Life’s rebound: From addiction to sobriety

Chris Herren shares with a young audience his personal story of drug and alcohol addiction and his recovery. (Submitted photo)

GEORGETOWN — Chris Herren’s most significant rebound wasn’t one he made in college or professional basketball.

It’s the one he is making in the game of life.

Once one of the nation’s prized basketball recruits and the pride of Fall River, Massachusetts, Mr. Herren sacrificed family and basketball dreams for booze, pills and heroin in the destructive nightmare that is addiction.

Doing cocaine in bathroom stalls, shooting up heroin in a Dunkin Donuts parking lot, failing dozens of drug tests, and racking up numerous felony arrests and broken promises have given way to a life of sobriety for the 42-year-old, who is now proud to say he is a loving husband to wife Heather and a sober father to children Christopher, Samantha and Drew.

“The greatest gift I have been able to give is that for the last 10 years I’ve been the same dad. They don’t have sadness in their soul anymore. They don’t have that fear in their eyes,” said Mr. Herren. “To be quite honest it is the greatest accomplishment of my life.”

The Chris Herren story is a tale of descent into addiction, a miraculous recovery and his new life mission: sharing his story with audiences in the hopes of reaching at least one person and making a difference in their life.

Alcohol and drug-free since Aug. 1, 2008, Mr. Herren has refocused his life to put his sobriety and family above all else. Today, he is a motivational speaker, author and sobriety advocate with his foundation’s The Herren Project Project Purple Initiative, which assists individuals and families struggling with addiction through treatment navigation, education and mentoring.

He shared that story Sept. 11 with an estimated 800 people as keynote speaker at Sussex Goes Purple — a community-driven effort to help turn the tide of the drug epidemic.

Kent County Levy Court and the Dover city council also recently passed resolutions to “go purple” from Sept. 9 to Sept. 22 in an effort to raise awareness of substance abuse.

Getting engaged

“Over the last eight years I have dedicated my life to traveling all across the country sharing my story as a public speaker. I’ve been very blessed to do this, 250 times a year; walk into rooms like this and present to groups like the Patriots, the Packers, the Bears, the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Royals, Harvard, West Point, Yale, TED Talks, and college commencements,” Mr. Herren said. “Over the last eight years I’ve had a responsibility of walking into rooms like this and presenting in front of a million kids. I truly believe in my heart that it has made a difference. I do this for many reasons. One, because when it comes to addiction I believe we’ve gone horribly wrong with the way we present it to our children. I think we put way too much focus on the worst day than the first day. We want to show our children pictures of drug addicts and say, ‘Look how horrible life is for them in the end’ instead of sitting them down and looking them in the eye and asking them honestly, ‘Why would you let it begin?”

“I do this because I grew up in a house that suffers from alcoholism. My father was a politician in Massachusetts for 18 years. My father has been killing himself slowly because of a beer can this big,” said Mr. Herren. “When I was a little boy I sat in class, I listened to the teacher talk about alcoholism and alcoholics. The one they showed me didn’t look like my dad.”

Mr. Herren’s story is almost hard to believe. He scored 2,073 points for Durfee High School and was labeled a player “beyond special.”

The celebrated hoop star was recruited by every major college basketball power, including Rick Pitino, then at Kentucky. His promise and potential graced “Rolling Stone” and “Sports Illustrated” magazines.

But for Chris Herren, the addict, there were dark corners and chapters. He abandoned his wife and children, walked out on a $750,000 contract in Italy, woke up in ambulance with a needle in his arm and had to have pills rather than the thrills of basketball.

Beer, vodka, cocaine, Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet and heroin were among his teammates, spanning his collegiate days at Boston College and Fresno State, during his brief NBA career with the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics and several professional teams abroad.

Former basketball star Chris Herren says rebounding from substance abuse and being a sober, loving family man is his greatest accomplishment in life. (Submitted photo)

At 24, his world and those who loved him changed. Booked on drug charges and bailed out of jail, the basketball druggie made his way through TV cameras and reporters.

“I didn’t call my mommy or my daddy and ask for help. I didn’t call my wife to say ‘sorry.’ My first phone call was to the man I met in the parking lot that morning. Because what he sold me was something that was so good it almost killed me. That’s how sad we got. That’s how sick we get,” said Mr. Herren. “We wake up every single morning chasing death for a feeling. It becomes the norm to take a chance at dying.”

At 27, he was a street junkie.

“The ball stopped bouncing and contracts weren’t coming. I could no longer provide for my family. Just steal from them,” he said. “So, I became a street junkie. You could find me up and down main street in my hometown hustling heroin, scrap metal, collecting cans, bouncing checks, robbing houses … returning Christmas presents. Whatever it took.”

Mr. Herren told the crowd gathered in Sussex of his quest for heroin while jobless, hanging out at a Dunkin Donuts parking lot waiting for his drug dealer. “I’d throw him cash. He’d throw me heroin,” he said.

He’d sit in his spot and shoot up. “As soon as I felt it, I’d get in the drive-thru and order coffee for me, tea for my wife and Munchkins for my kids and walk in my house like I was a hero,” said Mr. Herren.

He remembers the lowlights of his fourth and final overdose. He had crashed into a cemetery fence, woke up in the back of an ambulance thanks to Narcan and eventually was handcuffed.

“At 18, I was the kid in the city with the brightest future and the biggest dreams. And now, I am the city’s biggest loser,” he recalled.

He heard the words, “Get this bum junkie out of here” and “Shame on you.”

Suicide was an option. He thought about going to his friend’s house and grabbing his gun. “I’m going to stick it in my mouth and I’m going to blow my head off. I have to kill myself. I have to end this nightmare. Not for me, but for my poor family.”

Mr. Herren shares his harrowing story of abuse and recovery in his memoir, “Basketball Junkie,” and in numerous interviews throughout the Emmy-nominated ESPN Films documentary “Unguarded.”

Trouble is brewing

Mr. Herren grew up in a house of alcoholism. His mom memorized telephone numbers of bars his father frequented. He remembers the fights, yelling and screaming and the word divorce.

“I told her how much I loved her,” Mr. Herren said. “Then I made a promise to her. I broke that promise when I was 13 years old when I started drinking my daddy’s Miller Lites. All those nights I cried because of that beer can. All those nights I prayed he would stop. That was the first major red flag that went off in my life.”

Despite his difficult homelife, at 18, Chris Herren was ranked in the top 20 basketball players in the United States.

“I was recruited by every school in America. But at 18 years old my parents were going through a divorce, so I decided to stay close to go to Boston College,” he said. “At 18 years old I stepped on that campus excited to disconnect from the chaos of my family. I was on that campus for four weeks and one night, after doing a photo shoot for Sports Illustrated, I got back to campus. I walked into my dorm room and my roommate was sitting at my desk with a young freshman girl. Their bodies shifted, I knew they were hiding something.”

There was a pile of cocaine, a drug he’d never seen before. He turned to leave. The girl laughed, saying, “Come back, it’s not going to kill you.”

“Her words froze me,” said Mr. Herren. “Those childhood insecurities, they came out. At 18 years old I turned around, I walked back and sat down and looked at that little girl and I said, ‘I know that won’t kill me.’”

He remembers thinking, “I’ll try this drug one time and I’ll never do it again. I had no idea at 18 years old when I promised myself just one time that that one line would take 14 years to walk away from. I had no idea I’d be 32 years old, a father of two, a wife eight months pregnant, found on the side of the road crashed with a needle in my arm.”

Four months later, he was kicked out of Boston College for three failed drug tests, which caused him to lose his athletic scholarship. “I had no idea of the consequence of waking up the next morning to see my mother crying on the kitchen counter, but this time it was about me. When I walked up to hug her, she slipped me the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. My face was on the front page of both papers, with the headline “Drug Addict …”

Blowing a second chance

“At 18 years old I was labeled a junkie, a failure and a kid not worthy of a second chance. So, for the next six months I sat on my parents’ couch waiting for a college coach in America to make me an offer,” Mr. Herren said. “By the grace of God, that chance came six months later when a man by the name of Jerry Tarkanian said, ‘I’m a fan of second chances. And I think you’re worth it. You’ve worked too hard to lose it.’ So, at 19 years old that’s all I needed to hear. I jumped on a plane and I moved 3,000 miles away to start fresh, having no idea that the one line of cocaine comes with you.”

“I had no idea in the middle of the best season of my college basketball career I would play in the game of my life and score 30 points against Duke when they were No. 1 in the country,” Mr. Herren said.

He flew back into Fresno a local hero and was met at the airport by his friends, greeted with beers — “knowing I shouldn’t,’ he says — followed by some liquor. That night he ended up at a nightclub “and eventually in a bathroom stall battling lines of cocaine.”

The next afternoon, in his apartment with shades drawn and lights off, he got a phone call from the team trainer, who told him he cried watching him play in the game against Duke. The trainer had a request. “Do me a favor, you don’t have come right now but I need you to stop in and take a drug test.”

“When he said drug test my heart dropped. I hung up the phone and started crying. I knew. Twenty minutes later I walked into his office — I self-admitted and walked away. Two hours later I was requested back to campus by my athletic director,” said Mr. Herren.

There were tears in the athletic director’s eyes, who told him., “I tried. You backed me into a corner this time.”

On national television, Chris Herren was scripted to admit to the world he was a drug addict.

After the press conference he was told to fly to Salt Lake City, Utah and do a 28-day program. “If you complete it, I’ll let you play in your senior season. If you don’t, fly back to Fall River because you are no longer welcome in Fresno,” were the athletic director’s words, Mr. Herren said.

“At 21, looked at 15 TV cameras and I cried on ESPN. What people don’t know is I cried because during my press conference my mother walked in with my 80-year-old grandfather,” Mr. Herren said.

Treatment center rookie

At 21, Chris Herren entered his first treatment center. He heard other people tell their stories. He didn’t feel he was one.

“I truly believed it wasn’t me. I wasted my time. I wasted their time,” he said. “At 21 years old in hindsight I blew the biggest opportunity in my life. When that 28 days was up I flew back Fresno. I played in my senior season, in my senior year my wife was pregnant, my son Christopher was born.”

“At the end of that senior season my dream came true. I was the 33rd pick in the NBA Draft by the Denver Nuggets,” Mr. Herren said.

Nuggets teammates “understood me and wrapped their arms around me. ‘We know your story. We know that you suffer from drug addiction. We’re going to help you.’”

Teammates imposed restrictions on smoking, drinking and socializing, he said.

“My rookie season was the best season. When that season ended I jumped on a plane and flew back home. I bought a big house and a couple of cars and started settling in with my family,” Mr. Herren said. “At 22 years old I was proud of that. Not too my 22-year-olds where I come from own homes.”

Answering addiction’s knock

One night while watching television with his son there was a knock at the door. It was a kid he had played basketball with in high school.

Conversation focused on Vicodin and Percocet during high school. The kid told him there was a new pill on the streets, four times more powerful than those back in school at Durfee. The kid was dealing them at $20 a pop.

“In 1999 I had never heard of the word OxyContin,” said Mr. Herren. “So in 1999 I reached in my pocket, handed him a $20. I went back to finish watching TV with my son, having no idea that decision just changed my life forever. I had no idea that that 40-milligram pill would turn to 1,600 milligrams a day. I had no idea that that $20 I spent would turn to $25,000 a month. I had no idea.”

Strung out and completely dependent all because of one pill, a 20-dollar bill, Chris Herren checked back into training camp with the Nuggets.

“I promised myself I’d never take another one. So, the first five days of training camp I went through my first detox. I laid in the hotel room sweating, freezing, legs kicking, vomiting, no sleeping, praying for God to take this pain away from me,” he said.

One day he walked into practice and Nuggets coach Dan Issel grabbed him, took him to the office and handed him a cell phone. On the other end was Rick Pitino, now the coach of the Celtics, who said, ‘Congratulations son. I wasn’t able to convince you to play for me at Kentucky, but I just made you the newest member of your hometown, the Boston Celtics,” Mr. Herren said.

“My knees got weak. Since three I wanted to be a Boston Celtic,” said Mr. Herren. “What should have been my dream come true, I knew in my heart it was the nightmare beginning. Five days wasn’t enough. I wanted to call my mom, my dad, grandparents, I wanted my family to be proud of me. But my first phone call … was to the kid with the pills. ‘I don’t know what you sold me four months ago, but I’m broken. I have never felt so sick in my life. I just got traded to the Boston Celtics.’”

A scheduled press conference wasn’t his focus. “Larry Bird, Bill Russell. I could care less about the Boston Celtics. I could care less growing up in Boston,” Mr. Herren said. “All I cared about was ending this press conference, so I could finally get outside, jump in that car, buy my pills and end this vicious sickness.”

Eight weeks later, he was informed he’d start at point guard. Pills, not thrills of playing as a Celtic starter, were priority. He called the kid with pills. During warmups he slipped out the back of the arena several times, awaiting the arrival of his dealer who was stuck in traffic. “I hid behind the fence, outside the arena head to toe in my Celtics warmups on the biggest night of my athletic life. All because of one pill and a 20-dollar bill,” said Mr. Herren. “Two minutes later I bought what my body needed.”

He said he has no real recollection of what should have been the greatest moment of his life “all because of one pill and a 20-dollar bill.”

A new era begins

Three weeks later Shaquille O’Neal landed on his shoulder. He sustained a torn rotator cuff. That injury ended his season. He was on Oxycontin for pain.

When that season ended he got a phone call from No. 1 team in Europe, offering twice as much as he was making in NBA, a beautiful home in Italy, two cars, a school for his son and hospital that his wife could give birth to his daughter. He went with smuggled Oxycontin. His hope was to wean off the dosage.

“Unfortunately, Oxycontin doesn’t play that way,” he said.

Out of high-powered pills and unable to speak much Italian, in desperation he hooked up with heroin. “At 24 years old I became an intravenous drug addict. At 24 years old I never went back to the little yellow pill,” Mr. Herren said.

His tenure with the Italian team ended when he was informed by the coach to pack his bags for a 10-day training camp in the mountains. He gave up $750,000, cars, education for his son and it would cost him $100,000 to walk away from his contract. “It means nothing to me,” Mr. Herren said. “So, I left.”

Family ties

Chris Herren was offered help throughout his battle with addiction. One caring soul was a nurse who had gone to school with his mother (who died at an early age from cancer). The nurse pledged to do what his deceased mother could not. She made some calls.

Another was Chris Mullin, a former NBA player.

Mr. Herren recalls being discharged from a center. “I am walking out, the nurse called me back and with a smile on her face she said, ‘It’s your lucky day.’ When I answered the phone. It was a man I played in the NBA with named Chris Mullin,” said Mr. Herren. “Chris Mullin said, ‘It broke our hearts to watch that story on ESPN a couple days ago. But Liz, my wife, just arranged for you to go to a place in New York for six months. It’s not the nicest but it’s enough.’”

At 32 years old Chris Herren was out of gifts. He checked in. His expectant wife was about to give birth and asked if he could come home. “Bad idea,” was the advice from the treatment center. But he went home and was there when son Drew was born.

“I had beer in my system when Christopher was born. I had pills when Samantha came into the world. I was finally present as a parent to witness that miracle. And I was proud of it,” said Mr. Herren.

That day his son Christopher told him that “a lot people are mad at you. They say bad things about you. I don’t want you to die. I want you to be my daddy.”

At that point, Mr. Herren said he told his family he needed to step out for a bit to get himself together. “I never came back,” he said. “I walked right to the liquor store. Thirty minutes later I had a needle in my arm.”

That broke his wife’s heart — again. This, Mr. Herren said, is what she said, “You have broken my heart a million times. I can’t let you break these kids’ hearts. I don’t know if you can see it, but they have sadness in their souls because of your sickness. They have fear in their eyes. I don’t want them to grow up that way. As their mom I am going to protect them. I am going to let you say goodbye to them, but I promise you you’ll never see them again.”

“At 32 years old, I walked out of the hospital. I had no place go,” Mr. Herren said.

He went back to the treatment center. “Mr. Basketball, welcome back,” the counselor said, who instructed Chris Herren to call his wife, have no more contact with her and know that his children were going to be told their daddy died in a car accident. “As your counselor I am suggesting that you play dead for your family because you are a no-good scumbag junkie who has no business being their father,” Mr. Herren said.

“The hardest part about being a junkie is that I went to bed every single night … and before I fall asleep the last thought on my mind was what a complete failure I have been as their father,” Mr. Herren said.

Sober now for 10-plus years Chris Herren is their father and a family man.

“I thank God every day for that man’s words,” said Mr. Herren. “The bad days become the lessons. The beauty of living the life in sobriety is it eventually allows you to find the silver lining in all the sad stories. You begin to make peace with your past. And you allow yourself to be forgiven.”

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