Herren details drugs, recovery in ESPN Film

Chris Herren has no problem telling his story of addiction, and it comes across clearly in “Unguarded,” the ESPN Film that premieres tonight at 8 p.m. He stands in front of high school students, soldiers, athletes, convicts, addicts and he spares no detail about his four overdoses and the toll they took not just a basketball career that had limitless potential but the price his wife and children had to pay as well. The tales are increasingly gut-wrenching, particularly the one when family flew into Oakland, Calif. expecting to meet him at the airport, but he was passed out in an alley behind a gas station in Modesto.


Herren went back to that alley for the film, and describing what it was like to shoot that scene, the film’s cinematographer Alastair Christopher said, “It was just me and him behind that alleyway. That puddle wasn’t water. It was piss. It wreaked around the corner. Of all types of stuff. It was a bad, bad corner. It’s like you had nothing else to do but feel what he was talking about. It was just crazy experiencing that, because that little corner, it felt like a time capsule.

“Like whatever he experienced then, was still the feeling there. Then, we could just turn around and point to two guys reminded him of the guys who were poking him. It was all right there. It wasn’t like a campfire story like you had to listen to the story. You could just hop out of the car and feel exactly what he went through.”

In May, Herren spoke to the Globe’s Gary Washburn about his sobriety, his book “Basketball Junkie” and his effort to tell his story to anyone who needs to hear it. Now three years sober, his life is stable yet also a day-by-day process. “I’m a dad today because of sobriety,” Herren said. After a sneak peek of the film last week, Herren spoke to the Globe again.


Globe: The way the story was told — just you being able to talk to people in that situation — just talk about what you get from going to those places and talking to people in the military, people who were addicts, people who were college kids.

Chris Herren: You never know how it’s going to affect me personally, going into West Point and walking into that Fresno facility where those guys had just been released from corporal state prison. One guy told me a story. He said, “I haven’t been five miles away from my home other than to go to state prison.” And that was enough for me that day to stay sober. It wasn’t me telling them. That little tidbit that he gave me was all I needed that day, and that’s the beauty of it. It comes from different places, from different people. But it’s something that I truly, truly believe in. So for me, why not preach it, why not talk about it.

G: Seeing yourself on screen — you have no problem telling your story obviously — but the footage, were there moments where you saw yourself and it’s difficult?
CH: It’s harder for me to watch the footage from say, early Fresno back to high school than it is from late Fresno to now. And people would say, “How could that be, because you weren’t involved in the heavy, heavy drugs.” But it’s just I didn’t get much treatment during on those days. I haven’t lived through it in a long time. So when I watch it on film I cringe, and I’m like, ‘Oh man.” But that being said, I’m glad I have the footage and I’m glad I have the footage of my mother. I’m glad I the footage of my games that little Chris can watch someday. But yeah, it can be hard.
G: It’s a documentary, but it’s also like watching “The Fighter” because two people are kind of amazing. Your wife is amazing and your brother. They’re the two most compelling characters in the movie. Talk about the role your brother plays and the strength your wife has because she put up with a ton — in all due respect.
CH: No doubt. My brother is a big brother and that’s how he’s played his role his whole life, even in time when his days of being a big brother should have been over, he still remained that person. I have so much to be grateful for that relationship. My wife is — and say this with the utmost sincerity and honesty when I speak at these places — my wife should be the one telling the story. Because she lived through this story sober. My wife doesn’t use drugs, she doesn’t drink. She lived through this story with a clear head and sober. I went through it under the influence. So my wife, when 99 percent of the people would have left, she stayed. You know?
G: The highs and the lows, they came and went. But it almost seemed like they came at the same time. How much do you guard against that, when life is going very, very well, not backsliding.
CH: I said it earlier today, and it’s not in the documentary (there’s so much that’s not in the documentary), I was playing for the Celtics and five years later I was smoking cigarettes out of public ashtrays and buying $2 pints of vodka. That’s what my life came to — in a five year span. So when I was reaching my high I was on my descent pretty quickly.
G: What’s the most gratifying part about doing the movie?
CH: The most gratifying thing is getting the e-mails from the kids, getting a phone call at 1 o’clock in the morning from a parent saying, “Listen, my son just showed up drunk. Can you talk to him? Can you have breakfast with him tomorrow?” Those are the victories that mean something for me today. That’s what it’s all about.

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