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Bulldog Determination After owning up to his abuse of alcohol and cocaine, Fresno State guard Chris Herren is set on putting his life and his game back on the right track

Feb. 09, 1998
Feb. 09, 1998

Table of Contents
Feb. 9, 1998

Nagano '98

Bulldog Determination After owning up to his abuse of alcohol and cocaine, Fresno State guard Chris Herren is set on putting his life and his game back on the right track

They held open the back door and offered him a chance to slip
silently out of town, no cameras, no questions, no shame. His
doctors and advisers gave him two options: They could tell the
world that he had come down with the flu or mono or some other
ailment, or if he preferred, they could say in a brief press
release that he was taking some time off to deal with personal
problems. His coach at Fresno State, Jerry Tarkanian, would bow
his head and say a few supportive words to the media, and Chris
Herren, one of the best players in the country, could vanish
from sight like an escaped convict, off to an undisclosed
location for an undetermined length of time.

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 1998 issue Original Layout

Herren had called Tarkanian the night before and told him that
he had been struggling. He had seen the sun come up too many
times, his mind racing out of control, alcohol and cocaine
destroying his spirit and his good sense. He needed to go away
for a while and get treatment, and he needed to do it right. No
more lies: He didn't have the flu, and he wasn't sneaking out in
the dark of night, one step ahead of the demons that had been
stalking him since he'd left his hometown of Fall River, Mass.,
three years before. "For once," Herren said, "I'm going to stand
up and take responsibility."

Fresno State had started this season ranked No. 13 in the
country and had won its first three games, but Herren had never
been more miserable. "It was a nightmare, and it was getting
worse and worse," he says. "I was sick of staying up all night,
sick of being miserable, sick of hiding, sick of the lies. It
was time to start telling the truth."

So at a press conference on Nov. 25, Herren sat in front of the
cameras and told the world that he had "slipped up" in his fight
against substance abuse. He knew his life would never be the
same--but he also knew that wouldn't be such a bad thing.

The crack-heads and heroin addicts looked at him as if he were
crazy. Herren says he would sit in group-therapy sessions during
his 23-day rehabilitation at a hospital in Salt Lake City with
people who had needle tracks in their necks from injecting
heroin, and they would look at him and shake their heads, as if
to say, What's wrong with you, kid? Some of the patients had
lost everything--their jobs, their families, their health, their
dignity--and still they couldn't understand how Herren could be
such a fool. "My problem wasn't as severe as most of the
others', but they knew I had a chance to do something very
special, to be somebody and have a good life," he says. "They
couldn't believe I was jeopardizing all that."

So the crack-heads and heroin addicts at the hospital were no
different from just about everyone else who had met Herren since
he'd left high school. They wanted to grab him by the collar and
shake some sense into him.

Herren has been blessed with all the tools to play basketball at
the highest level: the skills, the instincts and a flair for the
game. Coaches love him. Pro scouts rave about him. Fans adore
him. The TV cameras can't get enough of him. He's a 6'3" guard
who can shoot from NBA three-point range and slash to the hoop
with rare quickness and power. He has a showman's love for the
stage and a knack for coming through in the clutch. "It's hard
to describe," says Fresno State assistant coach John Welch.
"It's a charisma, a magnetism. People are just drawn to him, on
the basketball court and off. People just like to be around him."

His brown hair is streaked blond, and his arms are covered with
tattoos. He walks with a hip-hop swagger, talks in a too-cool
cadence and carries himself with the confidence of a rock star.
"I know I'm a cool guy," he says. "People like to kick it with
me." When he takes the court, he's like Clint Eastwood stepping
into a scene. It's impossible to take your eyes off him. He
talks trash with his opponents, yaps with the fans, shouts
encouragement to teammates and never stops moving. "He's a
special person and a special player," says Leo Papile, head
scout for the Boston Celtics. "If you were going to the electric
chair tomorrow, Chris is the kind of guy you would want to hang
out with your last night."

He's also the kind of guy who could thrive in the NBA, a good
college player whose skills and style may fit even better in the
pros. In fact, one knock against Herren is that he may shoot
better from 20 feet (through last weekend he was a career .356
shooter from three-point range) than he does on mid-range
jumpers from 15. "Chris has more than enough ability to have a
10- or 12-year career in the NBA," says Papile. "He's not a pure
point guard, but he's very good at distributing the ball, and he
can score inside and out. He's not fast for a white guy; he's
just fast."

Papile ought to know. Before Rick Pitino hired him to scout for
the Celtics, Papile was a renowned New England hoops gypsy who
coached a summer team for high-school-aged kids. He spent three
summers traveling the country with Herren, and together they won
three national titles. Nine of Papile's summer-league players
have reached the NBA, including former NBA All-Star guards Dana
Barros and Michael Adams. "Chris is better than either of them,"
says Papile. Tarkanian says Herren "could be the best guard I've
ever coached" and has called him "the best white guard since
Jerry West." Head-spinning stuff for a player who as of Sunday
was averaging 15.4 points for an 11-7 team, but there's never
been a shortage of people telling Herren how terrific he is.

The NBA remains Herren's goal, but he says he has learned not to
concern himself with next year or even next week. His demons are
always around the next corner, waiting to renew acquaintances.
For every positive influence on Herren, there are a dozen
dubious characters buzzing around, looking, as he says, to kick
it with him. Says his father, Al, a regional representative for
the state auditor in Boston, "To tell you the truth, I don't
give a fiddler's diddle about the NBA right now. All I want is
for him to find some inner peace through sobriety."

Only Lizzie Borden holds a more storied place than Herren does
in the annals of Fall River, a dreary mill town on the southern
coast of Massachusetts. He was the best player ever at
basketball-mad Durfee High and was the central figure in the
book Fall River Dreams, a fascinating account of one season with
Herren's team by Providence writer Bill Reynolds.

Herren was part of the same Parade High School All-America team
as Allen Iverson and Antoine Walker, and when it came time to
chose a college, thousands of friends and fans waited
breathlessly for his decision. Many of them knew it was a
mistake when he chose Boston College. Too much pressure. Too
easy for the boys back home to pile in a station wagon and drive
up for the weekend. As it turned out, Herren's BC career was
over almost before it began. He broke his wrist 21 minutes into
his first game and soon thereafter dropped out of sight. He
stopped going to class. He didn't attend practices or games. He
flunked four of his five first-semester classes.

It was also during his freshman year at Boston College that
Herren walked into a bedroom during a party and, he says, tried
cocaine for the first time. "I bounced out of that room," he
says. He failed a number of drug tests, and soon he was bouncing
out of BC. "I just totally lost touch with everything--my
friends, my family, myself. I was completely lost."

During the second semester of his freshman year Herren realized
he had to go to class or go home, so he improved his grades just
enough to allow him to transfer. With his arm still in a cast
and his head still in the clouds, he talked to a number of
schools during the spring of 1995 and was leaning toward
Maryland. Then he got a call from Tarkanian, the controversial
former UNLV coach who had just taken the job at Fresno State.
"He said he was back in coaching and I said, 'Where?'" says
Herren. "He says, 'Fresno.' So I said, 'Where's that?' He said,
'California,' and I said, 'Cool.'"

Herren flew to Fresno and was met at the airport by Tarkanian.
Before Herren got back on an airplane two days later, he had
signed on with Tark. "I don't know what happened to him at UNLV,
and I don't care," Herren says of Tarkanian. "I love him for
what he's done for me. He's helped me more than any other person
I've ever met." Tarkanian says Herren calls him almost every
night: "Sometimes I'll be out having dinner and I'll get a call.
It'll be Chris. He'll say, 'How you doing, Coach?' I'll say,
'Good,' and he'll say, 'O.K., well, I'll see you tomorrow.'"

Says Herren, "I just like to hear his voice."

Under Tarkanian, Fresno State has become Second Chance U, the
roster consisting mostly of former dropouts, transfers and
assorted reclamation projects. Herren was one of the first
blocks in Tark's building process. As a transfer he sat out the
1995-96 season, but last year he led the Bulldogs in scoring,
with 17.5 points a game, as the Bulldogs won 20 games and shared
the WAC Pacific Division title.

Of course, basketball had never been the hardest part of
Herren's day, and he found the same trouble in Fresno that had
nearly ruined his life back home. Word soon spread: He was seen
late at night in bars and showing up at all the parties. There
were friends from Fall River who came out to stay with him in
his apartment and never left, and there were fun-filled trips to
San Francisco and Los Angeles. Herren flunked another drug test
within months of arriving at Fresno and was placed in the
university's Student Athlete Assistance Program. Later, his name
was linked to a point-shaving story in the Los Angeles Times. He
denied any involvement with gamblers, and he responded with a
libel lawsuit against the paper that is still pending. But he
couldn't deny that he had fallen again. His life was out of
control and threatening to derail his basketball career. "When I
came out here, I didn't get away--I ran away," he says. "I
didn't deal with my problems. I went from point A to point B and
thought I'd lose my problems somewhere in between. It didn't
happen."

Herren took a ball with him to rehab. He would sneak into an
empty classroom to practice dribbling. There was no exercise
equipment or track, so he would jog around a small parking lot.
He estimated 22 laps to a mile, so he usually got dizzy about
the same time he broke a sweat.

The other patients soon learned that Herren was a very good
basketball player who might play someday in the NBA. The mail
was a dead giveaway of his celebrity. Each day Herren got
between 30 and 50 letters from all over the country. He heard
from TV broadcasters like Dick Vitale and Digger Phelps and from
the Indiana Pacers' Chris Mullin, who had had his own highly
publicized battle with alcohol. He got letters from friends in
Fall River and from schoolkids in Fresno, everyone saluting his
courage and wishing him luck. "I know it took a lot of guts to
do what I did," he says, "but two months ago I had no future.
Now I do."

The Bulldogs struggled without him, winning just one of five
games, but Herren returned with a new outlook. He attends AA
meetings daily and refuses to look beyond the next practice. He
quickly played himself back into shape, and on Jan. 10 in Dallas
he fired in 33 points against SMU. As he left the court, a
section of the crowd serenaded Herren with a chorus of
"Drug-gie! Drug-gie!" It was probably a step up from the folks
at TCU who, two nights earlier, had greeted Herren with a chant
of "Al-co-hol-ic!"

That is life for Chris Herren now: no running, no hiding, no
more lies. "It's not easy," he says. "I deal with the demons
every night; they get inside my head and they talk to me. They
say, 'Hey, all right. You scored 33--let's go get some beer and
celebrate.' I know as long as I don't listen to them, good
things will continue to happen."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BURGESS [Chris Herren]COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER PRO POTENTIAL Herren has the slashing ability and outside range that NBA scouts love. [Chris Herren and others in game]COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER SECOND CHANCE U Tarkanian, who is famous for his basketball reclamation projects, has another one in Herren. [Chris Herren and Jerry Tarkanian]
"I was sick of staying up all night, sick of the hiding, sick of
the lies. It was time to tell the truth."
Herren says of Tarkanian, "I love him. He's helped me more than
any other person I've ever met."