Ex-Temple star Nate Blackwell on how drugs destroyed his future
Blackwell, who became an assistant to John Chaney, was able to hide his drug dependency until he was suspended for missing a game.
"To have amazing stories, you have to have amazing experiences. And I've had many amazing experiences, good and bad. I believe my greatest contribution to the world right now is my story . . .
"I don't have a whole lot of other things to offer."
— Onetime Temple All-American Nate Blackwell, who had positioned himself to possibly succeed John Chaney as coach until substance abuse ended his career in March 2003
Nate Blackwell, who turned 52 in February, indeed has no shortage of stories. He's saving some, or even many, for a book he's been working on. "The X- and R-rated ones," he joked during a highly enlightening, 2½-hour lunch at Chili's on Oregon Avenue, where the people mostly seem to know him as a guy who takes the time to talk to them and who likes his boneless chicken wings with unsweetened iced tea and plenty of Splenda packets (he's diabetic). "I can only give you the PG stuff." Then he flashes that welcoming smile of his, knowing full well that even the tamer material still contains a certain amount of shock value.
Regardless of how many years have passed.
"It has been a long time," said Blackwell, who these days is also dealing with heart disease, high blood pressure and neuropathy. "I had everything in my hands. And I still couldn't control it, once it got out of hand.
"I wonder about a lot of things. I try to live my life with minimal regrets. It was my own creating. You have to learn to get past the what-could-have-beens and what-should-have-beens. But I'm human. I have those moments, where I'm sitting around watching the NCAA Tournament and out of nowhere a tear might roll down my eye. Just because I miss that life.
"Those times have become very, very sentimental for me. Sometimes I can talk about it with ease. Other times I can't. I'm just not in the mood."
Fourteen years ago, Blackwell and I were in the living room of the South Jersey house in which he and his family lived back then, a week or so after Temple suspended him indefinitely for "violating team rules" when he failed to show up for a home game. He revealed some information at that time, too, which he shared only because he trusted our relationship enough to know it would stay off the record. One remark remains particularly ingrained: "I'm at the bottom," he blurted out at one point. I'll never forget those words, coming from someone I considered a genuinely good guy who had somehow became a lost soul.
"I was definitely one of those people who thought it couldn't happen to me," Blackwell said early in our recent lunch, which we'd talked about doing for far too long. "As a matter of fact, one of my good friends was Roy Tarpley, who I met through John Lucas. We actually hung together. I was playing in the NBA the first time he was going through his scenario (with drugs). And I remember thinking to myself, 'How can a guy blow all that money, over that?' I really thought that. Now I understand.
"Your mind tells you what you need. And you come to believe that. Smart has nothing to do with it. You think about all the doctors and lawyers and big-time people who become addicted to something. Pick your poison.
"My mom watches those overeater (television) shows, where they have 500-pound women. Her mind's telling her that she's hungry. The sickness is not the drug. It's your mind, whether it's anorexia, gambling, drinking, anything you name. You can't stop it. It becomes part of what they call pure happiness. I can't be happy unless I do this or I get this. We get high when we celebrate, we get high when we're upset. There's always a reason to get high."
Dependency cost him his profession, his marriage, his legacy and his future. For a while, he went into what he described as an "almost hibernation stage." He endured relapses. He worked a number of jobs, from part-time mailman to middle-school teacher ("Kids are extremely stressful," he emphatically noted) to overseeing a crew that set up events at Penn. Then, after he'd put many of the pieces back together, a little more than a year ago, doctors found a tumor pressing against his adrenal gland, which affected his hormones and caused him to lose 75 pounds. ("My whole body crashed.") Given his slender 6-4 frame, that seems impossible. Yet he sometimes needed help just to walk.
Unable to work, he moved out of his apartment and went back to live with his parents in the rowhome where he grew up.
"I'm in a good place, today," said Blackwell, who has a degree in therapeutic recreation. "I've been clean for a long time. But I never believe I'm in a safe place, if you know what I mean. Once you begin to believe you're safe, then you're not. So I'm clean today. That's all I got. Who knows what's going to happen tomorrow? I'm not above messing up. At first, that's a scary thought, but once you learn to accept that, it's pretty reassuring.
"The worst thing you can tell an addict is they're never going to be able to do that again for the rest of their life. They can't concieve it. But tell them they can't have a drink today, they can handle that . . .
"John (Chaney) would always say the greatest word in the dictionary is 'no.' I had a problem with no."
Bertha Blackwell, a pleasant, soft-spoken woman who has had to overcome some recent health issues of her own, has witnessed the best and worst of her elder son's journey (she has one other child). The South Philly High product, Chaney's first recruit on North Broad, he scored 1,708 points for the Owls. He averaged 19.8 points as a senior. Temple went 108-21 in his four years, including 32-4 in 1986-87. That's the same number of wins as a more-celebrated team compiled the following season with freshman Mark Macon.
Blackwell played briefly for the San Antonio Spurs after getting drafted 27th overall in 1987, then got into coaching. He'd been on Chaney's staff for seven seasons, during which he turned down several head-coaching offers, before his universe fell apart.
"I had no clue," his mother said. "It's still very hard. He's really suffered. There are days when you can see things are kind of getting to him. He still has them. But as time goes by, that depression is getting to be less and less.
"There were days when it got to the point that I had to go to my room and have a good cry for him. I don't know what he's going through. I just know it hurts him. He keeps things mostly to himself. Then he may say some things I don't expect him to say. I believe in second chances, even a third in some cases. Some people can't do that. You have to deal with the consequences."
He's received no mulligans. Reality suggests he never will. At the same time the drug revelations surfaced, there was a TV report that Blackwell had also been involved with locker-room thefts. An investigation by the university uncovered no evidence to support those allegations. Multiple Temple sources close to the situation have confirmed that. Blackwell filed a libel lawsuit that was dismissed. There's no statute of limitations on the damage done to his reputation.
"You can come back from drugs," he once told me. "But there's no coming back from stealing."
Chaney, who retired in 2006, in many ways regarded Blackwell almost like a son. And he thought Nate had everything it took to run his own major program. But he, like everyone else, didn't notice what was going on until it was too late. By that point, there wasn't much anyone could do.
"He would have been something very special, without question," Chaney said. "He was somebody who was disciplined. He emulated me so much, in terms of knowledge and details and repetition. His performance on the job was never a problem. When the time came, I thought he'd be a perfect (successor). I loved him. So did Peter (Liacouras, who retired as Temple president in 2000). But he had those demons inside that got the best of him, I guess."
And just like that, the dream was over.
"My life mission was to coach," Blackwell said. "That's my calling, the thing I did the best. Me and Timmy (Perry, his Temple roommate) did some workouts with kids, training them. I took on an eighth-grade AAU team that did very well, with Timmy assisting. Some of those kids are playing in high school now. I always had great relationships with my players. Of course, in the back of my head I'm hoping maybe someone will notice.
"Unfortunately, I'm still hoping. That's all I can say.
"Jobs are few and far between anyway. I messed up. My belief is I could have been really good at teaching kids the right things. That's the struggle I have. I've had to live with that. It's been the cause of relapse. People tell you to resume your life, get back on your feet. They say it, but they never let you. I've had that black eye. It's a non-healing black eye. It's always black."
If he can't do good things as a coach, then maybe as a mentor or motivational speaker. Or maybe through that book. He wants people to know his story in the hope that they won't end up having the same one.
"You always have to be prepared to take care of yourself," Blackwell said. "What could be good could be bad, at any moment. I can't tell you how many times I thought I had it beat and, slam, here it comes again. I was ready to give up, I'd say more than once.
"I was a master of manipulation. I knew how to cover it up. I probably used cocaine for the first time when I was about 18. It was just a social thing. I was a guy hanging out. That's what we all tried. I maybe put it in my hands once a year. I didn't get into trouble until I was 38, which is late. All of a sudden, it was very, very scary. 'How am I going to get myself out of this? I'm Nate Blackwell.'
"I can't ask for help because I'd be letting everyone know I had a problem. I'm putting my life in jeopardy because I'm so worried about the world finding out. I was making it worse. I didn't want to tell John. To know means he has to do something. I didn't want to put him in that scenario."
His son Tamir, who was 7, had been in and out of the hospital suffering from uncontrollable vomiting. While that might have been an escalating factor . . .
"It wasn't his fault, or anyone else's," Blackwell stressed. "I chose (drugs) as one of my outlets. I just slipped into it. I don't want people to feel sorry for me. I'm not holding grudges about anything."
Still, there's a part of him that wonders why his alma mater didn't do more. Obviously, there are two sides to that. There are those who were at Temple who wonder whether Blackwell can accurately remember everything that was going on during his struggles. Chaney, who got him an attorney to handle his legal matters, insisted there's "no way in the world I wouldn't have helped him. What puzzled me is he never called. Never came in. We couldn't find him. If he'd reached out . . . "
But Blackwell has a different perspective.
"When they told me to go home, never once did anyone ever say, 'How can we help? What can we do?' " he said. "To me, it's what you do when you're a family. It just makes me question it.
"Because of what happened, I know they're going to try to downplay what I was and what I meant. I'm 30 years removed from playing. I don't want to sound like a crybaby, but I helped put the program on the map. It gets lost.
"I'm still popular around (the neighborhood), to my dismay at times. I like to be able to walk around and not be recognized, because all those things come up. Even from people you don't know. 'That's the guy who got caught doing the drugs.' It's all my paranoia. I have to remember I did some bad (bleep). It's not all roses and tulips. There's some weeds in there. (Bleep) you want to get rid of. But it's my life.
"I can care less about what (people think) about me. I would love you to remember me for the good, but I know people look at me as the asshole who blew it. I've got to accept that. I don't really want that, but it's OK. People can Google me for basketball. Then there's the issues. I'm very honest when they ask. There's going to be good, and bad. That's me. Just be prepared for it. I'm a good guy who did bad things."
He remains close with his ex-wife, Loretta, who he said was his rock. He called her the best woman he's ever known. They have three children (Tamir is the youngest) and five grandchildren, all of whom live in the area.
Blackwell feels the family has mostly reconciled with him, which sometimes makes him feel even more guilt about what he put them through.
"We never had a meeting," he said. "We'll talk, go through some things. They'll let me off the hook 100 times. But I still hold on to some of it. I think that's good, because it reminds me of how bad it can get. And how bad it did get. It helps me stay grounded. My goal now is to be around for my grandkids. I want to be pop pop. My granddaughter knows nothing about my life in basketball. But she loves me to death. That's enough."
The only time he cried was when he talked about his kids. And it took him a while to compose himself before he could resume the conversation.
"I try to be everything I can to them, to make up for the things I robbed them of, in my opinion," he said. "There's so many more things I could have helped them with, to make their lives so much better. But I destroyed that. They don't look at it that way. They never had it, so I didn't take it from them. But I have to see it for what it is."
As for his relationship with his parents, all he ever wanted to do was make them proud. And for the longest time, he did. Then he wasn't that person anymore. Yet he'll always remain theirs.
"Everyone's always going to tell you it's OK, because they love you and want you to be fine," Blackwell said. "One of the sad parts about my situation is, I never really know what they're feeling inside. I know I hurt them dearly. I never set out to hurt anyone. But I let people down.
"I always wanted to be more than average. I was never satisfied. I always thought I could be the best, period. So I'm grateful for all the things I was able to do. But I was always the hardest on myself. I was never selfish. I just made a great mistake."
One he probably can't stop paying for, wherever life takes him from here. And that existence is not without its internal contradictions.
"Instead of seeing my successes as success, I almost view them as failure. Every kid I ever met growing up wanted to play in the NBA. Here I did it, but it didn't last long. It wasn't enough to be able to say I did it.
"Technically I'll still have a beer, or a drink, but I've never been a drinker. I've never had an alcohol problem. I don't like drunks. It runs through me. So why am I being judgmental? I'm a hypocrite, you know. I realize they have a problem. I think about that. I've probably been legally drunk a million times because I had two beers . . .
"I've found myself in situations that could have been really bad. God was looking out for me, because I wasn't looking out for myself. He allowed me to wake up from those stupors, resume working again or whatever else I had to do. You become very careless and reckless. I consider myself lucky in a sense. I'm alive and able to tell my story, do some things. There's certainly an element of 'Why me?' that comes along with it.
"If somebody had told me the things to look out for, about people and drugs, I might not have fallen for it when I quote-unquote became a star," he continued. "I had friends who'd done what they'd done. They're your friends. You get caught up in it. That's what happens. It's the subtle things that slowly draw you in. It's never one thing. It's always a combination. Sometimes you just want to escape the reality."
And going public with his experiences is, as he put it, the one, best thing he still has to give.
"Maybe it can save someone's life," Blackwell said. "I have to accept the fact that some forgive you and others forgive you but. I'm part of what caused them to be that way, whether it's a sickness or not. You can't say you were high, forgive me everyone.
"There's ups and downs with everything. Sometimes you learn the wrong way."
A man wearing a faded baseball cap walks by our table a few times, taking a couple of hard looks at Blackwell as he passes. But he's not sure. So he asks, "Do I know you?" Blackwell smiles, because he knows immediately. It's someone he worked with back when he was starting his post-NBA life. "Pathmark, right?" he responds. "You're Joe. Remember me? It's Nate." And the look on Joe's face is pure fascination. After a short conversation, Blackwell asks him whether he would like some of his french fries. Joe wants the wings instead. So Nate tells him to take what's left of those. And both appear to be better off for having caught up.
"Some people just accept you for who and what you are," Blackwell said. "That's one of the reasons Timmy is my greatest friend in the world. When I went through my trouble, Tim never ever asked me about it. To this day, he still hasn't. He always just continued to be my friend. I think that's unique and amazing. He's like a brother. Our friendship is our friendship."
Perry, who is a real estate agent in South Jersey, didn't need anything more. He never judged. He knows what happened. Some of it, he doesn't understand. That never stopped him from remaining there, unconditionally.
"I know a lot of people do make assumptions, or talk about him," Perry said. "He's pretty open to people, as far as his life goes. Some of his stories kind of surprise me. But I never think about it. And it never comes up unless he brings it up. He kind of has that knack with people. Kids love him. He's like John Chaney. He can hold a crowd in a minute.
"If you hang around him, you know he's not that guy. But drugs can do that. It's sad. You have to turn the page. You can't harp on the past. It'll just drive you crazy. I know he could have been a great coach. He made it hard to get into those doors. It's like they can't touch him anymore. They have to wash their hands. I can see it both ways.
"I told Nate a while ago that he needs to start telling his story. It can only do everyone good."
Blackwell concedes that it's still an incomplete book, and there's no telling what the next chapter could bring. He believes it can still be great. Because what else is there?
"Some days I just feel great that I'm alive, getting my health back, getting stronger," he said. "I'm able to see a future. Then there's other times when I sit back and go, 'Man, I want to coach, more than anything in the world.' I might never get that opportunity again.
"I've lived an incredibly full life. It's like, 'Wow, did I actually do that?' Then you wish you could have done more. Most people fall short of their goals. I try to be a very positive thinker. 'Why not me?' It's what keeps me going . . .
"We were at a game in New York, and I'm sitting next to Macon. I think it was the year Temple was in the NIT (2015). They come on TV and say, 'There's one of the great players in Temple history.' And they show him. Then they pan over and it's, 'Wait a minute. Isn't that Nate Blackwell? Yeah. So there's two of the greatest players in Temple history.'
"My phone starts ringing. 'They're talking about you on TV.' A girl sitting behind us leans over and says, 'Excuse me, but are you guys two of the greatest players in Temple history?' We look at her and say, 'Where did you get that from?' She said her girlfriends just called her. You had to laugh."
Because it was a good day. And sometimes that's enough.