Chris Herren:

Chris Herren: "Hiding My Addiction Was a Full-Time Job"

(Novus writes inspirational stories of people in the news who have overcome addiction. This is not to imply that these people are connected to Novus Medical Detox Center but simply to provide hope and encouragement to those fighting addiction.)

*****

I was dead for thirty seconds.
That's what the cop in Fall River told me.
He said two EMTs had brought me back to life.
"Just shut the **** up," he said when I started to say something. "You were almost dead."
I was only a few blocks from where I had grown up, only a few blocks from BMC Durfee High School where there was a banner on the wall saying I was the highest scorer in Durfee history. I had gone off the street near the cemetery where Lizzie Borden was buried...
When the EMTs found me, there was a needle in my arm and a packet of heroin in the front seat. It was only about 2 in the afternoon, but I had been going at it heavy since early in the morning.

And so starts Basketball Junkie: A Memoir, the harrowing account of former pro basketball player Chris Herren's descent into substance abuse, the loss of a promising career and multiple brushes with death. The 2011 memoir, about the Fall River, Mass. high school basketball star, was co-authored with Providence Journal columnist Bill Reynolds.

Fortunately, like other tales about celebrities who have crashed and burned under the destructive weight of drugs and alcohol and then lived to tell about it, Herren's 14-year battle with substance abuse has a happy ending.

Today, at 42, sober and healthy since 2008, Chris Herren is a sought-after motivational speaker and addiction counselor. Since founding The Herren Project (THP) in 2011 to raise awareness about the dangers of peer pressure and substance use disorder, Herren has provided guidance on recovery and support to thousands of students, families and other at-risk groups and individuals.

Surviving 14 years of near death and failure

How does a brilliant and talented athlete with the promise of fame and fortune in his hands do a complete nose-dive into a life of addiction?

How does he deal with losing everything that he, his family and friends all hoped for and quite frankly expected?

How does he keep rebounding from 14 years of failing career and near-death experiences?

And quite honestly, how does he live to tell about it, when so many others do not?

No one knows the answers to these questions better than Chris Herren. And reading his book, his interviews and his lectures, you gather that it's got to be part toughness – the kind of tough some families just naturally endow - along with part will to survive, a big part luck, and to paraphrase the Beatles, "a little help from his friends." This last one was paramount in Herren's eventual recovery.

High school and college

At Durfee High in Fall River, from 1990-1994, Herren followed in the footsteps of the dominant Herren males - his father, grandfather, older brother and three uncles all played basketball. The Herrens were admired in Fall River for their strength, character and open friendliness. But none of them played basketball like Chris, who broke his older brother's record by scoring 2,073 career points, a record that stands today.

In Herren's memoir, co-author Bill Reynolds writes:

With his teen-idol looks and swept-back hair, walking through the corridors of Durfee as if he were the leading man in his own movie, Chris Herren was the embodiment of the high school hero, and he was already being recruited by numerous colleges throughout the Northeast.

Chris chose Boston College, and joined the team in 1994. It was big news, there were stories in Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated. But even before his first game, Herren failed drug tests for marijuana and cocaine. Nevertheless he was allowed to play his first game in November, and he scored 14 points in 21 minutes. And then he broke his wrist, ending his 1994-1995 season.

Herren soon then failed two more drug tests for marijuana and cocaine use. He was expelled from Boston College. Some other kids had offered it, he said, and he thought he'd try it just once. The die was cast. Just once turned into 14 years.

Jerry Tarkanian, Fresno State's famous coach, decided to take a shot on Herren and invited him to California. Herren debuted with the Bulldogs in December 1996 and averaged 18 points a game. But in 1997 he failed another drug test, spent a month in rehab and was benched. Tarkanian liked Herren but struggled with the drug problems. Herren averaged over 15 points through the 86 games played for Fresno. He was a star – 5th nationally in assists and 2nd in the school's career assists. But the drug problems were never really handled.

NBA and overseas

Herren was drafted by the Denver Nuggets and lasted one year, from 1999 to 2000. The Boston Celtics took a chance and that lasted from 2000 to 2001. The great promise of a golden NBA career ended before it ever really began. Drugs were the source of both failures.

With an NBA career now out of the question, Herren went overseas looking for work - and more drugs. From 2001 through 2006, he played basketball (and abused substances) in Italy, Turkey, China, Germany, Iran and Poland.

From 2006 until his final recovery in 2008 he was back in the States with his wife and kids, but attempts at recovery were routinely followed by relapses. Herren was shooting up heroin and drinking like a fish while driving the kids to school and back.

Recently, Carolee McGrath of WGBY in Springfield, MA asked if there was a defining moment that helped him turn the corner.

"There are multiple incidents that happened along the way for me," he answered, "but the final moment was when a gentleman at the treatment center suggested that I should die. Play dead to my family. I should move away and let them live - just get on with their lives."

This idea was so shocking it resonated to his core. It became his ticket to a successful rehab.

With a little help from my friends

"I did my first line of cocaine at 18, and it took 14 years to stop," Herren told CNN recently. "Hiding this addiction was a full-time job."

Herren credits his friends - fellow NBA alumnus Chris Mullin and his wife - for stepping in to help with the costs of rehabilitation.

"Liz and Chris reached out to me and gave me the greatest gift any family could give someone, a chance to get well," Herren told CNN. And to "pay that goodwill forward" he founded The Herren Project.

In 2009, Herren launched Hoop Dreams with Chris Herren, a basketball player development company to mentor players on and off the court. Herren's 2011 memoir was followed by an ESPN documentary on his turnaround, titled Unguarded, that was nominated for two Emmys.

Herren also founded Project Purple, a non-profit that encourages kids to "navigate life's challenges by making positive decisions" that to date has reached 885,000 kids.

"It's all about creating awareness, support, and community," he told CNN. "This crisis doesn't discriminate. It's in every community. It's in every neighborhood. My whole purpose in this is to break that stigma... and eliminate the rock bottoms."

It's been 10 years since Chris Herren got sober, and a lot's been done. But there's more. This year, a new project, Herren Wellness, will provide life-skills coaching, educational workshops and fitness and nutrition advice.

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