Former NBA-Basketball star and recovered drug addict Chris Herren told his chilling story to a full audience of Onteora District grade-nine-through-twelve High School students at a Friday morning assembly on substance abuse. Over 400 students arrived at the auditorium in a typical noisy fashion that morning. But once the 30-minute film, titled Hoop Dreams, focusing on Herren’s life began silence gripped the room. District officials had counselors on hand, because as his story unfolded, some students became visibly upset.
“I’m not the typical speaker, I’m not gonna come in here and talk to you about ways to reach your goals and all that kind of stuff,” said Herren. “I come in here and I tell you about my nightmare, I tell you the story I lived.”
The film featured Herren’s rise and fall as a basketball player, first in the early 1990s as a star at his High School in Fall River, Massachusetts, followed by stints at Boston College, California State University, then on to the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics. The movie opens with Herren speaking to a roomful of students. At the film’s end, students warmly applauded as Herren walked onto the floor of the auditorium and spoke without using a microphone, in a distinct Boston accent, his rough-around-the-edges demeanor on display.
Herren began his tragic journey of drug/alcohol abuse during High School, a point he likes to hit hard. It all seemed fine at the time, he said, explaining how he attended alcohol-fueled parties in the woods or a friend’s basement. He told students, “All I did was drink and smoke on weekends man, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna become a drug addict…”
In Boston College in the late 90’s he was introduced to cocaine at a party, and was expelled after testing positive for cocaine and marijuana twice. At California State University/Fresno, he failed more drug tests, went into drug rehab and once he returned, went on to have success in college basketball. He was a second round draft pick that landed him with the Denver Nuggets in 1999 where he said, they knew he was a risk, but he kept a lid on his social life. He thrived and was traded to Boston Celtics in 2000, where at a party he was given the painkiller OxyContin. He said it was the best high and he immediately became addicted. He stopped playing for Celtics in 2001 and until 2006 worked for overseas teams in places like Italy, Turkey, Germany and China. During this time he began to use heroin. Over his career he was arrested multiple times for heroin possession, crashed his car while high and had an overdose that nearly ended his life. All his considerable money went to his addiction, so he began stealing from his wife and children for drugs. Upon the birth of their third child, arriving high at the hospital, his wife told him to leave and only return sober.
He spent nearly a year in rehab and since 2008 has remained drug free. He first began giving his testimony to adults, followed by talks to younger people. “Over the last four-and-a-half years doing this,” Herren said, “I thought it was all about substance abuse and then I learned a lesson quickly…that it was about struggle.” In other words, the inability to fit in with peers. Reflecting back on his high school days when they partied, there were always a couple friends who didn’t drink or take drugs. “Our friends would always entice them to get high with us. I remember at the end of the night looking across the room seeing them and thinking, those kids have something inside of them that I’m missing — something inside of them that I don’t have and I want to know how they can come out with us every Friday and Saturday, have fun with us and feel comfortable.” Out of his High School basketball team of 15, seven went onto shoot heroin. “I never heard one friend say smoking a blunt on the way to school, ‘hey guess what man, I can’t wait to stick needles in my arm, I can’t wait to break my family’s heart, I can’t wait to lose everything…’ That never came up at High School parties, man.”
He said feeling uncomfortable among peers, wanting to fit-in, genetic factors, or family hardship, can lead a person to substance abuse. “I think we’ve gone horribly wrong with the way we teach you kids about addiction.” Herron looks around the silent room. “When you see a drug addict, you think of their last day, you don’t think of day one. Man, we’ve all had a day one, we all start off in the woods, we all start off in the basement, smoking grass, drinking a little beer.”
He says that if addiction is within the family, a young person is 40 times more likely to become addicted. “If my 15 year old son came home drunk or stoned, I have to find the void in his heart that he has to fill, to take a chance to become just like his dad.” He said 23 million Americans suffer from addiction and of that number, “91 percent started off as a teenager.”
Herren told the story about a student he met who cut up her arms due to the pain of being bullied in school and the shame of an alcoholic father. “When I talk about cutting,” he said, “I always see kids cry. Everywhere I go kids cut…I walk in here today and I pray that one boy or girl who self harm will walk out of here, go to guidance and say, I don’t want to hurt myself no more.” He voiced hope that anyone with addiction problems, find someone to confide in. “My goal is to get you to talk,” he said. “I wish I was tough enough to talk about my struggles, but I pretended I was too cool for all of this and I paid the ultimate price and, I hate to say this, but some of you will pay the same price.”
Herren talked about the current most widely abused drug-prescription painkillers. He said, “When kids watch that video, they think, he’s high on heroin and crack cocaine, that’s not me, I’ll never do heroin, I’ll never do crack-cocaine and that’s perfect! But what about the pills, what about those pills that some of you are already popping. Those pills are killing twice as many people per year as heroin and cocaine combined.”
According to the Center for Disease and Control, accidental pharmaceutical drug overdoses have surpassed vehicle fatalities as the number one cause of accidental death with an average of 114 deaths per-day.
“Every 19 minutes someone drops dead from popping a pill. It’s the number one cause of accidental death in America right now, popping prescription medication,” Herren said. “Every 19 minutes — boom, someone’s dead!”
During Herren’s time with the Celtics, he was taking the painkiller OxyContin, and sometimes he would need to meet his dealer out in the parking lot during games. Eventually he turned to heroin. “Kids say to me ‘Mr. Herren, what you talk about is extreme.’ No doubt, kids say not everyone is going to turn into a heroin addict, but some of you will, a couple of you will — one out of nine people suffer from addiction and alcoholism right now.”
As the assembly was winding down, he sought questions from students. One asked if he ever used crystal-meth, the answer was yes, another gave a testimonial about drug addiction and by this time teachers were handing out tissues to wipe away tears. “In 1994, I had that opportunity to sit in a gymnasium and pay attention, and today I would give anything to go back to 1994 and listen,” he said. Counselors, school psychologists, even Principal Lance Edelman were called to counsel students who needed to talk. Herren’s goal appeared to have been met; students began talking.
Besides his speaking engagements, in 2009 Herren established Hoop Dreams with Chris Herren, a basketball development program. In 2011, a book was released that he wrote with sports columnist Bill Reynolds titled Basketball Junkie: A Memoir, and ESPN released a documentary titled, Unguarded, which received two Emmy nominations. Herren also founded a non-profit organization titled, The Herren Project, whose purpose is to counsel, educate and mentor people with substance abuse problems.