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On Sports

Junkies, gamblers, and those who rose to glory

By Bill Littlefield
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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‘Fall River Dreams,’’ Bill Reynolds’s 1994 book about basketball at Durfee High School, provided a portrait of a young man about to fall on his face.

As a teenager, Chris Herren was such a gifted and accomplished player that even his alcohol and drug use and his wildly inflated sense of his own significance could not dissuade his father, his high school coach, and his fans from counting on him to bear their dreams.

“Basketball Junkie’’ presents the rest of the story. Herren, a good deal more introspective and articulate as a recovering drug addict than he was as a high school hotshot, reveals that seeing film of his younger self was “like watching a train that you knew was going to have a wreck right around the corner.’’ The wreck included failure to live up to his potential as a college and pro player in a dozen different venues, but that was only the public face of Herren’s skid. At one particularly low point, he was injecting himself with heroin in the front seat of his car while driving his daughter to day care.

Herren’s story, as Reynolds tells it, is more than a cautionary tale about drug abuse. Referring to the score of coaches who kept enabling Herren on his self-destructive slide, the former player says through Reynolds: “If you could play, they would put up with just about anything. If you couldn’t, they wanted nothing to do with you.’’ The book suggests that “they’’ includes not only the basketball establishments at Boston College, Fresno State, and various venues in Europe, but the staffs of the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics as well. Herren himself is purportedly clean and sober at present, and part of his message in “Basketball Junkie’’ is that even in the youth leagues, “[t]here’s no playing just for fun . . . It’s all changed for the worse.’’

Drugs figure in ‘‘Gaming the Game,’’ too. If Jimmy “Baba’’ Battista, the gambler who partnered with former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, hadn’t gone into rehab, he might never have told Sean Patrick Griffin about how he’d cashed in on Donaghy’s tips.

The story of Donaghy’s criminal activities began to break in 2007, when the FBI told the NBA that Donaghy had been under investigation for some time. Donaghy subsequently pleaded guilty to betting on games and providing other gamblers with information, but he denied that he’d influenced the outcome of games he’d worked, a claim the NBA essentially endorsed. Battista regards that contention as rubbish. During their lucrative association, Battista called Donaghy “Elvis,’’ because as far as Battista was concerned, Donaghy was “The King.’’ When he followed the referee’s lead, Battista and his associates won far more often than they did when counting on standard trends, shifts in the betting line, injury reports, and other variables of interest to gamblers.

Nobody familiar with contemporary sports culture will be shocked that a great deal of money is bet on games of all sorts. Some readers of “Gaming the Game’’ may be surprised at Battista’s contention that the NBA preferred not to engage in a thorough investigation of the gambling landscape. According to Griffin, the federal government was likewise content to bag Donaghy, Battista, and a few of their confederates without thoroughly probing the extent of their conspiracy. Griffin writes that his exhaustive data “suggests Donaghy influenced the outcomes of games in support of his bets.’’ Battista regards the NBA’s “investigation’’ as a whitewash designed to limit publicity regarding the large number of gamblers who became aware of Donaghy’s activities and capitalized on them.

Fans of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may be surprised to read that the hall-of-famer feels that “the occupation I feel most defines all aspects of who I am at this time in my life is writer.’’

Kareem’s most recent book, “On the Shoulders of Giants,’’ examines some of the elements of the Harlem Renaissance: the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, for example, and the poetry of Langston Hughes, the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston, and the basketball played by the Harlem Rens. Kareem, who was born in Harlem, is an excellent guide. The book is full of stories of Kareem’s own defining moments: the day his high school basketball coach called him “nigger,’’ for example, and the evening he climbed innocently out of the subway into a riot that would rage in Harlem for almost a week.

Early in “On The Shoulders of Giants,’’ Kareem mentions that if he hadn’t had the opportunity to become a professional basketball player, he’d probably have become a history teacher. His most recent book suggests that he’d have been a good one.

Bill Littlefield hosts NPR’s “Only A Game’’ from WBUR in Boston. He is writer in residence at Curry College, and he can be reached at blittlef@wbur.bu.edu.

BASKETBALL JUNKIE:

A Memoir

By Chris Herren

and Bill Reynolds

St. Martin’s, 288 pp.,

illustrated, $24.99

GAMING THE GAME:

The Story Behind the NBA Betting Scandal and the Gambler Who Made It Happen

By Sean Patrick Griffin

Barricade, 320 pp.,

illustrated, $24.95

ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS:

My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance

By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

With Raymond Obstfeld

Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., illustrated, paperback, $21.99