Ex-NCSU star Washburn tries for one more rebound

Off rock bottom, the phenom is clean, sober and back in Hickory

dscott@charlotteobserver.comApril 30, 2012 

  • On Starting Over: Chris Washburn Chris Washburn knows that kicking a drug habit isn’t easy; he only did it after going in and out of rehab 14 times. Here are few of his thoughts about how to start the process: • “Use the footprints that you have been taught in rehab. That sounds obvious, but you have to make an effort to concentrate on that.” • “Change your friends. Don’t make yourself available to people who say they’re your friends but who really aren’t.” “Then make sure you have a good support group around you.” • “Try and stay busy. I’m still a great baskeball player ... I’ve got a heckuva jump shot on Wii and Playstation!”
  • More information Need help? N.C. Alcohol/Drug Council: 1-800-688-4232

— Chris Washburn doesn’t have to go far to be reminded of the dark days when he was a 6-foot-11 addict wandering the streets of his hometown looking for drugs.

As Washburn sits in the shade behind his recently opened restaurant on the fringes of downtown Hickory, he is able to briefly flash the gap-toothed grin that was so familiar to fans of Atlantic Coast Conference and N.C. State University basketball 25 years ago.

“I would sit right here and do my drugs,” says Washburn. “This was a good spot for it.”

In the mid-1990s, the building that now houses Washburn’s Wings and More offered a hiding place for Washburn to smoke crack cocaine. Washburn, whose promising professional basketball career was short-circuited by drug abuse, had returned to Hickory for a few years, shamelessly bumming money from his parents and others to fund his habit.

Washburn, 45, says he is drug free now; has been for 12 years. This time, he says, his focus is on running a business and helping his community.

That starts at the restaurant he opened in January with co-owner and girlfriend Monique Richardson. Prices are reasonable – mostly under $5 – for the wings, fried chicken and other items. And customers who are unable to pay can work for their meals.

“If somebody doesn’t have a job, I can’t turn him away,” says Washburn. “There’s work to do around here – sweeping the parking lot, dumping trash…

“A man doesn’t always want a handout. He wants to work for what he can get.”

Meteoric rise, hard fall

Washburn knows what it’s like to be down. One of the most gifted basketball players North Carolina has produced, his demise was well-chronicled.

A highly recruited three-time All-American in high school (at Hickory High, Virginia’s Fork Union Military Academy and Laurinburg Prep), Washburn chose to play at N.C. State in 1984.

Trouble followed Washburn in Raleigh: In his freshman year, he stole a stereo from a dorm, served 46 hours in jail and was suspended from the team seven games into the season.

But as a sophomore in 1985-86, Washburn lived up to his potential. A second-team All-ACC selection, he averaged 17.6 points and 6.7 rebounds while shooting 56.2 percent.

He turned pro after that season and was the third overall pick in the NBA draft, by the Golden State Warriors, in the talent-rich 1986 draft. Only North Carolina’s Brad Daugherty and Maryland’s Len Bias were taken ahead of Washburn.

Washburn, who had begun experimenting with drugs at N.C. State, was close friends with Bias, who died of a cocaine overdose two days after the draft.

Washburn didn’t fit in with his older teammates on the Warriors. He began partying and using drugs and his life and career spiraled downward.

After failing a third drug test in 1989, he was banned from the NBA. He had played 72 games over two seasons for the Warriors and Atlanta Hawks, averaging 3.1 points and 2.4 rebounds.

Washburn would play for a few years in the Continental Basketball Association and the U.S. Basketball League. He also played overseas in Argentina, Puerto Rico, Greece, Spain, Switzerland and Colombia.

“The drugs were really good in Colombia,” he says.

When his playing days ended, Washburn landed in Houston, most of the $1.25 million he earned in the NBA gone. Destitute, he says ate out of trash cans and slept in abandoned buildings and crack houses. He spent time in jail on drug charges.

False starts

Washburn returned to Hickory for two or three years in the 1990s. He needed money to supply his habit.

“My dad’s last visions of me were of a (6-foot-11) dope fiend sliding along the floor stealing money from his wallet,” Washburn says. “My mom kept her purse locked up in a filing cabinet at church.”

Washburn returned to Houston, where he lived on the streets. He remembers a man sitting next to him being shot point-blank by a drug dealer.

“I saw people get killed all the time,” he says.

Washburn says he hit bottom one day in 1993 when he asked his mother for money to buy drugs.

Savannah Washburn refused. And she told her son to write her name, address and phone on a piece of paper and put it in his wallet.

“That way, when they found my body, they’d know where to send it,” Washburn says.

Scraping off rock bottom

Although he says he was in and out of 14 rehab clinics over the years, he says he kicked the habit himself.

His motivation came when his father died in 2000. “I started thinking that I was the only person that my mom has now,” says Washburn.

“I had all the book knowledge, but I didn’t want to apply it before,” Washburn says. “I’m on a program of ‘self.’ I don’t go to meetings. I don’t read big books. I still go to bars and hang out other places with friends and maybe I see them using drugs.

“But I don’t have that taste in my mouth anymore.”

As Washburn weaned himself off drugs, he moved to Dallas and began working in the collections for mortgage companies. He met Richardson in 2009. Last year, they moved to Hickory to be closer to his mother.

And he wanted to make a positive difference.

Richardson – who has a son and daughter of her own – had longed dreamed of owning her own restaurant.

“She had the idea, I had the money,” says Washburn, who receives a check from an NBA insurance policy to cover old injuries every month.

Pain of being forgotten

Washburn’s years on drugs cost him relationships.

He always noticed that he wasn’t mentioned as one of Hickory’s famous athletes on the city’s Wikipedia entry (as former NASCAR driver Dale Jarrett and NFL kicker Ryan Succop were). Washburn’s name is now on the list.

“People are enjoying his restaurant and they’re coming by to support him,” says Mandy Pitts, the City of Hickory’s communications director who knew Washburn as a child. “We’ve always hoped for the best for Chris.”

Washburn gives speeches to youth groups and at drug rehab centers, as well as to NBA rookies. And he wants to help Hickory’s disadvantaged youth this summer by organizing a car wash.

Washburn says he also felt shunned at N.C. State for years. Although he was off drugs and employed by then, Washburn wasn’t listed in a “Where Are They Now?” section of the basketball program’s media guide in 2011.

Washburn says former N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe welcomed him back into the program’s good graces upon his return to Hickory. Washburn stays in touch with former teammates Cozell McQueen and Chucky Brown and has visited the Wolfpack’s basketball office. He recently attended a Hickory meeting of the Wolfpack Club – the school’s athletic fundraising group – and donated fried chicken for a tailgate.

“I don’t think we’d ever turn our back on one of our former student-athletes,” says Buzzy Correll, the club’s senior associate director. “It’s good to have him back.”

But Washburn says he still has work to do with his sons, Julian and Chris Jr., both excellent basketball players. Julian was a star freshman last season at the University of Texas-El Paso. Chris Jr., a high school senior in Dallas this year, will join his older brother at UTEP next season.

“We don’t have much of a relationship to speak of,” says Chris Washburn. “That came from years of me not being there. But I’ve told them that I could care less about the basketball part with them. My thing with them has been going to school and staying in school.”

Julian Washburn didn’t return calls to The Observer.

Trying for a do-over

On a recent weekday, Washburn’s Wings And More bustles with activity. Passing cars honk as Washburn – all 440 pounds of him – stands in the parking lot greeting customers.

He’d like to lose weight. He was a finalist in casting for last season’s “Biggest Loser” reality TV show, but didn’t make the final cut.

For now, he’s still figuring out how to help run the restaurant, with Richardson, 36.

“I keep him grounded,” she says. “He says I’m mean, but I don’t have a lot of tolerance.

“He wants to do the right thing. It’s making sure he doesn’t hang around the wrong people. So I keep him busy.”

Washburn smiles.

“I remember the newspapers said Chris Washburn would be dead at age 25,” Washburn says. “Here it is 20 years later. I feel pretty good.”

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @DavidScott14

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