They held open the back door and offered him a chance to slip silently out of town, no cameras, no questions, no shame. His doctors and advisers gave him two options: They could tell the world that he had come down with the flu or mono or some other ailment, or if he preferred, they could say in a brief press release that he was taking some time off to deal with personal problems. His coach at Fresno State, Jerry Tarkanian, would bow his head and say a few supportive words to the media, and Chris Herren, one of the best players in the country, could vanish from sight like an escaped convict, off to an undisclosed location for an undetermined length of time.
Herren had called Tarkanian the night before and told him that he had been struggling. He had seen the sun come up too many times, his mind racing out of control, alcohol and cocaine destroying his spirit and his good sense. He needed to go away for a while and get treatment, and he needed to do it right. No more lies: He didn't have the flu, and he wasn't sneaking out in the dark of night, one step ahead of the demons that had been stalking him since he'd left his hometown of Fall River, Mass., three years before. "For once," Herren said, "I'm going to stand up and take responsibility."
Fresno State had started this season ranked No. 13 in the country and had won its first three games, but Herren had never been more miserable. "It was a nightmare, and it was getting worse and worse," he says. "I was sick of staying up all night, sick of being miserable, sick of hiding, sick of the lies. It was time to start telling the truth."
So at a press conference on Nov. 25, Herren sat in front of the cameras and told the world that he had "slipped up" in his fight against substance abuse. He knew his life would never be the same—but he also knew that wouldn't be such a bad thing.
The crack-heads and heroin addicts looked at him as if he were crazy. Herren says he would sit in group-therapy sessions during his 23-day rehabilitation at a hospital in Salt Lake City with people who had needle tracks in their necks from injecting heroin, and they would look at him and shake their heads, as if to say, What's wrong with you, kid? Some of the patients had lost everything—their jobs, their families, their health, their dignity—and still they couldn't understand how Herren could be such a fool. "My problem wasn't as severe as most of the others', but they knew I had a chance to do something very special, to be somebody and have a good life," he says. "They couldn't believe I was jeopardizing all that."
So the crack-heads and heroin addicts at the hospital were no different from just about everyone else who had met Herren since he'd left high school. They wanted to grab him by the collar and shake some sense into him.
Herren has been blessed with all the tools to play basketball at the highest level: the skills, the instincts and a flair for the game. Coaches love him. Pro scouts rave about him. Fans adore him. The TV cameras can't get enough of him. He's a 6'3" guard who can shoot from NBA three-point range and slash to the hoop with rare quickness and power. He has a showman's love for the stage and a knack for coming through in the clutch. "It's hard to describe," says Fresno State assistant coach John Welch. "It's a charisma, a magnetism. People are just drawn to him, on the basketball court and off. People just like to be around him."
His brown hair is streaked blond, and his arms are covered with tattoos. He walks with a hip-hop swagger, talks in a too-cool cadence and carries himself with the confidence of a rock star. "I know I'm a cool guy," he says. "People like to kick it with me." When he takes the court, he's like Clint Eastwood stepping into a scene. It's impossible to take your eyes off him. He talks trash with his opponents, yaps with the fans, shouts encouragement to teammates and never stops moving. "He's a special person and a special player," says Leo Papile, head scout for the Boston Celtics. "If you were going to the electric chair tomorrow, Chris is the kind of guy you would want to hang out with your last night."
He's also the kind of guy who could thrive in the NBA, a good college player whose skills and style may fit even better in the pros. In fact, one knock against Herren is that he may shoot better from 20 feet (through last weekend he was a career .356 shooter from three-point range) than he does on mid-range jumpers from 15. "Chris has more than enough ability to have a 10-or 12-year career in the NBA," says Papile. "He's not a pure point guard, but he's very good at distributing the ball, and he can score inside and out. He's not fast for a white guy; he's just fast."
Papile ought to know. Before Rick Pitino hired him to scout for the Celtics, Papile was a renowned New England hoops gypsy who coached a summer team for high-school-aged kids. He spent three summers traveling the country with Herren, and together they won three national tides. Nine of Papile's summer-league players have reached the NBA, including former NBA All-Star guards Dana Barros and Michael Adams. "Chris is better than either of them," says Papile. Tarkanian says Herren "could be the best guard I've ever coached" and has called him "the best white guard since Jerry West." Head-spinning stuff for a player who as of Sunday was averaging 15.4 points for an 11-7 team, but there's never been a shortage of people telling Herren how terrific he is.