It should have been the best moment of Chris Herren’s life when he signed a contract to live out the dream of every boy who grew up playing basketball in Boston. But as Mr. Herren spoke in his thick Boston accent about what an honor it was to be a hometown kid coming back to play for the Boston Celtics, he had his mind on something besides basketball — the 800 mg of Oxycotin waiting in his drug dealer’s pocket.
After a 14-year battle with substance abuse, Mr. Herren now travels the country sharing his story and helping others who suffer from addiction overcome “the monster” that nearly ruined his life. Last Wednesday evening he spoke at the Performing Arts Center at the regional high school. Mr. Herren wore Converse sneakers and an untucked, button-up shirt. He looked like a cool dad, not a recovering addict. And that was Mr. Herren’s first point.
“Drugs don’t discriminate,” he said. “They are everywhere. They affect anyone.”
Mr. Herren said he once sat in a similar auditorium seat as a high school student watching presenters preach about drug use. At the time he thought, that will never happen to me. He was wrong.
Mr. Herren snorted his first line of cocaine at Boston College during his freshman year. This was immediately following a mandatory assembly for college athletes given by a recovering addict.
“What a loser,” Mr. Herren thought again, just like he had in high school. “That would never happen to me.” He’d try coke once and never again, he told himself.
The next day marked another first — a failed drug test. Later, after a wrist injury kept him off the court, he turned to heavier partying and failed two more drug tests. He was expelled from Boston College and went to Fresno, California, to participate in a recovery program and play for Jerry Tarkanian.
Mr. Herren had a successful sophomore season, but drugs were just as available on the West Coast. After failing another drug test, he admitted in an interview aired on television, “I’m a 21-year-old drug addict” while his mother cried at the back of the room.
Another trip to rehab and another chance at athletic stardom.
Mr. Herren became a Denver Nugget after the 1999 NBA draft and played a successful rookie season, due largely to the fact that the Nuggets had a no drinking or smoking policy. The atmosphere was safe and the influences were positive. But in the offseason, a high school buddy placed a 40mg pill of Oxycotin in Mr. Herren’s palm.
While playing for the Celtics he continued to use drugs. When Boston could no longer carry a junkie on the team, he played basketball in Italy for the European League. He added heroin to his repertoire. He tried to kill himself. He voluntarily went to jail. He died for 30 seconds after an overdose. His kids asked him, “Why don’t you want to be our Daddy anymore?”
But as Mr. Herren said on Wednesday, drugs are number one to an addict, no questions asked. It takes hitting rock bottom, perhaps several times, before a person, even a professional basketball player, can make a comeback.
While staying at a recovery facility, Mr. Herren was allowed one night off from the safe house treatment to witness the birth of his third child, a son named Drew. Afterwards, he left his other two kids alone at the hospital for a drug run. When he returned, his wife, who had stood by him through the years, held her new baby and told her husband never to come back.
Mr. Herren returned to the recovery center and a staff member asked him to come by his office because he thought he could help. When Mr. Herren entered the office, the man threw him a cell phone.
“Call your wife,” the man said. “Tell her you’ll never talk to her again. Tell her to tell the kids their Daddy died in a car crash, because you’re better off dead to them.”
Mr. Herren chose to stay alive for his children. He dedicated himself to long-term therapy, not the brief programs he had previously tried and then ignored. The process of recovery was hell, he said, but he was committed.
Mr. Herren has now been drug-free since August 1, 2008, and he once again lives with his wife and children.
The crowd at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High school listened to Mr. Herren’s story in silence and then burst into a standing ovation at the end. The question and answer session following the talk elicited reactions from audience members from all walks of life. Many recovering addicts spoke up to say thank you to Mr. Herren and ask him for advice.
Youth Task Force Coalition coordinator Theresa Manning said that the Youth Task Force brought Mr. Herren to the Vineyard at the request of the community.
“We want to be a supportive arm to community development,” Mrs. Manning said. “I think [his presentation] will resonate with the Island community.”
Mrs. Manning is already getting calls about bringing Mr. Herren back during the school year to speak at the high school. His message is too important to ignore.
“Treatment works,” concluded Mr. Herren, “And everyone deserves it.”