Washburn traveled long road to recovery
He was a 6-foot-11 giant delivered from the basketball gods by way of Jim Valvano. Chris Washburn had it all. A feathery touch. A guard’s handle. The strength of a center. So much talent, so much promise.
Twenty-four NBA drafts have passed since the Golden State Warriors made Washburn the No. 3 pick in 1986, 24 opportunities for Washburn to remember what he once had and quickly lost. The most celebrated free-agent class in the league’s history also has served as a harsh reminder for Washburn this summer. Had Washburn lived up to his potential, he could have banked his own millions and retired as one of the game’s greats. Instead, he left only as a cautionary tale.
“I know I’m supposed to be a Hall of Famer,” Washburn said recently in a rare interview. “But I’ve come to realize that I’m in the Hall of Shame. …I see that I’m considered one of the worst draft choices. …I’m seeing that I’m part of being called a bust.”
Washburn can’t argue with the labels. In the nearly quarter-century since he left the NBA, Washburn has slept on the floors of crack houses and eaten from trash bins. He’s served time in the penitentiary and squandered the money he did make – all in search of his next high. His greatest victory never came on the court, but after a dozen stays in rehab centers. Somehow, Chris Washburn is alive and, he promises, clean.
Now 44, Washburn says he’s been drug-free for 10 years. He lives in Dallas and works for a home-mortgage company. His two sons, Julian and Chris Jr., have become college prospects in their own right, and if Washburn can give them anything, it’s the lessons he learned from his own mistakes.
Washburn grew up in Hickory, N.C., as a self-proclaimed country boy. He was friendly, quick with a smile and even quicker to trust. A free spirit, teammates called him. He also was immensely talented on the basketball court, becoming a three-time All-American in high school.
“I look back at him and I think about the great big guys that were coming out,” said Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan, who played with Washburn at North Carolina State and whose wife attended high school with Washburn.
“Some of the things that Shaquille [O’Neal] was doing, Washburn was doing as a forward-center who could run and jump and shoot. He could do it all. He had the talent to certainly be an All-Star.”
Washburn quickly learned that such talent also came with a benefit: Whatever he wanted, he got. Rarely did someone tell him no. An only child, he was accustomed to being coddled and that didn’t stop once he arrived at college.
“Anything that I did that was wrong, someone would take care of it,” he said. “Not having brothers and sisters, everything I did, I had to learn on a first-hand basis. When I did something dumb, instead of me taking the fall for that, they would keep cleaning it up, allowing me to have more rope.”
The basketball program at N.C. State, Washburn said, was among his biggest enablers. He had poor grades in high school, but that didn’t worry him. Nor did having to take the SAT.
“The coaches over there told me, ‘You already signed, you’re already in school, you just have to take the test just to get into college,’ ” Washburn said. “When they told me it didn’t matter what score I was getting, I went in for about 22 minutes. I just marked down [answers] … mark, mark, mark.
“If the coach told me I needed 700, 800 on the test to get to school, I could’ve got that. But when they said I didn’t need it, I didn’t need it.”
Washburn scored a 470 out a possible 1,600, barely above the minimum. Subsequent news reports about his poor score helped spur the NCAA to raise the minimum standards for athletes to gain admittance to college.
Here’s a look at the top 10 picks of the ’86 NBA draft:
|1. Brad Daugherty, C (Cleveland Cavaliers): Five-time All-Star’s career was cut short due to back injuries. Played his last game in the 1993-94 season. Averaged 19 points and 9.5 rebounds in eight seasons.|
|2. Len Bias, F (Boston Celtics): Two days after the draft, he died of a heart attack as the result of a drug overdose.|
|3. Chris Washburn, C (Golden State Warriors): Played only 72 games over two seasons. Banned from the NBA after failing a third drug test in 1989.|
|4. Chuck Person, SF/G (Indiana Pacers): “The Rifleman” won Rookie of the Year and played 13 seasons in the league, highlighted by his six-season stint with the Pacers. Ranked in the NBA’s top-40 of all-time 3-point shooters.|
|5. Kenny Walker, F (New York Knicks): Averaged 7.7 points and 4.2 rebounds in five seasons with the Knicks. Career highlight might be his victory at the All-Star dunk contest in 1989. Was out of the NBA after playing with the Washington Bullets in 1994-95.|
|6. William Bedford, C (Phoenix Suns): Drug use derailed his career, which lasted only six seasons in the league. He averaged 4.1 points and 2.4 rebounds with the Suns, Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs. Bedford is currently in prison serving a 10-year sentence for a drug-related offense.|
|7. Roy Tarpley, C/PF (Dallas Mavericks): Made the All-Rookie team and was Sixth Man of the Year in 1988, but became another draft casualty of drugs. Tarpley was kicked out of the league in 1991 for violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy. He was reinstated in 1994, but was banned the following year for alcohol use.|
|8. Ron Harper, G/SF (Cleveland Cavaliers): Finished second in the Rookie of the Year Award after averaging 22.9 points. He ended his 15-season career as a five-time NBA champion, three titles with the Bulls and two with the Lakers.|
|9. Brad Sellers, PF/C (Chicago Bulls): Had a pedestrian career with the Bulls, Seattle SuperSonics, Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons over six seasons. Averaged 6.3 points and 2.7 rebounds.|
|10. Johnny Dawkins, G (San Antonio Spurs): Duke standout never duplicated his collegiate success in the pros, but ended his career with a 11.1 points average in nine seasons, five with the Sixers and his first three with the Spurs.|
Still, that didn’t stop N.C. State from welcoming Washburn as part of a tremendous recruiting class that also included McMillan and another future NBA guard, Vinny Del Negro.
Washburn averaged 17.6 points and 6.7 rebounds as a sophomore and had a memorable 26-point performance in a victory over rival top-ranked North Carolina. The Wolfpack advanced to the Elite Eight of the 1986 NCAA tournament before losing to Kansas.
“The sky was the limit with his talent, size,” said Del Negro, who now coaches the Los Angeles Clippers.
Washburn’s self-destructive behavior also had few boundaries. He began drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana in high school, and shortly after the Wolfpack’s loss to Kansas, he said a player from another school introduced him to cocaine.
“Instead of being like, ‘Nah, I don’t do that,’ I wanted to be a part of the crowd,” Washburn said. “If they were doing it, why don’t I try it? And after I tried it, I never went back to school again.”
Washburn declared for the draft, and NBA scouts marveled at the depth of his skills. He could play inside and out, bang in the post and shoot from deep. The Warriors selected him with the third pick behind Brad Daugherty and Len Bias. Less than two days after the draft, Bias died from a cocaine overdose. Washburn learned of the news while he was at a New York Police Athletic League function. He said he was high.
“I was down there doing something on athletes against crime,” Washburn said. “I had a whole box of tissues just wiping my nose, because at that point in time I was just snorting. Some dude asked me, ‘What you think about Len?’ I was like, ‘What you talking about?’ He then showed me a newspaper with an article.
“That shook me up for a minute. I couldn’t grasp it. I didn’t go to the funeral. It didn’t make no sense to me.”
Washburn said he stopped using cocaine after Bias’ death, but not for long. When the Warriors drafted him, he didn’t know the location of “Golden State.” He learned soon enough. Oakland, Calif., was nicknamed “City of Dope.” It didn’t take long for the Warriors to figure out their prized rookie had a problem.
“It was a year of highs and lows,” said George Karl, who was then the Warriors coach. “I remember the first day of training camp he was by far the best player on the court, and then you could slowly see him disintegrate.
“How to fix a drug problem has never been easy for a head coach. It’s a frustrating give-and-take. We obviously didn’t get it done there. Chris is one of the guys that I think threw away a lot of good basketball because of drugs.”
The Warriors brought in veteran center Joe Barry Carroll to help mentor Washburn on the court, but the rookie had little support once he left practice. Long used to getting his way, Washburn quickly discovered the Warriors veterans weren’t going to go easy on him. He had to carry his teammates’ bags, a traditional form of rookie hazing in sports, and when he happened to win a post-practice shooting contest for cash, the vets sometimes refused to pay him. “I was 20 years old in the Bay Area being a grown man, but still a kid,” Washburn said. “…I showed back at them in so many ways by getting high.”
To this day, Washburn wonders if Julius Erving could have become the mentor he needed. When the Philadelphia 76ers played the Warriors early in Washburn’s rookie season, Erving approached Washburn before the game and asked if they could meet afterward at the Sixers’ hotel. At the time, Washburn was living at the hotel. When Erving showed up to meet him, he was high.
“Do you know I stood there and looked at Dr. J through a peep hole until he left my door,” Washburn said. “I never opened it up. Would that have been my savior right there? I will never know. He extended a hand. I just didn’t accept it.”
Erving wasn’t the only person who appeared to want to help. Washburn eventually purchased a luxurious home in Oakland Hills where Reggie Jackson and Rickey Henderson were among his neighbors. Henderson, Washburn said, once came by to introduce himself.
“I shook his hand, slammed the door and went back to getting high,” Washburn said.
Washburn’s drug problem affected his work with the team. On some game nights, he’d arrive minutes before tipoff. He also stopped attending practices. The way Washburn looked at it, he stood to lose less money in fines if he skipped practice altogether ($10,000) than if he showed up and the team realized he was high (as much as $20,000).
“It was a progression,” said former Warriors guard Purvis Short, a teammate of Washburn’s. “After a couple weeks or couple months of that, you started to suspect there were some things going on. “There wasn’t a lot of information out there in terms of how to help somebody. There wasn’t a lot of information we had as his teammates on some of the things we could’ve perhaps done. We were out there more or less in uncharted waters.”
A little more than three months into his first season, Washburn checked into a drug rehabilitation clinic in Van Nuys, Calif. After returning to the Warriors in late March, he finished his disappointing rookie campaign averaging 3.8 points and 2.9 rebounds in 35 games.
Washburn’s stay in rehab didn’t help much. He continued to use, and his weekends often began with a trip to the bank. He’d withdraw as much as $20,000 to spend on drugs and prostitutes.
By Monday morning, he was back at the bank taking out more money. Of the $1.25 million he made during his brief NBA career, Washburn thinks he lost more than $1 million.
“If you look at the hookers I was buying back then, the hotels – paying for folks’ rent because I didn’t like sitting in folks’ houses and getting high with no lights on. I paid to have the lights on,” he said. “I was hanging with folks that didn’t have running water. We had to go in the bathroom and piss in buckets.
“I had a 6,000-square-foot house built on the side of a mountain, but I’m lying on the floor with no carpet, dirty, because I don’t want to leave the drugs.”
Don Nelson took over as the Warriors’ general manager before the start of Washburn’s second season. By training camp, he’d seen enough and told Karl the team would be better off trading Washburn. On Dec. 15, 1987, they sent Washburn to the Atlanta Hawks for the draft rights to Ken Barlow. Barlow never played in the NBA.
“Everything negative,” Nelson recently said of Washburn. “Lazy. Bad attitude. With his skill level, you projected that if he did everything right, he could get better. He didn’t do anything right.”
Washburn said he would have been better off had the Warriors sent him to Utah or Portland. Atlanta, he figured, was no place for an addict, and he was right. His tenure with the Hawks covered just 29 games. By June of 1989, Washburn’s stay in the NBA was over; he’d failed his third drug test to earn a lifetime suspension from the league. His career had spanned a total of 72 games.
Washburn moved to Houston where he lived on the streets for a couple of years. “I was eating out of trash cans. I was sleeping in abandoned buildings, abandoned houses. I was doing whatever was needed to survive at that time,” he said. “I was staying in the same clothes for weeks, maybe months at a time to a point where the [drug dealers] I was buying my stuff from would even pay me to go and change clothes.”
Washburn eventually ended up behind bars, serving 12- and 13-month sentences for drug-related offenses from 1991-94, the second coming after a parole violation. While in prison, he returned to the basketball court.
“A couple years prior to that I was on the NBA floor in front of thousands,” Washburn said. “Now I’m on the penitentiary floor playing against guys wearing flip-flops, Army boots. Instead of cheerleaders on the sidelines, we had guys with Kool-Aid on their lips and stuff painted on their face looking like girls. It was always like a movie for me. It was so surreal.”
Except it also was his life. When he wasn’t in jail, Washburn landed some jobs playing professionally in Greece, Switzerland, Puerto Rico, the Continental Basketball Association and United States Basketball League. Former NBA player and coach John Lucas(notes), who has spent much of his career helping players fight substance abuse, helped shepherd Washburn into nearly a dozen rehab centers, none of which seemed to help.
Washburn says he finally went clean on June 17, 2000. A month ago, he said, he passed his decade-long run of sobriety. He claims food is now his biggest vice.
“I just got tired of reaching in my pockets and having no money,” Washburn said. “I got tired of asking my momma at 70-something years old for $20 or $30 being a grown man.”
Washburn now speaks to addicts on Saturdays at the Dallas Life Foundation Center. In February, Short saw Washburn at All-Star weekend and invited him to speak at the National Basketball Players Association’s Top 100 Camp in Virginia for high school players.
“It had a tremendous impact on the kids because Chris spoke from the heart,” Short said. “He just told it like it was.”
Washburn’s message: Stay humble. Learn from him. He had a chance to become a star in the NBA and he wasted it.
“Once I did find out I wasn’t special, it was hard for me to overcome,” Washburn said. “I only used the NBA to get through certain doors.
“The NBA opens up some doors that shouldn’t be opened up.”