PORTSMOUTH — Chris Herren had one message for the Portsmouth Abbey students gathered before him.
The former Durfee High School basketball star, whose NBA career was derailed by rampant drug use, implored the students to ask themselves why they feel the need to drink alcohol, smoke pot or take pills before hanging out with their friends.
“Ask yourself, ‘How come every Saturday night I have to be somebody different? Why can’t I just be me?'” he said. “On a Friday or Saturday night, be you. Don’t change for anybody. You’re perfect the way you are.”
The co-author of a 2011 memoir, “Basketball Junkie” and the subject of the ESPN documentary, “Unguarded,” Mr. Herren has taken his cautionary tale all over the country, speaking to 150,000 high school students — “my favorite audience,” he says — last year alone.
Last Friday he was back in the town where he lives with his wife Heather and three kids, speaking to a rapt group of students — many of whom he taught at his Hoop Dreams basketball clinics.
“I look into the crowd and I see kids I’ve known since the eighth grade, sixth grade, and that makes this a little more difficult for me,” said Mr. Herren.
In support of their speaker, several Abbey students wore “Project Purple” shirts, an initiative of the nonprofit Herren Project that assists individuals and families struggling with addiction. Other students were asked to wear purple, and purple ribbons were distributed to all.
As he’s done so many times before, Mr. Herren needed no script as he detailed his sordid fall from grace, warts and all. His tale seemed to be one “rock bottom” moment after another. After dabbling with drugs at Durfee, he went full bore shortly after arriving at Boston College. Just 18, he was introduced to cocaine by “a freshman soccer girl” doing lines with a dollar bill.
“I had no idea that I’d be 32, with my wife eight months pregnant, before I dropped that dollar bill,” said Mr. Herren, who later failed his first drug test and broke his wrist in his debut college game. That’s when things got worse.
“My identity gone, I jumped into partying,” he said. Only five months into his college career and several more failed drug tests, his scholarship was taken away and he was sent packing to Fall River.
Coach Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State took pity on him and Mr. Herren had a good sophomore year there, scoring 18 points a game. But after learning, at age 21, that he was going to be drafted by the NBA, he binged on alcohol and cocaine right before a nationally televised game.
“I did lines of cocaine for 13 hours straight,” he said.
That’s when Coach Tarkanian ordered him to take a drug test, admit to his substance abuse addiction in front of ESPN cameras, then get into rehab. But he wasted his time at the Salt Lake City treatment center. “Every day I checked in and every night I checked out,” he said.
After 30 days he was back at Fresno and drafted by the Denver Nuggets, where he initially thrived because teammates kept him away from drugs. At a backyard barbecue, however, a friend introduced him to little yellow pills at $20 a pop — OxyContin.
“I threw it into my mouth and I went back to my cookout. I had no idea that the 40-milligram pill would turn into 1,600 a day. I had no idea that that $20 would turn into a $25,000-a-month OxyContin habit,” he said.
A dream dashed
What should have been a dream come true — being traded to the Boston Celtics — turned out to be the lowest point of his NBA career.
“I wanted to be a Boston Celtic since I was 4 years old,” said Mr. Herren. But he didn’t call his mom or dad or his wife to share the good news. “I called that guy with the little yellow pill.”
From there his fall from grace continued. After leaving the Celtics he played ball in Bologna, Italy where he graduated to heroin. His routine back in Portsmouth would be to drive to the Dunkin’ Donuts up the street every morning to see his heroin dealer, then bring Munchkins home to his two kids. One time he didn’t make it home, however. That’s when he blacked out with a needle in his arm and police took him away.
After that he played ball in Istanbul, Turkey, scoring heroin in the worst neighborhoods. Back in the states he stayed up five days straight doing speedballs— a cocktail of heroin and cocaine — with a professional football player. After being taken to a shelter by homeless men who found him sleeping behind a 7-Eleven, he finally met up with his family. His oldest child Chris asked him, “How come you don’t wanna be my dad anymore?”
It didn’t change his ways, as Mr. Herren sold his kids’ toys and his wife’s jewelry to feed his habit. Strung out on heroin one day in 2008, he crashed into a cemetery fence in Fall River. His skin turned blue and police told him he had been dead for 30 seconds.
Not long after that, NBA star Chris Mullin helped him find a treatment center in New York. While there, he got a call from Heather, who said she was about to give birth to their third child. Mr. Herren was allowed to visit, but after seeing his baby he announced he was going for walk. He went to a liquor store and called his heroin dealer.
“I can’t tell you how many times you’ve shattered my heart. But this is the last time you shatter my children’s,” Heather told him.
Back at the treatment center, a man there told him to call Heather and tell her he was leaving the family. “You’re gonna play dead for these kids,” he told Mr. Herren.
That was the night he prayed for an answer. “Aug. 1, 2008 is my sobriety date,” said Mr. Herren, 32 at the time. “I’m grateful to that man for bringing me to my knees.”
Reason for speaking out
Near the end of his speech, Mr. Herren talked about the need for students to be honest with themselves and others, and not just about substance abuse.
At one of his first school assemblies, he recalled, a girl raised her hand to ask a question but was told by others to put it down. Later she wrote to him, saying she had wanted to talk about the way she was treated at school. Her dad is an alcoholic and the family has no money, so she’s forced to wear the same clothes over and over. Classmates pick on her, and she resorted to cutting herself. But his speech gave her the courage to speak out, she said. Now she e-mails him every month.
“That little girl’s e-mail means more to me than anything I’ve accomplished in my basketball career,” he said.
For more information about The Herren Project, visit www.theherrenproject.org.