Book by: Chris Herren and Bill Reynolds
Review by: Andrew Murray
Michigan State University
Chris Herren was “dead for thirty seconds,” according to the officer that found him unresponsive behind the wheel of his parked car in Fall River, Massachusetts (p. 12). Basketball Junkie: A Memoir begins here and details Herren’s double life, one side in the very public realm of athletics and the other outside of the spotlight, behind closed doors. He was a nationally prominent high school basketball star from a small, hoops-crazed town who went on to play big-time college ball and professionally in the National Basketball Association and overseas. Cynically, the pressures associated with the athletic life that chose him lead to alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and death, at least for a moment. Herren’s memoir provides the reader an up-close experience with pressure, addiction, and life on the edge but also the power of family, friends, and the human spirit.
Herren felt the pressure from the beginning. His grandfather, father, and older brother had a history of basketball success and he was the next in line for Durfee basketball, his high school in Fall River, Massachusetts. Losing was failure. Not winning state championships was failure. Every dribble, every pass, every shot was scrutinized. In this small town environment, when he wasn’t playing basketball, he was partying with his friends, smoking and swiping bottles of alcohol from liquor cabinets to drown out critical voices.
As his basketball career progressed, the pressure amplified and the substance abuse continued. At Boston College, Herren first tried cocaine. From there, he moved on to painkillers, and then to heroin. It wasn’t until he’d crisscrossed the world playing basketball and returned home to Fall River, jobless, broke, and almost dead, that he found a way to fight through his addiction and begin his recovery.
While readers may not understand the nuanced world of big-time high school, college, and professional athletics, it’s easy to relate with the pressures that young people face, regardless of their environment. It’s hard to believe, considering the support people and systems detailed throughout (coaches, advisors, etc.), that it took Herren so long to find help and for that help to have a lasting impact. At the same time, it speaks to the consuming nature of addiction and the immense challenge it poses.
Academic advisors, in some ways, have limited opportunities to interact with students. Herren’s story is a testament to the importance of making the most of those chances. Advisors must learn as much as possible, make a meaningful connection, and show empathy. In his basketball camps, where he teaches about the sport and shares his life experiences, Herren goes as far as assuming that the campers are coming from difficult situations themselves, knowing “how fragile kids can be” (p. 260). He works with elementary, middle school, and high school-aged athletes, but the idea translates well to higher education. College students, with more life experience, can be just as fragile, if not more so.
Basketball Junkie: A Memoir reminds readers of the importance of connection and the strength of the human spirit. Issues of substance abuse and addiction are hard to comprehend from outside perspectives, but can be countered by love and support. Ultimately, the right combination of family, friends, and inner-strength can always overcome.
Basketball Junkie: A Memoir. (2011). Book by Chris Herren and Bill Reynolds. Review by Andrew Murray. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin. 275 pp., $14.99, ISBN 978-1-250-00689-9