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Wednesday night, I had the opportunity to catch a screening of the new ESPN Films documentary, “Unguarded.” The film tells the story of local basketball legend, Chris Herren. The former NBA player’s story is well-documented, as Herren battled substance abuse issues and went through multiple Massachusetts detox programs throughout his life. In fact, in one form of medium or another, Herren’s ongoing journey has always been disseminated.
Bill Reynolds, of the Providence Journal, wrote about the heralded prospect’s recruiting courtship in Fall River Dreams. An unfinished documentary, presumed to revolve around Herren’s life as a young father preparing for the NBA Draft, was taped in 1998. Finally, last year, Reynolds and Herren teamed up to write, Basketball Junkie, which told the story of Herren’s demise and re-emergence.
“Unguarded” almost serves as a bow tie, fusing the coverage of Herren’s life into one gripping film. This presented both challenges and advantages to the film’s director, Jonathan Hock.
How do you re-formulate a story that has already been told?
Hock made two critical (and successful) choices in “Unguarded.” First – much like the 30 For 30 film “June 17, 1994” – Hock chose not to directly interview his subject. Instead, Hock used footage from a variety of speaking engagements Herren frequently does to narrate the documentary.
This ingenuous move proved to be effective because of Herren’s audience. Hock picked roughly four settings to cut and paste from: A high school, basketball camp, military base, and rehabilitation center for prisoners. This eclectic mix of people gave the viewers authentic reaction to Herren’s life. The decision re-affirmed the power of Herren’s story and eliminated any desensitization viewers may have had.
The second choice was selectively pulling the footage from the unfinished documentary from 1998. There were over 140 hours of material, which Hock jovially described as hitting the lottery. The footage was jarring because Herren – who had struggled with a cocaine addiction in college – was newly married with a son. One got a sense of the pensive hope surrounding the family as Herren’s career progressed to the NBA. With his dreams coming to fruition, anything for the young family seemed possible. However, little did the family know, Herren would be pronounced legally dead for 30 seconds after a heroin overdose a mere eight years later.
In my eyes, there are two underlying themes in “Unguarded.” First and foremost, is a family persevering through a father’s sickness. Herren’s addiction never was properly addressed until after he had thrown away his career. Everything was an illusion created in part by Herren’s profile. This isn’t a basketball film, frankly, because for a majority of his life post-Fall River, Chris Herren didn’t care about basketball.
“There was always this feeling of ‘We’re turning it around, because now we are doing this. Now we are good because we’re doing that.’…I kept his addiction going as much as he did,” Herren’s wife, Heather.
Secondly, in my view, is being a product of your environment. Herren had the weight of Fall River’s aspirations on him at a young age, and he delivered. The film conveyed the town as a security blanket for the former savant of the hardwood.
“There is something special about this place (Fall River). You don’t want to let it go. And, it doesn’t want to let you go either.” – Chris Herren, 1998
Herren notes his troubles started at Boston College when he first used cocaine, “It opened up doors I couldn’t shut for 15 years.” After being kicked out of “The Heights,” Herren fled to Fresno State. His game excelled out west, despite lingering drug issues, and his professional career as a Denver Nugget started auspiciously as well.
Unfortunately, when he was traded to the Celtics, Herren re-discovered addiction – this time in the form of the omnipotent pill, OxyContin. Herren’s brother lamented that the move back to Boston was a “death sentence.” Every instance Herren was placed around Fall River, his life seemingly regressed into a worse drug and (ultimately) deeper addiction.
If I were to find one fault in “Unguarded,” I would point to the length. The film is nearly two hours and will certainly be laborious to sit through with interjected commercial breaks. On the contrary, there isn’t one portion of the documentary I can point to and say, “That was unnecessary.”
The portrayal of Herren’s older brother as a folk figure, who piloted Durfee to over 40 straight wins, was necessary to accentuate the pressure put on Chris to perform well. The discussion of Herren’s relationship with his wife was also necessary to substantiate the powerful bond that would not break, even at the worst of times. Herren’s cavalier attitude towards his front-page picture on the Boston Herald and urgency to replenish his pill supply displayed how far his priorities had been displaced.
There were also the anecdotal pieces that aided the film such as Herren’s performance against UMass coming off an all-night bender, the Denver Nugget veterans taking Herren under their collective wing to ensure he would remain sober, and the relationship with Jerry Tarkanian.
Overall, “Unguarded” continues to hit the ambitious target that the ESPN Films strives to aim for. “Unguarded” premieres Tuesday night at 8:00 pm.