Chris Washburn and me

Here’s a surprise: Chris Washburn, long-lost NBA cautionary tale, has resurfaced.

I’m glad he’s finally doing well. His life resembled an episode of Intervention for the past couple of decades — drug addiction, prison, homelessness — and now he’s teaching other NBA hopefuls to avoid the mistakes he made.

I’ve never met Washburn, but I’ll always remember him, because 21 years ago this month, I got my first taste of a fast-breaking major news story covering a sad landmark in his troubled career.

I was barely six months into my first newspaper job — sportswriter at the Hickory (N.C.) Daily Record — when news came across the wire that Washburn, a Hickory native,  N.C. State basketball star and disastrous NBA draft pick, had been banned for life from the league for failing his third drug test in as many years. The 6-foot-11 Washburn was a local legend from his high school days, so this was big news.

We had about an hour to get a story together. Deep breath.

We jumped into our work, but it’s hard to get much done when you’re suddenly answering phone call after phone call from bigger media outlets. The Associated Press. Major newspapers across the state. A Raleigh TV station. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Some guy who said he was from Sports Illustrated called. “Do you know if Washburn is in town? Where does he hang out when he’s there?”

My head was spinning. Where does Washburn hang out? I could barely remember his one standout season at N.C. State, for God’s sake, and I worked way too many hours a week covering American Legion baseball and prep sports to keep tabs on our one local superstar. I tried my best not to sound like a clueless rube, and probably failed.

I wasn’t totally in the dark about Washburn, though. One of my friends from college went to high school with him, so I knew that Washburn’s mother still worked at Hickory High School. A reporter called her, but she wouldn’t comment.

We got his former high school coach on the line for some forgettable quotes. Tragic story. Good kid. Tremendous talent. Praying for him and his family. The kind of platitudes that coaches can spout from instinct.

In the newsroom, the clock was running. We rummaged through the Washburn clippings file and rounded up some stats and anecdotes from his high school career. We weaved them and the coach’s quote into the AP story about his banishment from the league, rearranged the sports front to give the story prominent play, and worked with the news page designer to ensure the piece got significant promotion on 1A.

Somehow, we made deadline. “Good work today,” my editor said. Exhale.

Later that afternoon, in the tiny room I rented for $70 a week, I celebrated with a sausage biscuit and a long nap. Adrenaline leaves you hungry and tired.


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