ESPN Films: Unguarded (2011)

Directed by Jonathan Hock

An interesting inclusion in the series, Unguarded seems like a tailor made story for such a series, and yet it is directed by Jonathan Hock, who is also the director of the film The Best That Never Was, which is yet to come in the marathon. As the only two time director in the series, Hock, an otherwise unknown to me, seems to have a certain amount of credit given to him by executive producer Bill Simmons and ESPN. A friend of mine, without knowing who directed what and probably ignorant to the theory of auteur (sorry Daniel, but I dare you to tell me what that means), told me that Hock’s two films were among the best he had seen of the series. There must be something to it, and everybody does seem to love the classic story of a man with the world in his hands who throws it all away.

Chris Herren was a high school basketball sensation in Massachusetts, setting the Durfee High School record for points scored and leading his team to the state championship. He was a special athlete who went to Boston College and quickly became a problem off the court, becoming hooked on cocaine and continuously testing positive. He was kicked off the team and subsequently was given a chance across the country by a coach who was starting over as well, Jerry Tarkanian and Fresno State. Herren continued his problems, but also continued his success on the court. He was drafted, but he kept slipping in and out of sobriety, lacking any great support network and always going behind the back of his loving and caring wife Heather. Now he is sober. Now he tells his story to those who need it.

It is not an easy story to swallow and the entire film is a rough go of it for many reasons but mostly just for the pure and simple reason that you say to yourself over and over again “why?” Why is Chris Herren continually throwing away his opportunities and his talent? Why is no one stepping in to help guard him from the evil which are stealing his life away from him? What makes the film succeed to the extent that it does is the pure heart and emotion of Herren. The film follows the chronological story as it happened, but instead of Hock bringing in the experts and family members to retell it, he lets Herren himself retell it as he gives his speeches to the various people he now talks to. We see him in a high school gym, speaking to inmates, and even back at the rehabilitation center where he became sober. This personal connection which is formed with Herren makes his story that much more tough to swallow.

It would be so easy to look at Herren and his story and say what a waste. What a waste of a talent and what a waste of a life. It would have been easy to give up on Herren early on in his struggles, and I am sure there were those that did, but it was the ones who didn’t that make his story and ultimately this film as good as they are. There is never a point in anyone’s life where anyone should give up, and Chris Herren had his wife Heather to be there and help him through it. It was a hard road, but the redemption and rehabilitation are proof of the human spirit of love and endurance through the toughest times. She could have easily left and had been quite justified to do so, but she loved him and helped him through the hardships, which shows of strength, integrity and love.

Quitting should not be an option, even when talent has already been wasted. Hock paces the film quite impressively, allowing plenty of time for the story to sink in and for reflection. With every tragedy there seems to be triumph, which makes the subsequent, and inevitable, tragedy that much more devastating. Chris Herren is walking proof that love exists. He is proof that determination and fate are closely related. I am very interested to see where Hock goes with the other film in the series because this was an impressive debut. While still not on the level perhaps of the great documentaries, his craft does allow an already great story to unfold in a very organic, compelling, and moving fashion.

*** – Very Good

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