‘Unguarded’: Speaking Seriously and Intelligently About Substance Abuse

“I remember getting called to assemblies like this,” says Chris Herren to a room full of teenagers, “to listen to some 35-year-old man talk to me about substance abuse, and I remember saying to myself, ‘This is a joke. Why am I here? I’ll never be that guy.'” Alternately close on Herren’s earnest face or watching his back as he walks from side to side, emphasizing each word with a step or a glance in the direction of his listeners. Cuts to those listeners suggest that they are, in fact, attentive, that they don’t see his visit as a joke.

Chris Herren has found his mission. This according to Unguarded, premiering on ESPN on 1 November, which recalls his difficult route to this moment, when he is speaking seriously and intelligently about substance abuse. Much of Jonathan Hock’s documentary is devoted to this redemption story, which means that it spends some time remembering Herren’s addictions, misjudgments, and deceptions, of himself and people close to him.

Among these, his older brother Mike and his wife Heather offer not only stories about Chris, but also — later in the film — about how his addictions affected them. At first, the treatment of the story is pretty much what you’d expect: Chris was a star high school basketball player in Fall River, Massachusetts, a city he describes as “very similar to Friday Night Lights of football.” It was “kind of a dying mill town,” elaborates Bill Reynolds, author of Fall River Dreams: A Team’s Quest for Glory: “Basketball one of the few things that gave Fall River a sense of self, a sense to feel good about.” In this context, Herren’s brilliance became a direct conduit to that “sense,” and, the film submits, this made for pressure on him early on, from the age of 14 or 15.

This pressure is presented here as a given, neither examined nor further contextualized (it seems worth breaking down how the story of a working class community depending on a local sports team for identity and distraction is so familiar as to seem “natural”). His brother Mike was also a star, helping to take his high school team to a state championship, but, their mother Cindy says, where Mike was happy with that end (not expecting to leave Fall River), Chris “had goals beyond high school.” As Mike puts it, “When you’re from places where I’m from, failure kind of sticks in the air like bad cigarette smoke, so for Chris to break through meant so much. He was doing it for Fall River.” The image here cuts to a red lens flare over Mike, a disturbing effect that makes clear he’s introducing (again) the meaning and risk Chris apparently embodied.

That risk is articulated as his drinking after games he played for Durfee High School. The film doesn’t say exactly how common this is among high school teams in working class towns (“Drink, drug, and fight,” observes a friend, “That’s what happened, that’s what we did”), but Mike says he often went along with his brother, because even then, “I knew that he never knew when to say when.” Apart from Mike’s recollection the film doesn’t suggest that people around Chris noticed his escalating addiction. Instead, it shows predictable grainy footage of Chris lighting up the court (he was 1994 Massachusetts Player of the Year) that might explain why no one intervened as Chris’ illness became manifest, as he “graduated” from alcohol and weed in high school to cocaine at Boston College (where he got into trouble following a first-season-ending broken wrist, and then several drug policy infractions), a disappointing return to Fall River (“I went home,” he says, “I never addressed the issue, never talked to anybody”), and then a redemptive turn at Fresno State — pointedly away from his old neighborhood.

The film points out the effects of that neighborhood repeatedly, though it doesn’t look at details of that environment. When it comes time for the 1999 NBA draft (a sequence marked by footage of the family waiting to hear where he’ll go, all of them invested in his career, for various reasons), an archival interview has young Chris seeming aware of his situation, that the “off-court stuff” has that affected his status. “Without it,” he says, he would be guaranteed to be picked in the first round. “Because of it, I’m swaying, I’m a risk for some people.”

Drafted by Denver, he has a good first year and then, following a summer in Fall River, begins using agian. When he’s traded to Boston, the film juxtaposes his press conference at the time (“It’s a dream come true, growing up down the street…” from the Garden) with Mike’s look-back now: “”It was a disaster: put a kid with a raging drug problem with unlimited access to it. That was a death sentence. Fuck the Celtics.”

You can understand Mike’s anger and upset, as he remembers his brother’s ordeal. Still, you’re aware that it’s not the Celtics who let Chris down. As Chris maintains his addict’s delusional sense of self-control, the film doesn’t ask other interviewees to speak to their part in the pattern. It portrays Chris Herren’s addictions as his individual pathology rather than a cultural condition or even an illness that might have been diagnosed and treated aggressively. This repeats the ways that the broader culture still regards addiction — as a matter of moral failing or lack of “will power,” not as a disease or the product of social, political, and economic factors. Chris appears before multiple audiences throughout the film, in scenes intercut with the pre-redemption narrative (memories sometimes delivered with more lens flares and color filters). He speaks to students, teams, and prisoners (sometimes shot in tight reaction shots, in tears, so you can appreciate the effects he has in person), as the film insists on the “gift” he now offers, his capacity to help others with his story.

It is Chris’ story, certainly. And as such, it is heartening: he recovers, he finds another life, he gives back to a community of users and potential users (“I didn’t find that peace in basketball,” he observes). Near film’s end Heather does offer this: “We were sick together, I kept it going as much as he kept it going. At the time you don’t see those ways out.” Chris insists now that he kept his addictions secret, that no one had any idea that he was running off to meet with his dealers after practices — in college, in Boston, or in the cities where he played after the Celtics released him, Bologna, Beijing or Istanbul. Reynolds says that Herren’s use of drugs was, during his professional career, a matter of maintenance, not to get high but only to function: “The amazing thing is, he plays well.”

While this might explain how an addict can hide his addiction, it also implies that someone else was either not paying attention or letting signs slide. Whether that ignorance is willful or not, the primary point of Unguarded would seem to be this: take care of people you believe you care about.

RATING 6 / 10