an athlete blessed with talent, but cursed with addiction.
Herren was born to be a basketball star, and followed his brother as one of the greatest players in the history of Durfee High School, a storied Massachusetts basketball programme. At sixteen, he was so good - and messed up by "maturing" in small, working class Fall River - he was the subject of the best-seller "Fall River Dreams". The book, by journalist Bill Reynolds (with whom Herren collaborated in writing Basketball Junkie), reported the licence afforded teen athletes in a town where basketball is king.

Chris Herren managed to play two NBA seasons around the the time of the last NBA lockout. I use the verb "managed" because he did played while fighting, and eventually succumbing to, addiction to alcohol and opiates (including oxycontin and heroin). That he had the talent to play basketball was for a time perhaps his one saving grace, even though it was no longer a game for him: it was expectation, pressure and success. At his leve, playing basketball - in Denver, Boston, Italy, Turkey, China or Iran - meant he had the money to buy the drugs he needed to function.

There are two striking features of Herren's memoir: how easy it is to slip from "partying" to addiction; and secondly, simply, how functionally dependent he (and by extension, other addicts) became on opiates. What started as "Hey, I'd like to party with you" turned into mailing packages of Oxycontin to hotels he would be staying at on road trips so he could sustain his NBA form - and pay cheque. Herren wasn't addicted to getting high, but his body so craved the gear that he was completely unable to function without it. Graphic descriptions of withdrawal symptoms and his fear of both those symptoms and his future make for compelling and memorable reading.

His yearlong spell as a Celtic is effectively a haze, as it was for him at the time. He writes about how he could obtain drugs in almost any setting, from deepest, darkest China and Iran to flying into Providence airport, finding a dealer and then flying out again. The lengths he went to in order to score - like driving around Fall River with a needle in his arm and his baby daughter in the back seat.

He writes frankly about substance abuse beginning in his teen years to final, gut-wrenching, sobriety in 2008. This should-be joyous occasion, isn't so much celebrated as Championship victory but, in typical Herren matter-of-fact fashion, describes the rehab facility and every fearsome slip he made throughout.  You can sense some of the hallmarks of rehab in his words: ownership, reality and an almost total lack of astonishment at his past.

 The rehab process is depicted with the same grit and fear characterising the rest of the narrative. There is only one epiphany, the choice he describes as leading him to the choice he says all recovering addicts have to make in order to survive.  There's no trophy at the end of this longest season, only normalcy most take for granted.

This isn't a basketball book. Because Chris Herren scored more in back streets than in the NBA, it's an addict's memoir where the author is also good at basketball. There's little doubt in the reader's mind he would have been in a similar, but less fiscal, situation had basketball not taken him out of Fall River. The young Herren didn't dream of the Lakers, but Durfee High School and State championships.

To lose one's independence is a frightening thought; in fact, it may be the very concept people fear most. To become utterly dependent on a chemical is even more of a scary concept. Basketball Junkie tells how Chris Herren became totally dependent and later details the factors which allowed him to regain his life

Basketball Junkie is dirty, honest and frightening. Five stars.

For more book reviews, see our affiliate site, Books with Balls.

No comments:

Post a Comment