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Unguarded (2011)

Chris Herren was a "can't miss" basketball superstar until drug addiction eventually destroyed his career. With the support of his wife and family, Herren struggles to conquer his demons and reclaim his life.

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Jerry Tarkanian ...
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Chris Herren was a "can't miss" basketball superstar until drug addiction eventually destroyed his career. With the support of his wife and family, Herren struggles to conquer his demons and reclaim his life.

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"The Guardfather"
11 October 2012 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

If there's one thing ESPN has showed me from both their documentaries The Fab Five and Unguarded it's that the famous sports company is capable and legitimately talented at compiling substantial content in order to produce a successful documentary on a specific athlete. Unguarded, one of the many ESPN documentaries of the 30 for 30 franchise, centers around basketball player Chris Herren, a Massachusetts native with an intriguing enigma and a voice like Pauly Shore, and how his shockingly talented skills with the ball were clouded by persistent run-ins with drugs and media scrutiny throughout his entire career.

Herren grew up in Fall River, a sizable town in Massachusetts, where friends are not just friends, but part of your extended family. Your younger or older brother isn't the one you tease but the one you love and protect. And you go to your friends before your parents if you have a problem staring you in the face. Herren found solace in his brother, Mike, a man heavily devoted to keeping him safe and protected.

Herren began his college basketball career at Boston College with a scholarship, but dropped out to be a part of Jerry Tarkanian's Fresno State team not long after. His drug use began at Boston, when he snorted his first line of cocaine after being pressured to by a buddy and two young girls. Despite his known history, Fresno State allowed him to play and Coach Tarkanian was very supportive of his aspirations as a professional basketball player.

But it only became worse. Herren's persistent cocaine addiction let down Tarkanian immensely, but was still given numerous chances to prove his worth. Upon graduating, Herren was a second round draft pick for the Denver Nuggets, where he states that he became clean due to the excessive babysitting the team's management pushed on him. Yet when he was traded to the Boston Celtics, where he was back home, he began a severe addiction to Oxycontin and eventually heroin which nearly killed him several times.

The film parallels itself with shots of Herren's current career, which is traveling across the country to high schools, prisons, and athletes and giving not a motivational speech but a recount of his nightmarish tale of drug addiction and the lengthy but not hopeless road to recovery, keenly reminding the audience that he once sat through long, bloated drug speeches during school and payed no attention. He discuss how he received much support from his longtime girlfriend and current wife, Heather, yet how he continued to dispose of it by neglecting his children and leaving all the weight of family to rest on her shoulders. The most chilling scene comes to life when Herren gives a deep account of when he went to the local Dunkin' Donuts to pick up munchkins for his kids and had passed out and needed to be revived in the parking lot after being dead for thirty seconds from a heroin overdose.

Unguarded is a must for aspiring athletes, but not essential viewing for those outside of the ambition, although it might be effective. Rather than having a majority of the story be told from the perspective of the parents of Herren, his brother, or his friends, director Jonathan Hock, who directed another 30 for 30 documentary called The Best There Never Was, allows Herren himself to speak for much of the film, never intruding on his personal story or punctuating the film with invaluable interviews.

Finally, the best aspect of this documentary is the father-son like relationship Herren held with coach Jerry Tarkanian during his career at Fresno State. We see Tarkanian continue to become emotional when speaking directly about Herren, and we see the way the man became so supportive of the star athlete despite impending scrutiny and persistent drug problems. This results in an admirably personal level to the picture's many layers.

Unguarded seems like a story that could simply be ostracized as "nothing new" and "standard anti-drug fare," but it's the personal qualities that elevate it to stand out of the crowd. Much like The Fab Five, the film doesn't hesitate to ask extreme questions and it doesn't fail to deliver slick production values and expertly edited game footage which are equal parts tantalizing and memorable. This is what you call a documentary that perfectly abides by its own rules and even boldly exceeds them. In my book, that's okay on any day.

Starring: Chris Herren, Mike Herren, and Jerry Tarkanian. Directed by: Jonathan Hock.


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