Mac Engel

Unlike the father: Chris Washburn Jr. taking different path than famous dad

He inherited his basketball talents, but was given a name that is one of the most recognized in the history of the NBA draft. Not in a good way.

Accordingly, TCU basketball coach Jamie Dixon warns, “I don’t know how much he’s going to want to talk about this.”

Chris Washburn Jr. takes a seat in TCU’s practice gym and says, “It’s OK. I’ll talk about it.”

Save for not having the recognizable gap in his front teeth, Chris Washburn Jr. looks nearly identical to his dad when he played for coach Jim Valvano at North Carolina State from 1984-86.

Being the son of a famous sports father is hard enough, but it’s considerably more complicated when he’s widely regarded as one of the biggest busts ever in the modern era of basketball.

Washburn’s relationship with his father is complicated. It is improving but not much about this has been easy for the son. The son does not figure to follow his father’s path into the NBA, but his life should be considerably quieter and more peaceful than his dad’s.

Washburn will play in his final home game of a college career that began at UTEP when TCU hosts Richmond in the NIT quarterfinals on Tuesday. The winner will go to New York City for its version of the Final Four.

“It’s in and out, really,” Washburn said of his relationship with his dad. “Great guy. Everything’s great about his personality. Just consistency, sometimes.”

When pressed, Washburn admits “consistency” means his dad has been in and out of his life. For a long time.

“From the basketball perspective, I hope I can be what he was,” he said. “It’s the off-the-court stuff. I don’t want to take that part.”

After N.C. State won the famous 1983 national title over the Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and the heavily favored Houston Cougars, Valvano landed his most prized recruit in Washburn.

Coincidentally, it was Jamie Dixon who received a recruiting letter as a high school senior from a prominent Division I college program that was addressed to “Chris Washburn.”

“I know whoever it was didn’t want me,” Dixon said. “He was a Parade All-American. I was a nobody.”

Washburn was an agile, 6-foot-11 center who could do whatever he wanted with a basketball. What he could not do was control himself.

In the best-selling book, “Personal Fouls” written by Peter Golenbock about N.C. State basketball under Valvano, Washburn was painted as a talented youngster who struggled with drug addiction. Specifically cocaine.

In two seasons at N.C. State, Washburn averaged 16.4 points and 6.6 rebounds. He was the third overall pick of the Golden State Warriors in the now infamous draft class of 1986.

That class featured Len Bias, who was selected second by Boston, and later died of a cocaine overdose before he played for the Boston Celtics. The Dallas Mavericks used the seventh overall pick on Roy Tarpley, who was banned from the NBA in 1991 for repeatedly flunking drug tests. He battled addiction his whole life and died in January 2015 at the age of 50.

Like Tarpley, Washburn battled addiction and was also kicked out of the NBA in 1989 for repeatedly failing drug tests. In three NBA seasons, Washburn started twice, appeared in 72 games and averaged 3.1 points.

He wound up playing for a brief period in Argentina before his promising career was over. He simply could not kick his drug addiction.

In an interview last year on the Brown and Scoop Podcast, Washburn admitted that after basketball was over he lived in abandoned houses and ate out of garbage cans. He was eventually imprisoned for more than a year for a series of drug-related offenses committed from 1991 to ’94. In prison, he played on the basketball team. Only he was coming off the bench.

Washburn eventually cleaned up his life, and now lives in Hickory, N.C., where he takes care of his ailing mother, who is in her late 80s.

As Chris the son grew older, he began to do his own research on his dad. He read the stories. He listened to the interviews.

“I did it more the older I got because I could understand it,” he said.

His relationship with his dad has been sporadic, but it’s improving. They talk and text now.

“He was always very big on taking care of my classes. He kept me right in that respect,” Washburn said. “He always talks about (his life) and that he went down the wrong path. He’s always saying, ‘I messed it up so don’t take that path.’ 

A couple of years ago, Washburn’s father showed up unannounced at TCU’s game at West Virginia. He spoke openly to the team about his own life and his own choices, and specifically the need to make better decisions.

According to a former teammate, the appearance caught his son off guard and he was noticeably out of it for most of the game.

“Once the fans realized we were together they really gave me a hard time about it,” he said. “You know how fans are.”

The people who have coached and played with TCU’s Washburn all say the same thing — he’s a kind, sweet guy with a soft disposition. He developed into a decent college player who doesn’t get into trouble and will earn his degree.

He may have inherited some of his dad’s considerable basketball skills, but the events surrounding his mother and father made an impression.

His mother, Michelle, died when Washburn was on his recruiting visit to UTEP during his senior year at South Grand Prairie.

“They said it was of a heart attack,” he said.

Washburn is scheduled to graduate in the spring with a degree in criminal justice, but wants to pursue a career in basketball coaching. He’s looking forward to Tuesday night’s game, and to however many more games may be remaining for TCU. He’s also ready to be done with college.

“It’s weird that it’s almost over but it’s time,” he said. “I’ve been in college for so long.”

He’s been in college for five years, or the same number of years his dad played between his time at N.C. State and the NBA combined.

None of this has been easy. Or the way he wanted. But he made it.

And he’s OK talking about it.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

Mac Engel: 817-390-7697, @macengelprof

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