Ex-NBA star shares tale of addiction, recovery with St. Stephen's

Special to the HeraldSeptember 29, 2013 

Five years after a drug rehab counselor told Chris Herren to call his wife and tell her to consider him dead, he stood before the Saint Stephen’s Upper School, very much alive, and shared his story of basketball, addiction and recovery in a special September assembly.

Once a standout point guard at Fresno State, Herren saw his National Basketball Association career fall apart due to a drug addiction that would haunt him for much of his adult life.

He talked to Saint Stephen’s students about his difficult journey and his work to help teens overcome addiction and the temptation of drugs.

Herren said he remembered when he was in high school and his school brought in a guest lecturer to talk about drug addiction to students.

“I remember saying, ‘This is such a waste of time,’” Herren said. “I truly believed that day that I was above it.”

Herren’s first adult experience with drugs came when he was a freshman at Boston College. Recruited heavily out of high school, he was featured in a two-page spread in Sports Illustrated and attended BC on an athletic scholarship. It was there that Herren tried cocaine for the first time.

“At 18, I had never seen cocaine,” he said. “I looked at one line and said, ‘I’ll do this thing once and never do it again.’ I never thought that one line would take 14 years to walk away from.”

Herren was kicked out of Boston College after committing multiple drug violations. He transferred to Fresno State, where his college basketball career blossomed. After averaging 15 points per game his senior season, Herren was drafted by the NBA’s Denver Nuggets though his problems with drugs persisted.

On the night he found out he would be starting for his hometown Boston Celtic, Herren couldn’t take the floor without the painkillers to which he had become addicted.

“What should have been my dream come true that day was my nightmare beginning,” he said. “My first call was to that kid with the (Oxycontin). The only thing I remember from what should have been my special night was chasing that little yellow pill.”

As his life spiraled further out of control, Herren would become addicted to heroin, throw away millions of dollars and a career playing basketball, and attempt suicide, all before his 27th birthday.

After yet another relapse following the birth of his third child, Herren’s wife kicked him out and filed a restraining order against him.

It was then that a drug rehab counselor gave Herren an ultimatum.

“He told me, ‘You’re going to (call your wife) and promise her you’ll never contact her again, and (she will) tell your kids that when daddy left the hospital he died in a car accident.’ That man’s words brought me to my knees,” Herren said.

That was in 2008, and Herren has been free from the clutches of drugs addiction ever since. He has since made it his life’s work to travel the country and share his story with everyone from U.S. Army cadets to National Football League players.

In his speech to the Upper School at Saint Stephen’s, Herren touched on the importance of refraining from drug and alcohol use as a teenager.

“The first page of every drug addict’s story starts with a red Solo cup and a blunt,” he said.

Herren talked about something he calls the “mirror test,” basically whether or not someone can look in a mirror and like the person who stares back. As a basketball star, Herren said he always failed this test; it was not until he had kicked his addiction and was working as an assistant tow-truck driver that he finally passed.

“It took me 14 years to finally shave and brush my teeth in front of the mirror,” Herren said. The impact of Herren’s speech on Saint Stephen’s is already being felt. Students are working to establish a Saint Stephen’s chapter of Herren’s nationwide organization, Project Purple, which seeks to raise awareness about the dangers of substance and drug abuse.

“I know that there are many students who struggle with some sort of problem and don’t have the time or the resources to talk with somebody,” said Patrick “J.J.” Byrnes, co-founder of the Saint Stephen’s chapter of Project Purple. “We want to give these students a place to feel confident, comfortable and connected to this school.”

Herren’s visit to Saint Stephen’s not only inspired students, but must have had an impact on him as well; he recently changed his Facebook timeline photo to a picture of Saint Stephen’s students watching his speech.

The line to speak with Herren after his speech stretched around the commons. “I wish I didn’t have to change who I was. I wish I didn’t have to put substances in my body because I didn’t like myself enough,” Herren said. “Today’s an opportunity for you.”

About the author: Senior Austin Siegel is co-editor-in-chief of The Gauntlet, the Upper School’s online newspaper, and in his third year on staff. Siegel is responsible for leading the staff of The Gauntlet, editing and publishing stories, and helping The Gauntlet maintain its tradition of excellence. Outside the newsroom, he enjoys playing basketball, acting in school musicals and plays, performing with his band, “The Garbage-Men,” and being let down by his beloved Cleveland sports teams.

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