MIDDLETOWN – Chris Herren didn’t just stare into the abyss. He did his best to find the bottom of it.
An All-American basketball player from Fall River, Mass., Herren began drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana as a high school freshman. He moved on to cocaine, OxyContin, heroin and crystal meth. He overdosed at least four times, racked up seven felonies, destroyed his professional basketball career and almost died after crashing his car.
But Herren has been sober since Aug. 1, 2008, and he mixed equal parts of danger, hope and motivation in a speech to the juniors and seniors at Appoquinimink High School on Tuesday morning.
“I truly believed it would never happen to me,” Herren said at the start of his 40-minute talk. “I remember this assembly like it was yesterday, walking in with my teammates, laughing, joking, trying to skip it. I remember sitting in my seat, hearing his story and saying to myself, ‘All I do is drink and smoke on weekends, man. I’ll never be like that guy.’”
Herren wound up exactly like the former drug addict he heard from at Durfee High School in Fall River. That’s why he immediately challenged the Appo students to help each other — now.
“There are kids in here right now struggling and the saddest thing about high school is, your friends know how bad you’re struggling but they don’t say anything,” he said. “Instead, they high five you, hug you, laugh at you like it’s no big deal.
“But if they were real friends, they would pull you aside and instead of hitting you with the high five they would tell you they’re kind of embarrassed for you. They don’t like what drugs are doing to you. Because you are nowhere near the kid they grew up with, not even close to the kid they used to know.”
Long road down
Herren led Durfee to 46 straight wins and back-to-back state championships, graduating in 1994 after pouring in 2,073 career points. He was recruited by college basketball powerhouses Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse, but decided to stay close to home and play at Boston College.
But a broken wrist ended his freshman season prematurely, and he started snorting cocaine. He was booted from BC after failing a drug test, and transferred to Fresno State to play for controversial coach Jerry Tarkanian. He made it through three seasons in California, despite spending 28 days in rehab in Salt Lake City after failing another drug test in 1997.
The Denver Nuggets drafted Herren in the second round, 33rd overall, in 1999. He said veterans Nick Van Exel and Antonio McDyess looked after him closely during his rookie season, going out to dinner with him every night on the road and keeping him away from bars and nightclubs.
But the following summer, during the offseason back in Fall River, Herren tried OxyContin and was hooked immediately. He thought he could kick the habit when he got back to Denver, only to discover he had been traded to his hometown Boston Celtics.
What should have been a dream come true quickly turned into a nightmare. Herren started driving back to Fall River every day after practice to buy OxyContin.
On Nov. 15, 2000, before his second game with the Celtics, he stood outside the FleetCenter in Boston in full uniform in the rain, waiting for his dealer to deliver. He got his pills, rushed back inside with four minutes left on the pregame clock, started and scored a season-high 13 points in a 116-109 win over Washington.
But his NBA career quickly unraveled. He was released by the Celtics following a knee injury and went to play in Bologna, Italy. With OxyContin unavailable, he drove around scanning bus and train stations until he found a heroin dealer and got his first taste of that drug.
All over the map
Herren went on to play basketball in China, Turkey, Poland and Iran, finding enough heroin, cocaine and alcohol to feed his addiction in every country. At one point, he was making $22,000 per month and spending $12,000 per month on heroin.
The spiral continued, as Herren started taking crystal meth and began staying awake for five or six days at a time. On June 4, 2008, he overdosed on heroin and crashed his car near a cemetery in Fall River.
After being revived and released from an emergency room, he contemplated suicide. He had been to rehab countless times, but decided to try once more.
He appeared to be on track, sober for 45 days, when his wife, Heather, gave birth to the couple’s third child. Chris went to see the baby, and came back to the hospital drunk and high the next morning.
His wife told him to leave, but he went back to rehab one more time. And on Aug. 1, 2008, a man he didn’t know told him he should “play dead” for his wife and kids, let them “bury you emotionally” and move on.
Finally, that was the message Chris Herren needed. He has been sober for the last 7½ years, and now he delivers about 250 speeches per year. He has spoken to many professional sports teams, at corporate events and at many colleges — including the University of Delaware.
But his favorite audience, by far, is high schools. And he quickly gained the attention of everyone at Appoquinimink.
‘It takes a toll on you’
“It definitely helps me with my sobriety,” Herren said in the lobby, while a DVD detailing his background played before his speech. “But it’s also taxing. It takes a toll on you. I met a little girl last week [at a Connecticut high school] who was bullied and attempted to hang herself and fractured her neck. She’s in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. She was 17 years old.
“The things I see on a daily basis and the kids I present in front of, they struggle. And I get that. At times it can be emotional, and at times overwhelming.”
But Herren pushes through, and delivers his message to everyone — students who may be using drugs or alcohol, students who may have parents or siblings using drugs or alcohol, and students who may have friends starting down the road to addiction.
“I used to walk into high schools like this and tell them how it went for me,” he said. “What I’ve learned is that kids deserve more than that.
“My story is what kids expect. Some guy that comes in and tells us how bad drugs are. I’ll go in here today and challenge them to be better at being themselves. I’ll ask them questions like, ‘How come on a Friday night at 16 years old, you can’t just be you? Where was that moment where you lost the ability to have fun with your friends without alcohol or drugs involved?”
One of his objectives is to start conversations about substance abuse, addiction, bullying and other uncomfortable topics.
“I think high school kids want this message, and if you deliver it to them the right way, it opens up some doors for them,” Herren said. “It inspires them to walk out of this auditorium and challenge themselves to be better.
“There are a bunch of kids in there right now who are not at their best. They’re not as bad as I was, but they’re not at their best and they know that. If we can get them to walk out of there and think about that, that’s the goal.”
Making an impact
After his speech and question-and-answer session ended, it was easy to see Herren’s goal had been reached. Several students followed him out of the auditorium and into the hallways, hoping to talk with him one-on-one.
Appoquinimink parent Denni Ferrera was part of a group that worked to bring Herren to the school, along with Jeff Minner of ServicePro Clean and Cassidy Graphics, all working on behalf of the Appo boys lacrosse team. The group starting trying to schedule Herren’s appearance last fall, and they were thrilled to hear him speak.
“We said, ‘If we can get one or two people to start talking, then we’ve done our job,” Ferrera said. “It’s all been worth the effort. We were completely blown away by the response from the kids.”
Ferrera said close to 50 Appo students and adults talked with Herren about a variety of issues after his speech. He did what he could to encourage, counsel and motivate each one. But before that, he closed his speech by challenging all of the students to help each other.
“You’ve known each other most of your life,” Herren said. “You should be looking out for one another, standing up for each other. You don’t want to look back and regret and say, ‘I should have said something. That girl was so smart, and she lost it.’”
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
www.theherrenproject.org: Information on Chris Herren’s foundation, The Herren Project, which provides a variety of services dealing with addiction, education and mentoring.
www.ahoopdream.com: Information on basketball camps, clinics and personal instruction from Chris Herren.
www.HelpIsHereDE.com: Information on prevention, treatment and recovery services in Delaware.