Will Chris Herren and the lost boys of Fresno State ever beat their bad rap and make it to the NBA?
April 16, 1998
By Greg Donaldson
FIVE MILES OF FARMLAND AND HALF A dozen strip malls north of downtown Fresno, California, Chris Herren is dead asleep on a living‑room couch. A telephone rings in the bedroom. When it stops, a cellular phone beside Herren's chest begins to chirp. Herren does not stir. It took the high‑strung shooting guard of the Fresno State basketball team four long hours to fall asleep last night, and he'll be damned if he'll wake up early.
The front door flies open, and a willowy brunette sweeps into the room. "Chris, get up," she orders.
"Chris." Katie Felten, a graduate student in sports management at Fresno State, is employed by the basketball program to rouse Herren each morning and escort him to class. She also tutors him, along with several of the team's other hoop prodigies, each of whom has traveled down his own crooked path to wind up in the San Joaquin Valley and Fresno State University.
Felten strides into the kitchen, chatting like a magpie: "Coach made himself one of those protein drinks. He put it on the roof of his car, and when he backed up, it spilled on his windshield.
“Ha ha ha." Her laugh could wake the unknown soldier. Still the team's top scorer does not move.
"Chris! It's the first day of school. Get up!" Twenty minutes later, Herren finally twitches, opens his ice‑blue‑eyes and runs a hand through his brush cut. If there were a teenage girl in the room, she would squeal.
"Katie," Herren whispers. "Turn that light off. And be quiet. Your voice cuts right through me."
"It's 8:30. You have a 9:00 class."
In a moment, Herren is fast asleep again.
FRESNO STATE IS COLLEGE BASKETBALL’s heart of darkness ‑ a volatile embodiment of both the best and the worst that high‑powered sports programs have to offer. Rich in talent, with Chris Herren and six more high‑school all‑Americans, the Fresno State Bulldogs were ranked eighth in the country in a preseason survey by Sports Illustrated last November. But then the season broke out like a slow‑motion riot: Herren was forced briefly into rehab, and the rest of the team racked up nine suspensions for everything from drug use to assault. The Bulldogs' reputation got so bad that at one point the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that the only place left for Latrell Sprewell to play was Fresno State.
After a series of early‑season losses, the Bulldogs fell out of the national rankings and ended the year losing more than a third of their games. So while the top teams in the NCAA fight for the championship title in San Antonio, the Fresno State players are back at school with worries about academic eligibility for next season and whether they'll ever be marketable for the NBA. Privately, Herren has more troubling concerns: For almost a year, rumors that he might be implicated in a federal point‑shaving investigation have been lurking ominously, and as both the season and his junior year draw to a close, there is no clear resolution in sight.
The man behind the Bulldogs' fate is the team's own Colonel Kurtz, sixty‑seven‑year‑old coach Jerry Tarkanian. The winningest coach in NCAA history, he's been at Fresno State for three years, working his familiar strategy: taking extremely high‑risk players who like the running game, teaching them ferocious defense and making a charge at a title. Critics of Tarkanian also note that in the past, part of his strategy included flaunting certain NCAA regulations, but among troubled players like Herren, he inspires a visceral loyalty.
"If you can't work hard for Tark, you can't work hard for anyone," says Herren, who came to Fresno State after substance‑abuse problems at Boston College. "He sticks his neck out for us. He's more like a friend than a coach."
Joining Herren in Tarkanian's universe is the slashing six‑foot‑seven‑inch junior Terrance Roberson, who, while one of only four players ever named high school all‑American three times by Parade magazine, failed to get the required number of course credits to be eligible for play in his first year at Fresno ‑ making this his first active season. In the front court is six‑foot‑nine‑inch sophomore Winfred Walton, who arrived at Fresno State after NCAA investigations revealed irregularities in his entrance‑test scores and whose shooting touch was so heralded when he came out of high school that experts were surprised he didn't sail straight into the NBA; and Avondre Jones, a six‑foot‑eleven‑inch center and a talented rapper who twice enrolled at USC and twice dropped out. At the point is six‑foot‑three‑inch will‑o'‑the‑wisp Rafer Alston, who's known in his native New York as Skip to My Lou because of his signature open‑court dance‑step maneuver and who's currently on probation for assaulting an ex‑girlfriend.
As Texas Christian University coach Billy Tubbs once blurted out, the Bulldogs will "be good in the WAC race if they all stay out of jail."
FELTEN HAS FINALLY GOTTEN Herren out of bed, and his six‑foot‑three‑inch frame is slumped in the passenger seat of her car as they roll through thick fog toward campus. "I like the fog," he offers. "It's shady."
Beyond the road, somewhere off in the cool mist, lies the vast patchwork of vineyards and farms that surrounds Fresno. Early in this century, Fresno County became a refuge for Armenian immigrants, and Armenians still play an important part in the local agriculture business. This is a land of grapes, hay, peaches and cotton, but bounty has never brought the good life to Fresno: Unemployment hovers at around fifteen percent, and crime is high. Suspended between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the city suffers from an image problem. As the butt of jokes all along the California coast, Fresno found that the only place it could defend its honor against its upper crust neighbors was on the playing fields.
So when Tarkanian became available in 1995, a sea of bumper stickers demanded that he be hired at Fresno State, his alma mater. With the town's favorite Armenian running the show, the next thing the town coveted was a local hero, and last season they got one. Part Montgomery Clift, part Jerry West, no individual player has ever seized the imagination of the city of Fresno like Chris Herren. He's got NBA talent, Hollywood glitter and a blue‑collar game that local fans fully understand.
Making his way to class now, Herren hip‑hops down the rows of towering oak and pine trees: He's wearing ankle‑high motorcycle boots and an oversize blue sweater, and is perhaps the only white guy in America who doesn't look like an idiot in baggy jeans and a backward baseball cap. As he moves among the other students, no one is too insignificant for his personal attention. He nods to everyone and winks at, hugs or kisses the pretty coeds who drift toward him out of the fog. "Did you do it yourself?" one of them asks, fingering his frosted hair. "No, I get it done," he assures her. Herren mixes easily with whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. It has always been his way.
Herren was raised in Fall River, Massachusetts, a one‑time mill town where failure is a local birthright and drinking and brawling are the favored pastimes. His 2,000‑point basketball career at Durfee High made him a supernova in a family of basketball stars ‑ a local legend. But the legend bore a curse. Herren's older brother, Michael, had led Durfee to two state titles but made so many enemies with his bruising play and bristling personality that Chris was accustomed to death threats by the time he became the star of the team himself.
A 1994 McDonald's high school all-American, Chris followed Michael to Boston College. But the beer‑sodden prophets on fraternity row soon reminded him of his destiny: "They would say, 'Oh, you're gonna fuck up like your brother,' " Chris remembers, "and my friends would have to go after them.”
The prophets were right: Herren washed out of BC after only one year. An injury in his first game that kept him off the court prompted an alcoholic descent that quickly made him damaged goods in the basketball world. Then Tarkanian called, and Herren headed west.
Despite his dark reputation, Jerry Tarkanian is no pimp ‑ he has a genuine affection for his players. He also knows how to build a national basketball power in a hurry, but to say that his modus operandi is risky is an understatement. One or two problem players on a team is manageable. An entire starting lineup of them is a formula for disaster, especially combined with Tarkanian's laissez‑faire approach to monitoring his team's off‑court behavior. He left the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1992 under a cloud, tainted by the fact that some of his players had accepted cash gifts from a convicted sports gambler. Last season, Tarkanian's business agent supplied court‑side seats at Bulldogs home games to a reputed gambler named in the continuing point‑shaving investigation. Tarkanian's program is like his freewheeling offense ‑ so fast and loose that trouble is inevitable.
Not everyone in Fresno is a fan. Warren Kessler, a professor of philosophy who teaches classes in ethics at Fresno State, was against the hiring of Tarkanian. He calls the coach an "NCAA scofflaw" whose recruitment is like a "get-rich‑quick scheme" unlikely to bring anything positive to the university.
A source close to the Fresno State team offers a more sanguine assessment: "Positive drug tests, questionable test results, domestic disputes yes. But these kids are not felons. On the other hand, nobody was sorry to see them leave."
Coach Jerry Tarkanian’s program is like his offense –so fast and loose that trouble is inevitable. This team could be good if they all stay out of jail,” said a rival coach.
HERREN ARRIVED AT FRESNO State in 1995 thirty pounds overweight. He hadn't played for two years but whipped himself into shape, played tough all through the 1996-97 season and proved almost unstoppable throughout the Western Athletic Conference tournament that year. Then, just as he had put the finishing touches on his comeback and word had begun to spread about his work ethic, impressive shooting range and uncanny breakdown moves, the Fresno Bee broke the story of a point‑shaving investigation that implicated last year's senior point guard Dominick Young and, later, a story that implicated Herren.
The fact that both players had associated with known gamblers, combined with some suspicious air balls by Young on free‑throw attempts in games where Fresno State failed to cover the point spread, caused alarm. Suspicion quickly extended to Young's back‑court partner, and FBI agents surprised Herren in the Bulldogs' basketball offices, peppering him with questions.
Both Herren and Young deny the allegations, and libel suits have been filed against both the Fresno Bee and the Los Angeles Times, each of which reported a version of the story. "Nothing like that ever happened," Herren insists. "Shave points? I wouldn't know how."
But the damage to Herren's reputation was done, and in the weeks that followed, Herren suffered a meltdown.
"I partied all over," Herren recounts. "L.A., San Francisco. I could party with anybody." He plunged through the night life the way he vaults through defenses designed to stop him. The parties went on till the bars closed, and they continued in after‑hours clubs and private homes. Swigs of beer became snorts of coke.
Then in late November, after failing a drug test, Herren aimed his chiseled face at a television camera and fought back sobs as he admitted to a "setback" in what those close to the team knew to be his fight against alcohol and cocaine abuse. "I have been battling a personal problem for the past four years," he said, covering his face with his hands for a moment. "This is a winnable battle, and one I had been winning, but I am here today to tell everyone that I have slipped up." By the time Tarkanian gripped the microphone and testified that apart from his son Danny, he was "closer to Chris than anybody I've ever coached," there wasn't a dry eye in the San Joaquin Valley.
HERREN WAS IN REHAB FOR three weeks. During that time Fresno State lost four of its five games and fell from national rankings.
In early January, the team's record was a dismal 6‑7 when Herren hit his post‑rehab stride against Southern Methodist University in a nationally televised game in Dallas.
"Alcoholic! Druggy! Rehab!" the frat yahoos screamed during pre‑game warm‑ups. "White trash!" they taunted.
The SMU fans would have been better served had they left Chris Herren alone. In the first half, Herren scored sixteen points on slashes to the basket and NBA‑range three‑pointers. "Herren is sooo difficult to stop," the ESPN commentator gushed. "He shoots the three, and if you come up on him, he goes right past you."
Herren is a star with a rare combination of on‑court prowess and off-court flamboyance that would drive most coaches mad. A perfect team player when the clock is running, he never fears taking the big shot but passes the ball in a nanosecond whenever he's overmatched. During timeouts, though, he'll stroll over to the team huddle and deliberately meet the eyes of fans, opposing players and referees while provocatively pushing his shorts farther and farther down on his hips. "My instinct is to tell him to cut it out," a Fresno State assistant coach says. "But when he gets going, the whole team feeds off him."
And it's true. When Herren explodes, the other players miraculously fall into sync, and this is a team that could win championships. (When the magic is gone, it's another story: "Everybody is in their own car, driving, with no passengers, putting up shots," said Temple University coach Joan Chaney after beating the Bulldogs. "It doesn't serve them well in the long run.")
After halftime, to the dismay of SMU fans, Herren began to get in touch with his inner self. Most players like to play at home to the cheers of a friendly crowd. A rare player like Herren needs to torment an opposing crowd and bask in the agony he's caused.
With ten minutes to go, Herren strong‑armed an inbound pass from an SMU guard, rocketed to the basket and dunked. Then he proceeded to skip down the sidelines and point up at the unhappy fans. Suddenly he came to a halt. TV screens across the country filled with his face. His eyes burned, but his smile was warm and easy. Next, he turned to find another camera. "He's spotted every camera in the building," one of the TV colormen marveled. Six minutes later,
with the score tied, Herren nailed another three‑pointer and stole the ball for another dunk. This time he bellowed with satisfaction and hugged himself for the television audience. At the end of the game, he'd scored thirty‑three points, and Fresno State won by two points. Along the runway to the Fresno locker room, SMU fans lined up and bowed.
FUNDAMENTALLY, COLLEGE basketball is an entertainment extravaganza staged by institutions of higher learning for large profits. Last year, NCAA schools made more than $100 million in television revenue on college hoops. In 1995, when Tarkanian was hired at Fresno State, donations to the Bulldog Foundation, which raises money for the university's athletic program, jumped from $3.9 million to $6.5 million. To keep this business running, Fresno State and other basketball schools do everything they can to ensure that star players don't do anything to jeopardize their ability to play.
At Fresno State this takes considerable effort. On any given day, a staff of tutors, academic advisers and even personal companions are busy in the basketball offices making sure players get through the day: "No, Daymond did not make it to his nine o'clock." "Tell Chris and Avondre not to sit together in psychology class." "Rafer, find somebody you don't know and sit next to them."
"All teams have problems," says Jack Fertig, coordinator of basketball at Fresno. "We just have more of them."
Herren possesses more than enough intelligence to master college‑level schoolwork. Coaches and even opposing players have learned the folly of trying to best him in a verbal joust. But he cannot concentrate. In high school he couldn't sit still long enough to attend a movie. Even now he doesn't take any classes that last more than an hour and has a hard time reading anything longer than a page of text. And so there is Katie Felten, whose efforts with him and the rest of the team have helped to give the Bulldogs an average GPA of 2.72.
The problem is that while so much support may help a player survive college, once it's gone he may be incapable of surviving anything else. Herren and his teammates have, in many ways, flourished under the system at Fresno State, which allows their weaknesses to go unchallenged. But where else will they be given such leeway? The only place Herren is forced to exercise any personal responsibility is at daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where he wages war against his instinct to push the envelope, especially after games. "I'm, like, up," he says of his post‑game rush, "and the tendency is to keep going. But I know that if I do, I'll destroy myself."
Driving around Fresno, he imagines the NBA as a haven: "I’d lie on my back in a hotel all day, switching channels with the remote, and play at night," he says. "Simple." And if he can win the war against his instincts ‑ not push the envelope ‑ he might get his wish. Boston Celtics scout Leo Papile, who's watched Herren for years, predicts a ten‑year NBA career for him as a combination point and shooting guard.
IT IS LATE JANUARY, AND FRESNO State has won four games in a row, when disaster strikes again.
Tremaine Fowlkes ‑ one of the best rebounders in college basketball ‑ and Avondre Jones are both suspended for "violations" that the Fresno Bee reports are positive drug tests ‑ the same thing that forced starting forward Daymond Forney off the team earlier in the season.
Some schools, like Stanford, have no drug‑testing policy at all. Fresno State's, strengthened by the university last August, may be the toughest in the country. It is relentless, yet ironically forgiving. Off‑season tests are frequent and random, but the first violation is a private affair. It takes three offenses before a player is dismissed.
Despite the two suspensions, Fresno hangs tough and wins a few games before an emotional loss to the nation's highest‑scoring team, Texas Christian University. Another loss and the Bulldogs' chances for a good seed in the WAC tournament in March will wither, along with their shot at an NCAA bid. At practice, Tarkanian tries to rally his players. "We got SMU tomorrow and, damn it, we're gonna go with our amoeba defense," he announces, then pauses. "That is, if none of you guys get suspended between now and tomorrow night. Jesus. You got me afraid to pick up the phone."
Moments after the lecture, as if to mock Tarkanian’s words, none other than former point guard Dominick Young, the prime target of the FBI's point‑shaving investigation, drifts onto the court in street clothes. One might think that the basketball program would seek to keep Young from associating with this year's team, and that Tarkanian ‑and Herren especially ‑ would find something else to occupy his attention in a hurry if he ever ran into him. Instead, recklessness ensues: Herren extends an invitation to dinner, which Young declines, and Tarkanian sits down with Young for a long and intimate discussion.
Last summer, Herren plunged through the night life like he vaults through defenses designed to stop him. “I partied all over. I could party with anybody.”
FRESNO STATE GOES INTO THE WAC tournament seeded second in the Pacific Division and hoping for a championship that might set the season right.
But after running over San Diego State, the Bulldogs stumble against an inspired UNLV. Tarkanian's amoeba defense is slow to react on the perimeter; Herren sprints up and down the court but doesn't see the ball until the UNLV defense is stacked against him; Avondre Jones looks sullen and out of sync; and Roberson, a prodigious leaper ‑ so dangerous off the dribble is reduced to throwing up long jump shots. In the final moments of the game, a UNLV player snatches an offensive rebound from a free throw. Tarkanian waves a hand at the team in disgust.
Leaving the arena, each player knows he has lost more than a basketball game ‑ and for the first time, even Herren lacks his trademark swagger.
Back in Fresno, NBA scouts are still showing interest in him, but Herren plays it safe ‑ at least on the surface and tells Tarkanian he plans to stay for his senior year. "I'm going to take my classes, work on my sobriety," he says later, explaining the decision. It's clear, though, that he is worried about his future. The current word on the point‑shaving investigation is that a grand jury will make its case either by the summer or not at all.
"They keep saying that the investigation is picking up steam," Herren says with frustration. "I wanna know, When is this steamboat gonna pull out?" In a moment, though, his bravado returns. To the local reporters who continue to write about the investigation and to the prosecutors who have let him dangle for so long, Herren issues a challenge: "Don't sing it, bring it."
No matter what the grand jury determines, the next year in Fresno will not be an easy one for Herren. Off the court there are college courses, always an irritation. Then there is the mighty effort to stay sober ‑ an effort that will only grow greater with what will likely be an even more volatile team next season. Tarkanian plans to start a six-foot‑six‑inch former big scorer from the University of Virginia, Courtney Alexander ‑ probably the best player Fresno State has ever seen. Like his new teammates, however, he's got a past: He left UVA after being arrested for beating up his girlfriend.
On the court, Chris Herren runs on pure adrenalin injected into a nervous system wired like an Indie 500 race car. You can see it in his eyes ‑ in the way he twitches and attacks the rim. But after the game you can see the same eyes wondering where the next jolt is coming from. What remains to be seen is whether Herren can live his off‑court life without the rush and make it into the big tent of the NBA.