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Chris Herren: An American Tragedy Research Paper

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Updated: Feb 8th, 2019

Chris Herren is a former professional basketball player from Fall River, Massachusetts. Born in 1975, Herren was an avid basketball player from an early age. Chris Herren’s story about the immense success of a boy from a small town resonates with the American dream. Chris Herren attended Durfee High school, a virtually unknown school in Fall River.

He then proceeded to Boston and Fresno State Colleges before embarking on a career with a couple of teams on the NBA. Chris’ life and basketball career were immensely affected by his drug abuse problems. Chris’ journey as a basketball player is the subject of the ESPN-produced documentary “Unguarded”.

The film documentary tracks Herren’s basketball roots from his high school days up to the time of his retirement from professional basketball (Unguarded). Herren’s drug problem features heavily in “Unguarded”. Herren’s story is similar to that of dozens of young men and women across America who are elevated from humble origins to the national limelight. It remains the dream of many youngsters to have the chance such as the one that Herren had.

However, there are those who feel that the American society is responsible for the tragic events that happen to budding superstars such as Chris Herren. Herren’s life and career as presented in “Unguarded” is more representative of the American tragedy than the American dream.

The American society is quick to recognize strengths of celebrated individuals. However, when these same individuals exhibit some weaknesses the society quickly dismisses them as weak, irresponsible, and unappreciative. This seems to be the main theme in “Unguarded”.

When Herren’s drug abuse problem becomes apparent, most people consider this affliction as a personal failure on his part. The documentary does not reveal any individual attempts to try to empathize with Herren. At one point Herren was a darling of the American people before he found himself as an object of constant criticism from the same people. The American society considered Chris to one of the lucky few who had the chance to earn a lot of money and respect.

Therefore, the society expected him to act in a manner that was in line with his social and economical status. To most people Herren was living the American dream and it was hard to understand how he was being brought down by such a ‘small’ drug abuse problem. In the end, Herren the embodiment of the American dream found himself being called a “junkie” by his fans during basketball matches (Unguarded).

In addition, sports casters and columnists constantly berated his performance in lieu of his drug related problems. Herren’s case is a perfect example of the American tragedy. Once an individual is accorded with the necessary status in the society, no weaknesses can be tolerated from him/her. The situation would have been different if Americans had empathized with Herren’s problem and encouraged him to seek help.

This is usually what the society does with average citizens. However, those who have a realistic chance of achieving the American dream are usually treated differently. Therefore, it is not surprising that various American dreams quickly turn into American tragedies. The casualties of these tragedies include those people who are constantly in the public limelight such as athletes, actors, and musicians.

Jonathan Hock, the director of “Unguarded” reveals how Herren was accorded several lucrative chances in his professional basketball career. As a high school student, Herren was actively pursued by a myriad of colleges across the country. It is revealed that Herren got letters from colleges that wanted to sign him almost on a daily basis.

One would assume that this early interest in his skills would have prepared Chris Herren for the future. However, “Unguarded” reveals that Herren squandered successive chances throughout his life. It is also revealed that whenever he wasted a chance in his career it only led to problems that were more personal.

The American dream enhances the importance of successive growth and this is what was expected from Herren. This means that even though it appeared as if Chris was living the American dream, he was indeed sinking into tragedy. The successive chances he got after wasting the ones he had only served as an encouragement that he could still achieve even though he was a drug addict.

Herren’s handlers were aware of his state of mind and personal struggles as exemplified by the love-hate relationship between Herren and several of his coaches. No one in Herren’s life was bold enough to put brakes on his deteriorating life decisions. This is the tragedy of the American dream.

Individuals who are thought to possess valuable abilities are given a free pass to engage in destructive habits. In the documentary, Herren’s high school basketball coach admits that he was aware of Herren’s alcohol and drug abuse but there was nothing he could have done about it (Unguarded).

The coach admits that his failure to act is partially based on the fact that Herren was too valuable to the school team. Moreover, the coach would not have wanted to be the individual who stood between Chris Herren and his American dream. However, without realizing it all those institutions and people who gave Herren a free pass were just contributing to his tragedy.

For instance, in the end Herren almost died from a heroin overdose when driving. Whenever people think a young person is destined to achieve the American dream, they tend to abstain from correcting him/her and that is how American dreams turn into tragedies. Chris Herren’s case is an example of this phenomenon.

The story that is told in “Unguarded” is all too common. Chris Herren, a young man from a small town proceeding to achieve great things on a global front. The story was supposed to have a happy ending but the values that Herren’s small town imparted on him proved to be his main undoing.

Fall River was a small town where basketball was adored and young men would party hard and engage in risky behavior. According to the documentary, the mantra of the young men of Fall River was “Born in Fall River, die in Fall River” (Unguarded). Herren’s prospective American dream was in contrast to this mantra. His various troubles with the law and drug problems often brought him back to Fall River.

On the other hand, his gang of childhood friends is said to have followed him across the country in places where he played professional basketball. The clash between small town life and the American dream is usually the subject of various literary works. Most times, this clash ends in a tragedy as it happened in Herren’s case. Most people who are able to achieve the American dream are the ones who are able to cut off their connection to their small-town roots.

The pursuit of the American dream ends with Chris Herren dying for thirty seconds. The high school basketball legend was destined to live the American dream but his journey saw him maneuver one tragedy after another. The American dream can quickly turn into the American tragedy, as it is the case with Herren. The resemblance of success should not be mistaken for actual success.

Works Cited

Unguarded. Dir. Jonathan Hock. Perf. Chris Herren, Rick Pitino, Bill Reynolds. ESPN Films, 2011, DVD.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Chris Herren: An American Tragedy." February 8, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/chris-herren-an-american-tragedy/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Chris Herren: An American Tragedy'. 8 February.

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