DANVERS — When former Boston Celtics player Chris Herren took to the basketball court in the field house at Danvers High for more than hour Thursday morning, he left students awed and exhausted. Some felt faint; one girl was hyperventilating with emotion.
Herren, 37, is the founder of The Herren Project, a nonprofit which helps families and individuals suffering from addiction. The Fall River native impressed students and staff not with his basketball prowess, but with his straight talk of how he fell into a 14-year battle with drug abuse.
It all started, he said, at age 18 when his shot at becoming a star at Boston College was knocked off course when he tried cocaine for the first time. The roots of his behavior, he said, was because he smoked, drank and sneaked around in high school.
“The reason why it all would’ve happened was because of the way I behaved in high school,” Herren said.
Herren, whose life has been featured in an ESPN documentary, “Unguarded,” now travels around the country speaking to thousands of kids a year. He also wrote a book, “Basketball Junkie,” about his life.
Thursday, in a talk sponsored by the DanversCares prevention coalition, he spoke to more than 1,000 students and staff with a message that drug abuse is happening now in high schools and colleges all over the country and on the North Shore. For most, it starts with a cavalier attitude toward drugs and alcohol, and the need to use because of insecurities and the desire to fit in. For him, it all started with “a red Solo cup and a blunt (a type of marijuana cigarette).”
Drugs eventually consumed Herren’s hoop dreams, nearly destroyed his family and ended his life. His message was just as much about a lack of self esteem as it was about the dangers of drug use. One leads to the other, he said.
“When you walk out of this gym today, ask yourself, how come ... on a Friday and a Saturday night, I have to become somebody different. Why? How come on a Friday or Saturday night, I just can’t stay me,” Herren said.
Herren seemed to get through. He got two standing ovations, and received hugs and handshakes from student athletes and others gathered around him after his talk.
“I really appreciated it, it really helped out,” said freshman Jeremy Koen as he walked out of the assembly. “It really made an impact.”
Herren said kids are more impressed with his life story than they are with his basketball career.
“I think these kids will always remember it,” Herren said of his talk, “whether they get it now or get it in five years, it’s going to be in their head. I think that’s what kids need. They need to be reminded often of the dangers of it. Not just once a year, not just every other year, they need to be told how bad it can get.”
At 18, the 6-foot, 2-inch point guard was recruited by top schools and featured in Sports Illustrated. He ended up at Boston College, where, after a mandatory lecture on substance abuse by a former NFL football player, his roommate and a girl coaxed him into trying cocaine for the first time. He pledged he would only do it once, but that one line of cocaine turned into “a 14-year nightmare.”
He wound up failing his first drug test at B.C., but that didn’t stop his use. He broke his arm in his first college game and continued to fail drug tests while injured. It was suggested he leave the school. At 18, he saw his picture splashed across the Boston papers as the face of a young athlete struggling with addiction. He got a chance to play at Fresno State, and though he had a successful career, failed a drug test there as well. He had a stint in rehab, made it to the pros, and had a successful rookie season with the Denver Nuggets.
Then he came home to Fall River, and a childhood friend at a backyard party sold him a little yellow pill of OxyContin. That one pill turned him into “a full blown junkie.” He tried to detox himself during the Nuggets training camp, then got a call from former Celtics head coach Rick Pitino that he was being traded to his hometown team.
“It should have been my dream come true,” Herren said. “But it was a nightmare just beginning.” He called his childhood friend to score more pills before calling his wife and family to tell them the news.
Minutes before he had his name called out to the parquet floor as a Celtic for the first time, he was outside the Garden trying to find his dealer.
After an injury that season he played basketball in Italy, where he became hooked on heroin at age 24. Back home in the United States, he overdosed for the first time, but police and paramedics revived him. It was the first of many instances in which Herren’s life was saved, but he did not learn. He went to play in Turkey and Poland, but could not shake his addiction.
At age 27, he tried to kill himself by stepping into traffic after a five-day drug binge with a college buddy, also a professional athlete. He became a street junkie in Fall River for four years from the age of 28 to 32. He nearly overdosed again, and again contemplated suicide.
Then, after a nurse took pity on him and found him a short stay in rehab, former NBA star Chris Mullen paid for him to go to an intensive program in New York. Herren had one more relapse while visiting home to see his wife when she gave birth to their third child. He said he has been sober since Aug. 1, 2008.
Through it all, Herren said he has no regrets for what happened to him, but he regrets the toll his addiction took on others.
“I believe what I’m doing today is what I’m supposed to do, what I was meant to do,” Herren said.
His advice to students wondering what to do about someone they know who has a drug or alcohol problem: “I would tell on them, immediately.” The friend may be mad at first, but he or she will probably be grateful later on, Herren said.
DanversCares Program Director Peg Sallade credited the high school administration for pulling the entire student body out of class to listen to the talk. For more about the Herren Project, visit theherrenproject.org.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.