Former high school, college and NBA basketball star Chris Herren’s fall from grace as one of the most promising players of his generation to a strung out junkie is a tough story to hear.
But Chris Herren is not afraid to share that story as a cautionary tale to school kids all over the country.
Last week, Herren joined First Chief Justice of the East Boston Court, the Honorable Judge John McDonald Jr. at the Mario Umana Academy to tell his tale and warn students that if it could happen to him it could happen to anyone.
“Students always ask what was biggest achievement,” said Herren last Wednesday at the Umana. “Most think it’s playing ball or making it to the NBA. No. For me my biggest achievement is being able to walk through my door and know that my kids know for sure which dad they are getting.”
Herren was a basketball prodigy out of Fall River. The 6’2 point guard played for Durfee High School where he was the Boston Globe and Gatorade Player of the year in his senior season and was named to the McDonald’s All-America Team.
Herren admits, like some of the teenagers present at last week’s lecture, he started off smoking weed and drinking with friends on the weekends.
“My father was an alcoholic,” said Herren. “But I was still curious and one day when I was 13 I stole two Miller Lites out of my dad’s fridge and told my best friend to meet me behind the garage.”
Herren explained to the Umana students that he was eventually caught by his mom and felt ashamed because she had already been dealing with an alcoholic husband.
“She lost her family, her husband, because of those beers I was sneaking,” said Herren. “A lot of people talk about rock bottom but nobody talks about the beginning of their problem.”
Herren explained that seemingly innocent day in the summer behind the garage when he was 13 was his ‘first day’ but not his ‘worst day’.
By the time he got to Boston College he was using cocaine, tested positive for drugs, was expelled from B.C. and ended up Fresno State where he failed yet another drug test.
Despite struggles with substance abuse Herren was drafted in the second round of the NBA Draft by the Denver Nuggets.
However, by the time he arrived in Boston to play for the Celtics he was a full blown addict.
“I couldn’t even think about warming up or doing layups let alone playing a game until I met my dealer in the Garden parking lot,” Herren told the students.
After the Celtics cut him in 2001 Herren played professionally in Europe, but drug use continued to follow the once great basketball star. He has had many felonies for drug use and once overdosed and crashed into a utility pole and was dead for 30 seconds. He went to rehab and has been clean since 2008.
“I’ve overdosed four times,” said Herren. “I can tell you right now during the time I was drinking and doing drugs I never went home, looked in the mirror and said, “I’m so proud of you’ to that reflection staring back at me.”
Herren wrote the book Basketball Junkie: A Memoir which was released in 2011 and was featured in an ESPN documentary Unguarded, which was shown to the students prior to Herren speaking.
“It’s a privilege to talk to students,” he said. “But each time before I speak I say a prayer and I ask God for ‘just one’.”
Herren said he feels he’s accomplished something, something perhaps bigger than any achievement he had on the court, if he can reach just one student and change their mind about going down the path he went down.
“It’s easy to drink and do drugs,” said Herren. “Because you are hiding from your true self. What’s hard is not doing them and facing who you are. That’s why I did drugs because I didn’t want to be me. I wanted to hide from myself. So don’t give your classmates who chose to stay sober a hard time because they are trying to be the person they wanted to be when they were young. They are trying to fulfill their dreams.”
Herren told stories of students and families he’s tried to help over the years since getting sober in 2008. Some were success stories, some ended in tragedy but Herren says he still has hope every day as he travels around and talks with students.