July 1, 2011

1. Basketball Junkie

I recently attended an author talk at a local library. The authors were Bill Reynolds and Chris Herren, their book is called Basketball Junkie. It talks about Herren’s experiences as a basketball star and drug addict. Reynolds is a Providence sports writer who has written numerous sports-related books, including Fall River Dreams, which deals with high-school basketball in Fall River, Massachusetts. More specifically, Fall River Dreams deals with the basketball culture at Durfee High School, where Chris Herren was a star player. Reynolds and Herren became friends while Reynolds was writing Fall River Dreams. Reynolds often drove Herren home, and often sat in his living-room while he was recruited by college coaches.

Reynolds is a familiar figure in Providence, especially to a basketball fan like myself. He has the classic basketball physique, tall and thin (he’s about 6'7"), and he was a star player at Brown. He grew up in Barrington, one of Rhode Island’s most affluent towns. While writing Fall River Dreams, Reynolds met Herren’s mother, and they were later married.

Herren grew up in the rough-and-tumble environment of working-class Fall River. He’s 6'3" and strongly built; he looks more like a football player than a basketball player. Perhaps it’s his strength that enabled him to be an NBA player, as well as a high-school and college star.

Anyone who follows sports knows that athletic talent runs in families. Herren exemplifies this: his grandfather and father played basketball in Fall River,1 probably for Durfee High, and his older brother, Michael, was a three-time all-state basketball player at Durfee (the only Massachusetts high-school player who was all-state three times, besides the Herren brothers, was Patrick Ewing). Chris scored more than 2,000 points at Durfee, was the Massachusetts Player of the Year, and was a star on the AAU circuit.

Chris was known for being a hard-nosed player. When someone asked him why he never backed down, he said “my father would smack me if I did.” Clearly the Herren brothers weren’t taught to “turn the other cheek,” but rather to smack the person who hit their first cheek. A few years ago, after he became sober, Chris worked at one of the roughest of jobs: repossessing cars. Michael Herren was recently arrested twice in Fall River — once for assaulting his girlfriend, and once for assaulting a young man who entered his house.

Chris was known for his charismatic, flamboyant style of play. When he was a star at Fresno State, he was already known for his drug problems, and opposing fans often taunted him. He would taunt them back, establishing a kind of rapport with the fans. He became something of a celebrity, and was profiled in Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, and 60 Minutes. He was a major figure in a film about the Fresno team, Between the Madness. (Now ESPN is making a film about Herren, expected to be broadcast in November.)

Herren was a party animal, a person whom people wanted to be with. When I met him, I noticed a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He was so un-bookish that he didn’t even read Fall River Dreams, a book about his basketball team, a book in which he was a central character! Herren began his talk by thanking the audience profusely for coming to hear him; he seems genuinely humble, perhaps as a result of his mistakes and setbacks.

Herren said he became involved with drugs and alcohol when he was in 8th grade, and he became involved with hard drugs (cocaine) when he was a Boston College freshman (he attended Boston College for one year, before being expelled for drug use; he played little basketball at Boston College, since he was injured in the first game of the season2). Herren often used prescription drugs, like OxyContin. Prescription pain-killers are often taken by addicts. After two years in the NBA, Herren played overseas; he says he played in seven countries, and took heroin in every one. One wonders what sort of playing career he would have had without substance-abuse.

He finally overcame his substance-abuse in the summer of 2008, with help from Chris Mullin, a former basketball star who had wrestled with his own substance-abuse problems. Mullin sent Herren to a detox facility in Rhinebeck, New York, a facility that Mullin described as “real, real hard-core.”3

Herren must have been predisposed to substance-abuse. Was there something in his parenting, his upbringing, that predisposed him? In my book of aphorisms, I said that a younger sibling is more apt to have drug and alcohol problems, a younger sibling often has less self-discipline.

Herren’s coach at Fresno State was Jerry Tarkanian, who was known for recruiting players with troubled histories. Tarkanian called Herren the best guard he’d ever coached, and the best white guard since Jerry West. Herren liked Tarkanian, and would call him nightly just to hear his voice. Tarkanian said he was closer to Herren than to any other player, except his son Danny.

Tark wasn’t the only person impressed with Herren’s play. On December 11, 1996, the New York Times said,

Chris Herren, the highly recruited player from Fall River, Mass., who went West after playing one game at Boston College, returned to his home state tonight as the chief tormentor in Fresno State’s 102-81 victory over the University of Massachusetts.

Unfazed by a steady chorus of boos at the start, the 6-foot-3-inch Herren dazzled a sellout crowd.... Herren, a sophomore playing his first season under Coach Jerry Tarkanian, put on a spectacular display of shooting, passing and defense. He finished with 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting, including 3 of 5 on 3-pointers, and 5 assists.

In a recent issue, I discussed The Fighter, a movie about boxers in a rough neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts. This movie has several similarities to Chris Herren’s story. Perhaps Basketball Junkie will be brought to the big screen. If it is, Herren’s wife will have a major role. Herren met his wife when he was in 6th grade, and though she sometimes kicked him out of the house during his addict days, she stood by him, and raised three children.

Currently Herren has a successful career as a coach, motivational speaker, etc. He lives with his family in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. “Herren” is a German name; his background is German-Irish.

2. Movies

A. I enjoyed a movie called The Hunt for Red October, which is about a Soviet submarine captain who decides to defect to the U.S. The movie was made in 1990, and it’s based on a novel that Tom Clancy wrote in 1984, when he was 37. The novel was Clancy’s first, and it launched his career. The novel is based on several actual events:

  1. In 1961, a Lithuanian captain sailed a Soviet barge to Sweden, and defected. Clancy’s captain is also Lithuanian.
  2. In 1968, a Soviet sub sank off Hawaii. It was secretly recovered in 1974 by the CIA. Clancy’s novel may have been influenced by the Soviet hunt for the missing sub, and by the American desire to study Soviet technology.
  3. In 1975, there was a mutiny on a Soviet frigate — an idealistic communist wanted to use the frigate to protest against corruption in the Soviet system. The frigate was chased by numerous Soviet ships, just as the submarine in Clancy’s novel is chased by other Soviet subs.

B. I saw Juno, a popular film from 2007. It’s easy to see why it was popular: the romantic relationships develop in a way that’s surprising, but credible and satisfying. On the whole, though, I wasn’t much impressed with Juno. The dialogue is quirky and crude.

C. I also saw a film called What the Bleep Do We Know!? Made in 2004, it has become well-known as an expression of New Age thinking — mysticism, the occult, quantum mechanics, etc. What the Bleep discusses the power of thought, and says that when numerous people are meditating in a particular city, the crime rate falls.4 According to Wikipedia, the theme of What the Bleep is that “we create our own reality.” One might compare it to The Secret, a film that I discussed in an earlier issue. But I didn’t like What the Bleep as much as I liked The Secret. What the Bleep seems formless, disorganized; I’m not surprised that film critics took a dim view of it. It was made by three people who attended Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment in rural Washington state.

D. I also saw a movie called The Firm, which is based on a John Grisham novel. It has too much action, it’s stressful to watch, it’s long, and it didn’t impress critics.

3. Werner Herzog

I enjoyed a documentary film by Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World. It’s about the scientists and other people whom Herzog meets when he visits Antarctica. Many interesting interviews, many memorable scenes; I recommend it. Herzog is a major figure in the film world; I discussed his work in an earlier issue.

I also saw Grizzly Man, Herzog’s documentary about Timothy Treadwell, who lived among Alaskan grizzlies for 13 summers, before finally being killed by a grizzly (his girlfriend was also killed). It’s a good film, and it seems to be more popular than Encounters at the End of the World, but I don’t think it’s better than Encounters. It focuses on Treadwell’s eccentricities, rather than on bear behavior, or nature scenes.

Treadwell felt that bears would attack you if you showed fear, or ran away, but if you stood your ground, and spoke to them in a tone of authority, they wouldn’t attack. He mingled with grizzlies even when fish were scarce, even when the grizzlies were so hungry that they were eating other grizzlies. The bear that finally killed him was apparently a bear that Treadwell had already identified as dangerous and ill-tempered. Just before Treadwell died, his girlfriend said that he was “hell-bent on destruction.”

Treadwell was at home in the wild, and on friendly terms with foxes. But he was hostile to the human world, especially the Park Service. He didn’t have the tranquility of a mystic; he alternated between sentimental love and raging hatred. He knew he might be killed eventually, but he felt he had a mission to study bears, teach the public about them, and protect them. Perhaps he aspired to become a hero; perhaps he felt that if he died, and became a martyr to the cause, that would hallow his work, and spread his reputation. He left his girlfriend out of his video, perhaps to make himself seem like a solitary crusader. He said that, before he began his bear work, he had “no life”; he struggled with substance-abuse problems. The bears saved him, as he saved them.

I also saw a documentary about birds called Winged Migration, made by a French team. It’s highly esteemed by critics. “Most of the footage is aerial, and the viewer appears to be flying alongside birds of successive species.”5 There’s little narration, and no plot; it might be just as enjoyable on a second viewing. It has some great scenes, I recommend it.

4. Primitive Religion

One of the last chapters of Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions is on primitive religion. As I read this chapter, I was struck once again at how closely the primitive worldview resembles what I call the Philosophy of Today.

Smith turns first to Australia, since it has the most primitive people. “Australia is the only continent,” Smith writes, “that did not undergo the Neolithic experience, which elsewhere began about 10,000 BC and witnessed the invention of farming and technically advanced stone implements.” Smith says that later religions stressed opposites like heaven and hell, but primitive religion doesn’t make those sharp distinctions: “the world of aboriginal religion is a single one.”6 This is a central tenet of the Philosophy of Today: unus mundus, one world; spirit and matter aren’t sharply distinguished, they overlap, inter-penetrate.

The primitive doesn’t make a sharp distinction between people and animals. The tribe has a totem animal, which is like an ancestor. Even plants are thought to have a spirit, and to be kin. “Human beings and nature belong to a single order.”7 Even the inanimate world is part of this order. “Rocks are alive. Under certain conditions they are believed to be able to talk, and at times — as in the case of Ayers Rock in Australia — they are considered divine.”

As man is connected to nature, so the individual is connected to his tribe; “to their own tribe [primitives] are related in almost the way that a biological organ is related to its host’s body.”8 The primitive world is about connections, relationships, it’s not about separateness and individuality. “All beings, not overlooking heavenly bodies and the elements of wind and rain, are brothers and sisters. Everything is alive, and each depends in ways on all the others.”9 The Philosophy of Today also sees the whole universe as alive. In my book of aphorisms, I said that the Philosophy of Today is a new animism:

One might describe the history of religion as a progression from animism to polytheism to monotheism to atheism. Now, however, we seem to be coming full circle, and developing a new religion that resembles animism. Our new religion sees energy and intelligence suffusing the universe. It doesn’t see God as distinct from the universe, or distinct from man. It draws no distinction between spirit and matter, mind and body.

Smith says that primitives don’t worship gods, they become gods, they play roles invented by the gods. When they hunt, for example, they identify with, they become, the first hunter, the archetypal hunter, the demi-god who invented hunting. Primitive life is permeated with ritual because the primitive is continually acting out roles created by legendary figures.

As the legendary figures are respected, so too ancestors are respected, and the elder generation is respected; “primal peoples,” Smith says, “respect their elders enormously.”10

The primitive doesn’t distinguish between sacred and profane; religion permeates all aspects of life. Hunting, for example, isn’t just a practical matter. A hunter “launches on a complex of meditative acts, all of which — whether preparatory prayer and purification, pursuit of the quarry, or the sacramental manner by which the animal is slain and subsequently treated — are imbued with sanctity.”11

As religion permeates all aspects of life, so too art permeates all aspects of life. “Among the languages of American Indians there is no word for ‘art,’ because for Indians everything is art.”12

Primitive culture, Smith says, is an oral culture — not only incapable of writing, but hostile to writing. Writing undermines, damages, oral culture. Smith describes an African tribe whose life is permeated by poetry. Such a life is undermined by writing: “If we have to single out the factor which caused the decline of English village culture, we should have to say it was literacy.”13 Writing is infinite, while memorized knowledge is finite. In a literate culture, “Minds become waterlogged with information and narrowed through specialization.”14 In an oral culture, on the other hand, knowledge is closely connected to life. Smith quotes the anthropologist Paul Radin, who said that literacy produced a “disorientation in our whole psychic life” by elevating thinking above other mental functions.

Smith says that primitive religion is rooted in specific places. He quotes the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss: “Being in their place is what makes objects sacred.”15 Smith tells the story of an American Indian who went to college, and when he returned home, his uncle went out in a canoe with him, and asked him who he was.

Successively, the nephew ventured that he was Oren Lyons, an Onondagan, a human being, a man, a young man, all to no avail. When his uncle had reduced him to silence and he asked to be informed as to who he was, his uncle said, “Do you see that bluff over there? Oren, you are that bluff. And that giant pine on the other shore? Oren, you are that pine. And this water that supports our boat? You are this water.”16

Primitive man is rooted in the earth, rooted in specific places, and his notion of the sacred is related to specific places.

Unlike later religions, primitive religion doesn’t disparage “this world” in favor of another world, an after-life. Primitive man isn’t preoccupied with the salvation of his soul. On the other hand, he doesn’t think death is complete extinction, either; “life after death tends to be a shadowy semi-existence in some vaguely designated place.” Later religions discuss creation, but primitive religion has “nothing like the notion of creation ex nihilo.”17 In all these respects, the primitive worldview resembles the Philosophy of Today.

Smith says that primitive man has a “symbolist mentality,”18 that is, he regards visible things as symbols of other things. “When ethnologists declared that for the Algonquins ‘there is no [spirit] outside the world of appearances,’ this simply meant that they were unaware that for the primal mind appearances never exist entirely on their own.”19

Smith says that a shaman is one “who can bypass symbolism and perceive spiritual realities directly” — an expert in matters of the spirit (this is how Smith described Jesus and John the Baptist).

Subject to severe physical and emotional traumas in their early years, shamans are able to heal themselves and reintegrate their lives in ways that place psychic if not cosmic powers at their disposal. These powers enable them to engage with spirits, both good and evil, drawing power from the former and battling the latter where need be. They are heavily engaged in healing, and appear to have preternatural powers to foretell the future and discern lost objects.20

Since Smith’s description of the shaman resembles his description of Jesus, one wonders if Jesus, too, was ‘subject to severe physical and emotional traumas in his early years.’ Perhaps we can say that ‘a therapist is one who has gone through therapy himself,’ that is, a therapist is one who previously needed therapy himself. How many of today’s professional therapists were once patients?

Smith mentions a book by Claude Lévi-Strauss called The Savage Mind (La Pensée Sauvage, 1962), which Wikipedia says is short and accessible. Lévi-Strauss also wrote Tristes Tropiques, The Origin of Table Manners, and other books. He died in 2009 at the age of 100. Another French anthropologist, from an earlier generation, is Lucien Lévy-Bruhl; among his books is How Natives Think (Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures, 1910). Jung often cited Lévy-Bruhl. Smith also mentions an American anthropologist, Paul Radin, who wrote Primitive Man As Philosopher (1927), The Trickster: A Study in Native American Mythology (1956), and other works.21

5. The World’s Religions: Final Thoughts

The last chapter of Smith’s World’s Religions is called “A Final Examination.” Smith notes that, though religions may appear to hold common views, it’s difficult to bring them together. “Baha’i, which originated in the hope of rallying the major religions around the beliefs they held in common, has settled into being another religion among many”22 (the Baha’i faith arose in Persia in the 19th century; it grew out of Shiite Islam).

Smith refers to the major religions as the “wisdom traditions,” and he says that they emphasize three virtues: humility, charity, and veracity. Smith summarizes the wisdom traditions thus: “Things are more integrated than they seem, they are better than they seem, and they are more mysterious than they seem.”23

© L. James Hammond 2011
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1. This was probably his maternal grandfather, Charley Carey; the Careys were legendary athletes in Fall River. So Chris Herren had athletic talent on his mother’s side of the family as well as his father’s side. back
2. Michael Herren also attended Boston College, and was also expelled for bad behavior. back
3. The facility was called Daytop. back
4. This has been called “the one percent effect”; we discussed it in earlier issues. back
5. Wikipedia back
6. Ch. 9, p. 366 back
7. Ch. 9, p. 375 back
8. Ch. 9, p. 374 back
9. Ch. 9, p. 376 back
10. Ch. 9, p. 373 back
11. Ch. 9, p. 376 back
12. Ch. 9, p. 376 back
13. Ch. 9, p. 370 back
14. Ch. 9, p. 370 back
15. Ch. 9, p. 372 back
16. Ch. 9, p. 371 back
17. Ch. 9, p. 377 back
18. Ch. 9, p. 378 back
19. Ch. 9, p. 379 back
20. Ch. 9, p. 380. When Smith speaks of “physical and emotional traumas,” I’m reminded of the Chinese guru Jin Bodhi, whom I discuss elsewhere. “When his mother was pregnant with him, she was malnourished, so [Jin Bodhi] was born sickly and weak.” I’m also reminded of the Indian guru Ramdev: “As a child, [Ramdev] worked in the fields and suffered a series of illnesses and accidents.” back
21. As I mentioned in an earlier issue, Paul Radin isn’t related to Dean Radin (as far as I know). back
22. Ch. 10, p. 385 back
23. Ch. 10, p. 389 back