Legends of the Precipitous Fall: Chris Washburn
“Cocaine is a hell of a drug.” Rick James said it, but it could just as easily (and also just as earnestly) come from the mouth of Chris Washburn.
A whole generation of hoops fans have grown up not knowing who the hell Chris Washburn is. That’s a damn shame, because they should. Make no mistake about it; the guy was that talented of a basketball player.
Washburn was an almost unfair combination of size and agility. At 6′11″ he possessed the kind of touch that was (and still is) a true rarity in players his height.
When I was a teenager, I eyeballed him in person when he was a senior in high school at Laurinburg (NC) Institute back in 1984. In the pre-internet era, Washburn was as hyped as a high school recruit could get. So my pop drove him and me the 30 miles to Laurinburg from our home in Fayetteville one Friday night. We just had to check this phenom out.
While playing at what appeared to be half speed against inferior competition, Washburn was still a sight to behold. One trip down the floor was a monster dunk while the next was a sweet fall away jumper that found nothing but net.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was watching a guy who was TOO aware of his glorious skill set. Even with a nonchalant approach that night he dominated the proceedings. And that nonchalance was a result of having grown up with everyone telling him just how great he was. In Washburn’s mind, greatness somehow came to mean that he just didn’t need to try hard.
Dean Smith and Denny Crum sent him letters when he was in the 9th grade. And the correspondence kept on coming from all corners of the country, some even sounding downright desperate:
You’re my reason for living. Maryland coach Charles G. (Lefty) Driesell wrote to Washburn during his junior year: “Everytime I see you play I am more and more convinced that with you in our lineup next year Maryland can win the NCAA Championship.” (Sports Illustrated)
I shudder to think of the amount of mail that descended upon Washburn during his high school years. He could have probably started his own paper recycling company and turned a sweet profit in the process.
The late Jim Valvano and NC State had won the sweepstakes for Washburn even before I saw him play in person. That year Valvano and his staff also signed Vinny Del Negro and Nate McMillan in the same recruiting class.
When you consider the fact that Charles Shackleford and Chuck Brown were also on the Wolfpack roster during those years, it’s one hell of a head scratcher as to why Valvano didn’t make another national title run with that much talent.
I’ll let Jim Weber from Yahoo! sum up the train wreck that Washburn’s time in Raleigh became:
A North Carolina high school phenom, Washburn arrived at N.C. State after scoring 420 on his SATs (400 of those were for spelling his name right). Having already been admitted to college, he blew off the test and finished in 22 minutes. He says he would have been done even sooner if he could have circled the answers instead of shading in the bubbles. Just seven games into his college career he was convicted of stealing a stereo from a fellow athlete’s dorm room and suspended for the year. Washburn insisted it was a prank.
The 6-foot-11 big man exploded in his second season under coach Jim Valvano, despite smoking marijuana and drinking before games, which left him high in the first half and sleepy in the second. He cemented his draft status by lighting up that year’s No. 1 pick, Brad Daugherty, for 26 points in an upset victory over No. 1 North Carolina. (Yahoo! Sports)
Washburn was Paris Hilton before the concept of such a person became part of the nation’s pop culture consciousness. Here’s a guy who wanted all the trappings of celebrity excess (partying, drugs, lack of accountability, etc.) without ever having to put in the requisite hard work needed to achieve access to those things. For him, the party after the game mattered infinitely more than the game itself.
But even while half-assing it under the effect of drugs and booze, Washburn’s talents couldn’t be denied. So when he surprised no one and left NC State early to enter the 1986 NBA Draft, the Golden State Warriors were more than happy to select him third overall.
Even if you’re not privy to the man’s history, you can pretty much guess how Washburn’s NBA career turned out. He ended up playing in a total of 72 games, averaging 3.1 points and 2.4 rebounds in the process.
A scant three months after his NBA debut, Washburn landed in rehab with a cocaine problem. He was suspended for a year by the league after a positive drug test before the 1988-89 season and was banned for life after another positive test in the summer of 1989.
Keep in mind that Washburn went in the same draft as Maryland great Len Bias. The day after they were both made instant millionaires, Bias died of a drug overdose. Yet with that cautionary tale hitting so close to home, Washburn STILL continued to make the wrong choices.
You can imagine where the guy’s life went after being banned. For Washburn, the decade of the 90’s was basically a blur of relapses, jail time and for a short time even homelessness. When he should have been terrorizing NBA opponents and solidifying his Hall of Fame credentials, he was instead panhandling on the streets of Houston.
As Weber reported in his earlier referenced article, Washburn has been clean for the last 10 years. He’s even taken to giving speeches, passing along essentially the same cautionary tale he ignored a quarter of a century ago. But unlike Bias, Washburn is here to tell it himself, so hopefully the message can resonate a little better with the people now hearing it.
Ken Tysiac of the Charlotte Observer caught up with Washburn after one of those speeches and provided the following:
Washburn gave some typical, obvious advice. He told the players to stay away from drugs and show up early for practice. He counseled parents to take control of their sons’ college selection process.
Most important, he testified to what can happen to someone who gets involved with the wrong crowd. In his hometown of Hickory, Washburn said, people talk proudly of a local guy who’s made his mark in sports, retired race car driver Dale Jarrett.
“They never say anything about Chris Washburn,” he said. “And why is that? Because of the choices I’ve made.” (Charlotte Observer)