From Drunk To Knick, He Took The Long Road To NBA

NEW YORK - The new point guard in town just spent another exhausting day relocating to New York and could use a place to unwind and entertain a few guests in his temporary home. The most obvious spot in the hotel is down the hall, in the lounge. A few men in white shirts and loosened neckties are at the bar, elbows bent, tossing down a couple of cold ones.

About five steps closer, Chris Childs reaches the fork in the corridor. To the left are the elevators waiting to lift him to his seventh-floor room, where four walls, Spectravision and a pillow mint await. To the right, the men are laughing and ordering up another round and several barstools are empty.

Changing direction on a dime is what made Childs attractive enough to the Knicks to command a $24-million contract, but far too often in this particular situation, Childs went right when he should've gone left. He filled too many barstools and emptied too many glasses, more than he cares to remember.

So his feet keep moving and his head does not swivel in that direction. He is not feeling nostalgic tonight. He hasn't in a while. He has vowed to distance himself from friends like Jack Daniels and Bud and the others who nearly wrecked his basketball career and destroyed his life. Childs will not have a toast these days, unless it comes with butter and jam.

"June 26, 1993," Childs says proudly. His second birthdate. He was born in 1967 but came to life just three years ago, when he

stopped being a drunk. Childs lived in a bottle longer than most genies. Then on 6-26-93, he tasted liquor for the last time and began one of the biggest transformations in the present-day NBA.

He was once a journeyman player pulling down a grand a week in the ragamuffin league known as the Continental Basketball Association.

He's now the starting point guard making about $4 million a year for the NBA championship-contending Knicks.

Without his addiction to alcohol, Childs has blossomed into a reliable point guard with quick reflexes and a knack for delivering the ball to the right people.

"I'm sure it surprises a lot of folks," Childs said, "but I always knew I would be an NBA player. I just took a different route and it took me a longer time."

"Had I made it earlier," Childs added after a pause, "I would've blown it."

Childs was a fair enough player during his high school days in Bakersfield, Calif., but poor grades canceled any thoughts of UCLA and sent him instead to Boise State, where he became one of the best players the school ever produced. As a junior he once outplayed the college player of the year, Oregon State's Gary Payton. Though Childs wasn't a big scorer, he played phone-booth defense and threw a nifty bounce pass, and being drafted into the NBA became a possibility.

"They told me I'd go in the late-first (round) or early-second," Childs said. "On draft day I threw a pool party and my family came in from California. And my name was never called."

Depressed and disappointed, Childs locked himself in his apartment for five days and didn't answer the phone. All he did was satisfy an old craving.

"When you have drinkers in your family, with your great grandfather, grandmother, father, it breeds that behavior," he said. "I saw all of them do it and I figured it must be OK."

Childs couldn't understand why he was bypassed in the draft, but staying out until three hours before the start of the Chicago pre-draft camp didn't help.

"My attitude was, `Screw everybody,' " he said, "including myself."

His bingeing increased during his dead-end CBA tour, starting in Columbus, then Rapid City, S.D.; La Crosse, Wis., and Rockford, Ill. In the first four years of his five-year CBA career, Childs never averaged more than 13 points and eight assists and never drew much interest from the NBA. He was a player only a bartender could love.

"I didn't know how to face things without drinking," he said. "I was scared, I was a coward. I took whatever they put in front of me, beer, cognac, whatever. It didn't matter because I wasn't drinking for the taste of it. I was drinking to get drunk, and whatever got me drunk the quickest, that was what I was having. If I didn't get out until midnight, I might only consume a case, and that was a mild night."

In the meantime, Childs missed repeated opportunities to leave the NBA's minor leagues for a chance at the big time. Players he destroyed in games, guards such as Elliot Perry, received the golden phone calls. Even Morlon Wiley, who served as Childs' backup, elevated himself to the NBA level.

After a particularly atrocious performance in the CBA playoffs following a typical night of getting wasted, his coach, Quad City's Dan Panaggio, told Childs to seek help at the John Lucas clinic.

"I had to suspend him twice," Panaggio said. "I knew he was a drinker, but the problem was bigger than he or I imagined."

Childs spent three weeks in the Lucas program and on the Miami Tropics semi-pro team, the one composed of famous chemical dependency losers such as Roy Tarpley and Chris Washburn. Like most of his new teammates, Childs flunked out there, too.

"One time I went out and had 24 Heinekens, smoked four joints and had five or six shots of cognac," he said. "I got back at 7 in the morning and we had a meeting at 8. I did not sleep, eat or shower. John said I had to go."

Cutting Childs loose was not difficult for Lucas, a four-time loser to drugs himself.

"I told him, `This isn't about basketball, this is about your life,' " Lucas said. "I told him that people can recover and make it, and that he could, too. He wasn't in bad shape. He was a young man who was lost."

The next step was a Miami rehab center called A Better Way, or, as Childs said, "a bus stop away from prison."

He explained: "I didn't want to go, but it was my last chance. And once you go in, you can leave, but then you can't come back. It was awful. There were hookers, male and female, pimps, every kind of person. I had chores. You have to be up at 5:30 with your feet on the ground. I had to scrub toilets. I had to work the yard wearing long-sleeve shirts and pants in 98-degree heat. It showed you humility.

"It was supposed to be only for 30 days, but when I got to 25 I started counting down the days and they didn't like that. So they extended my stay and wouldn't let me know when I was going."

Childs was not a bus stop away from prison. He took the next stop to the NBA, a courtesy tryout from Lucas in San Antonio. In the final exhibition game, in New York against the Knicks, Childs did not play, and Lucas cut him on the trip home.

Rejection had visited his doorstep again, yet this time, Childs did not seek refuge in some bar.

"That's when I knew I could do this," he said. "I knew I could face anything that came my way and stay clean."

He returned to the CBA, had his finest year, was named MVP of the playoffs and led Quad City to the championship. During the locker-room celebration, champagne flowed everywhere except near Childs.

"I told them to keep it over there," he said. "I didn't want any poured on me."

NBA teams called. Childs joined the Nets and was Kenny Anderson's shadow for a year. Childs watched from the bench as someone else self-destructed for a change. Once an All-Star, Anderson played his way out of Jersey last season, and Childs had his chance.

That's how Childs became a millionaire. He turned a good half-season with an awful team into a free-agent bonanza. That alone makes the Knicks' six-year investment seem risky. They've put their team in the hands of a player who has never played a meaningful NBA game in his life. With the dreadful Nets, Childs never played a game that meant anything. He has no idea about playoff basketball.

Yet there is a scent of upside with Childs. The Nets were the league's worst-shooting team last year and yet Childs averaged seven assists, 12th-highest in the league. He shot just 41 percent with the Nets, but on a team with Allan Houston, Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson, Childs will not be asked to score for the Knicks.

And there's the argument that Childs, who wasted half his career, hasn't yet reached his potential, even though he is 28.

He says basketball is the least of his worries.

"I've taken the attitude that everybody I play against will pay for those five years I spent in the CBA," he said. "I know I wasn't there because I couldn't play the game, that's for sure. I look forward to the season. It's another challenge in my life, and my life has been nothing but challenges."

The biggest challenge for Childs is staying sober while dealing with the pressures of being a critical link on a team that's trying to win before Ewing's clock expires, and coping with life in New York.

"I hope he's prepared for that," says Panaggio, the CBA coach, "because there's going to be all kinds of distractions and temptations. He has to be ready. I'm not going to say he won't be. But from where he was then to where he is now is a big leap. He has to continue living his life the proper way."

Joining the Knicks and assuming more responsibility and wealth all represent a personal achievement for Childs. But he knows if he abuses himself again, these perks can also become some vicious curves in his path toward complete recovery.

"I love my life and I'm not going to stop enjoying what I have right now," he said. "I could easily be dead, or have killed somebody by now, if I had continued down the road I was headed."