Chris Washburn rebounds from drug addiction to help others
Chris Washburn, who had dedicated more than a decade of his life to getting high, had never felt so low.
The former basketball standout — one of the most highly recruited high-school athletes in North Carolina history — sat quietly with a crack pipe in his hand, a .44 Magnum pistol in his lap, and thoughts of suicide in his head.
“I’m not getting high like I used to, I’m spending all my money, I’ve lost my basketball career, and the girls I had are not returning my phone calls anymore,” Washburn says today, recalling the somber thoughts that flooded his fried brain on that dark day so long ago. “So why am I still here?”
Washburn cocked the trigger. This would be the way to end it all — quickly, painlessly.
As he debated pulling the trigger, Washburn thought of his wife, who had not yet left him, despite what he had become. He thought of his four sons. He thought of his mother back home in Hickory, where he’d grown up.
“Do you really wanna do this?” he asked himself. “Do you really wanna take your own life?”
Slowly, Washburn took his hand off the gun.
“I think it came down to me being scared,” Washburn says. “I didn’t really wanna take my own life. Things just weren’t going the way I wanted them to go.”
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Anybody who’s familiar with Chris Washburn knows his life story.
It’s a cautionary, riches-to-rags tale of a teenager with freakish athleticism and seemingly unlimited potential who squandered it all in a drug-fueled spiral into oblivion.
A three-time high-school All-American, Washburn had college coaches drooling over him before he had even entered ninth grade, during an era when coveting players that young was practically unheard of. With his size, speed, agility and ball skills, he could’ve transformed even a mediocre college program into a basketball juggernaut.
That never happened, of course. In his two years at North Carolina State University, Washburn enjoyed only one productive season on the court, while also developing a reputation for a poor work ethic, an abysmal academic record and, in a highly publicized incident, his theft of a fellow student’s stereo.
While it wasn’t well-documented at the time, Washburn’s substance abuse problems also intensified at State, when he progressed from drinking beer to smoking marijuana.
After two seasons, he left for the NBA, where the Golden State Warriors made him the third overall pick in the draft. In the NBA, though — with more freedom and more money to blow — Washburn gravitated more toward the drug culture than the basketball court, and it showed in his production, or lack thereof, as a player.
When Washburn’s failures on the court were coupled with his drug-test failures off the court, the descent happened quickly. Within only three years, he had failed three drug tests and was banned from the league for life. Sports Illustrated, which had written extensively about what a young basketball prodigy Washburn had been, eventually declared him the second-biggest bust in NBA history.
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If you know who Washburn is, you know that part of his well-documented story.
You may not know about all the details, such as the aforementioned day when he pondered killing himself.
You may not be aware that he went to drug rehab centers more than a dozen times, or that on some of the days he was released from a rehab program, he was getting high again before the sun went down.
You may not know about him playing basketball overseas after the NBA ban. He even chuckles about the time a team in Colombia signed him to play. “Who sends a drug addict to Colombia?” he says.
You may not know Washburn was homeless for a time, scavenging for food from trash cans and stealing bread and sandwich meats at the grocery store.
You may not know about the time he spent in prison.
You may not know about the time he got shot.
You may not know about the countless phone calls he made to his mother, asking her to wire him money — without, of course, telling her he needed the cash to fund his cocaine habit.
You may not know about the time his mother finally told him no, having figured out where the money was going.
“She said I needed to put my name and her address on a piece of paper and put it in my pocket,” Washburn recalls. “I said, ‘Why do you want me to do that?’ And she said, ‘Because when you die, I want them to be able to send the body to me.’ That’s when she ended the conversation and hung up.”
Washburn hasn’t died, of course, though he admits he probably should have. At 46, he has lived to tell of his hellish journey through drug addiction, and today that’s exactly what he’s doing.
“I’ve been doing this now for about five years,” says Washburn, who has returned to Hickory and runs a soul food restaurant called Washburn’s Wings and More. “Any time I think I can help by sharing my own story, that’s what I want to do. You know that old saying, ‘If I can help just one person’? Well, I’m never satisfied helping just one — I want to help a multitude.”
This past week, Washburn shared his story in Kernersville, at the annual Kernersville Cares For Kids fundraising luncheon.
“There’s three things that’s gonna happen when you do drugs — jails, institutions and death — and I’ve done two out of the three,” Washburn says during an interview prior to the luncheon.
“I don’t want to go against the odds anymore. Where I’m at right now in life is good, because I can reflect back on where I came from. I get a chance to go out and tell people what I’ve done and how I’ve messed up my life before I turned it around.”
Washburn says he’s been clean for about a dozen years now. In addition to youth organizations and drug rehab facilities, he also speaks to NBA rookies and to top college prospects who attend the nation’s leading basketball camps. His story seems to resonate with young men who find themselves on the same path to potential fame that he once was on.
“The first time I did cocaine, I thought it was gonna be a one-time thing, but that party lasted 15 years,” Washburn says, his voice rising with passion.
“And in that 15 years, I went to the penitentiary three times. I got shot once. I was homeless. I ate out of trash cans. Nothing good came out of all that. All my good stuff came when I stopped using drugs.”
Once a laughingstock because of his drug abuse and academic record, Chris Washburn finally has found something he can take pride in — the man he has become.
“I’m going on 13 years of being clean in June, and I embrace that,” he says.
“I embrace that just like I embrace my college scholarship or being a high-school All-American. Sobriety is big to me right now, and I’m passing that on to help kids understand that it’s cool to be a nerd — it’s cool to be doing the right thing.”
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