At the beginning of a promising NBA career, point guard Chris Herren was drafted in the second round by the Denver Nuggets, and the next year, played for his hometown Boston Celtics. He was also addicted to painkillers. “I was taking 1600 milligrams a day. A year and a half later I switched to heroin and was spending 25K a month,” he told USA Today High School Sports.
Clean and sober since 2008 — after a car crash left him dead for 30 seconds — he now speaks to schools about drug abuse, including opiates. He hopes to spare kids from the tortuous journey he knew.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a high school kid dependent on a substance,” he said. “It’s the roughest world you can exist in.”
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Herren, now 39, said he started oxy use at age 22, four months before getting traded to the Celtics. He played 25 games in his one season with the Celtics in 2000-01 and never played in the NBA again, although he went on to a lengthy career in Europe.
“It wasn’t my first time taking a painkiller,” he said. “I had taken Vicodin and Percocet. But none of that got a hold of me like Oxycontin did.”
“I don’t think any parent drives their kid home in a cast with a prescription and thinks ‘you’re going to be a kid in 3 years that is going to have a major addiction because of this’. Nobody forecasts that.” – Chris Herren
He said he didn’t have the resources to buy it while playing in college, but once he was a pro, “it got really bad.” He said he once left an NBA arena 20 minutes before tipoff for his fix.
Herren listens to students while at the schools. “When it comes to opiates, it’s still very much a secret,” he says. “Kids are not apt to disclose they’re struggling with painkillers or heroin. It’s still very shameful for the ones who know what it’s like to struggle on it.”
Herren’s memoir, Basketball Junkie, and an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, “Unguarded,” have led to emails from students and addicts, thanking him for sharing his story. One 15-year-old boy had posted a picture to Instagram of Herren and him after he spoke at his school, saying what a great day it was and admitting he was 150 days sober. Herren was moved.
“Six weeks later, he hung himself,” he said, his voice trailing off. “It’s a very lonely world to be 15 years old and struggling. It’s not accepted. It’s looked upon as weakness….kids are afraid to disclose their struggle.”
And he wants it known that it’s not just injured athletes at risk for addiction.
“There are painkiller addictions among all children, not just athletes. It’s just athletes are more prone to suffer injuries playing sports like football or wrestling or basketball. Unfortunately the story usually comes out 3 years later and sometimes it’s too late, because they’ve transitioned over to heroin, or their addiction is extreme on the medication and needs to be addressed immediately.”
High school athletes have pressures they want to relieve, such as playing for the high school team, and because they want to get a scholarship, he said. “The pressure that’s mounting around them becomes overwhelming, so it’s the quick fix.”
“We all start off with red Solo cups. It’s the first page of everyone’s story. We fail to talk about that. We want to do mock crashes and show this disastrous drunk driving accident –what about the innocence of it? How it started in our parents’ basement with a red solo cup? We want to show pics of drug addicts of what they looked like in their final days with no teeth and prostitution and overdoses, but show them a picture of their little league uniform. Show them both sides.”— Chris Herren
Not all kids will get addicted if prescribed an opiate, he cautions. “Even when you talk to adults, it comes down to: ‘It made me really sick and woozy and I hated it,’ or ‘I love the feeling.’ And some kids are going to love the feeling. And even though that prescription is gone, they might go after that feeling again, six months later.”
He said he worries about the athlete who can function and play with it. Some kids feel so sick from it, they don’t use it, even if prescribed.
He said he believes in short-term prescriptions only and then re-evaluating, perhaps five days later. He believes 90-day prescriptions isn’t practicing good medicine. “How can you recklessly give out this medication to teenagers and young adults?” he asks. “Because the reality is, some are going to get hooked. And there’s a heavy price to pay for the ones who do.”
Herren says he won’t allow his own 16-year-old basketball playing son to have a narcotic prescription if injured. He would seek out every other alternative, like second opinions and alternative medicine, and use ice and Tylenol. He says, “Kids heal, they are young and heal quickly, why numb them?”
And if his own son get injured and wants to return to play too early? “I could care less about the game. I know far too well the other side. If he has to miss three, four, five games because of it, so be it. I’m his father, his parent, I’ll make sure we’ll figure it out. There’s no rush to get back to bouncing a basketball,” he said. “His life, his future is much more precious than scoring 30 points.”
“If someone walked in and told you they just put heroin in your medicine cabinet, you’d probably call the cops. You’d have the person arrested for bringing that type of narcotic in your home, but yet we are so comfortable with keeping something in the cabinet with a babyproof device.” — Chris Herren
He echoes that advice to high school athletes who consider taking a pill to play through pain so they don’t lose their spot. “The price is so big, so extreme, so who cares about the spot? I get it, you’re going to say, ‘There’s kids out there who are not going to be able to withstand that,’ but it’s just short-term gain for long-term pain. You’ll get your sport back if you do it correctly, and you’ll hold your spot for longer if you do it the right way.”
Herren gives that same message to pros: Don’t mess up your career. He recently spoke at the NFL Rookie Symposium and said he told them: “Even when it comes to smoking pot, you’re drug-tested. Think of what you’re risking for such a short-term feeling for such a small escape. Your career is on the line, there’s so much to lose. To me, that’s something that needs to be addressed immediately, no matter what the substance is. You’ve worked so hard for something, and to give it up, for 2 minutes, it’s sad.”
And he asks pros: “If you were a kid, would you look up to you?” He pauses. “Anybody sitting in that seat should be able to say yes. There’s a lot that can’t. And that needs to be addressed.”