Chris Herren speaks to a standing-room only audience at Worcester State University.

Chris Herren Tells of His Journey from Drug Addiction to Activism

September 20, 2012
By: Worcester State University News

“I have the privilege and honor to travel across the country to get across to someone, to let me change one person’s view of what partying is…I’ve been to prep schools, the ’hood in New York City. There is no difference. People at any level are affected by this,” Chris Herren told a rapt, standing-room-only audience at Worcester State University on Wednesday, Sept. 19.

Herren, whose memoir, Basketball Junkie, written with Providence Journal columnist Bill Reynolds, was released in May 2011, knows from experience.

The Fall River native grew up in a middle class family; his father was a politician and mother “worked in corporate America.” Yet he entered his freshman year at Boston College (BC), a star high-school basketball player, hooked on alcohol and marijuana – and too arrogant to listen to a guest speaker talk to the BC basketball team about the dangers of substance abuse.

“Ninety percent of all addictions start in the teenage years,” he said.

Back in his dorm room, following that talk, Herren was convinced by a girl doing cocaine with his roommate to try it. Four months after starting at BC, he was kicked off the basketball team and expelled from the school for testing positive for marijuana and cocaine.

The highs and lows of those four months would be repeated multiple times over the next 10 years as Herren pursued a college- and then pro-basketball career while being addicted to various drugs and alcohol and, on occasion, attempting to stop the cycle and recover.

After leaving BC, Herren was recruited by Fresno State University in California and, later, the Boston Celtics, where he became the fifth Massachusetts resident to be drafted to play on the team. His Celtics teammates knew of his addiction and desire to stay sober, and they went out of their way to help him stay sober.

But at 22, to celebrate the purchase of his first house, Herren threw a party. One of his friends took him aside and talked him into trying oxycontin. By the time then-coach Rick Pitino told him to get ready to play in a game, Herren was so hooked on oxycontin that he opted to go find his dealer, who was stuck in traffic on his way to sell Herren some pills, rather than show up on the court and play ball.

Herren quit the Celtics and left for Europe to play basketball there. The move eventually led him to try heroin – and become hooked – because oxycontin was unavailable. It all came to a head again in Istanbul, Turkey, where he was playing for a Turkish basketball team. Soon after a failed attempt to have oxycontin mailed to him in Istanbul, Herren was let go by the team management, who agreed to fly him back to Fresno.

“My whole life I dreamed of being a professional basketball player,” he said. “I became that. I became that against all odds. And when I got there, I lost it. I forgot to be a professional me.”

Back in Fresno, and after five days of doing drugs with a friend and fellow basketball player, Herren’s wife called to say she wanted him to come pick her and his two children up from the Oakland airport. He never showed up. Instead he tried suicide by causing a car accident, and, when that failed, turned himself in to police who arrived on the scene. Following this release, he tried homelessness – only to have one of the homeless men he befriended tell him to use the change he had left in his pocket to call his wife to come get him.

When Herren did, he learned his wife and children spent seven hours waiting for him to pick them up from the Oakland airport. She didn’t pick him up until the next morning, and when she did, Herren had to face the question from his kids, “Why did you leave us on the sidewalk?”

He returned to Fall River with his family – and took up heroin again and continued drinking.

Herren eventually ended up in New York with a friend who ran a treatment center. On day 35 of his treatment, his wife called to say she was about to have their third child. Against the advice of his friend, Herren returned to Fall River for the birth of Drew. But like so many other times, Herren walked away from this great moment to go find drugs.

When he returned to his house, his children told him they didn’t want him around anymore. His wife said, “You broke my heart a million times. This is the last time you break our children’s.”

He returned to the New York treatment center, where his friend instructed him to call his family to sever ties with them for good. It was that moment that Herren said made him choose to commit himself to sobriety. “Since August 1st, 2008, I have not had the urge to get high,” he said.

Herren said, “My wife, who’s known me since the seventh grade, against advice from all family members stayed in this.”

Twice daily and daily meetings with treatment counselors in the first two-and-a-half years of his recovery “sustain me even today,” he said.

“Nothing brought me that peace other than recovery,” he added.

Following Herren’s 14-year ordeal, he established two foundations: The Herren Project, which assists individuals and families struggling with addiction, and Project Purple, an initiative of The Herren Project that seeks to break the stigma of addiction, bring awareness to the dangers of substance abuse and shed light on effective treatment practices. He also runs Hoop Dreams with Chris Herren Inc., which provides customized, superior basketball training to male and female athletes of every ability level.

Several audience members told Herren of the devastation heroin addictions has created in their neighborhoods and asked for advice on how they can take back their communities. Each time, Herren suggested they learn more about Project Purple.

“Project Purple is something I pass on,” he said.

“This is the most underfunded illness in the country,” he added. “Twenty-three million people are left on the street. That means there are 50 million broken hearts. If we all get together, that is an extremely large group. It’s the most hypocritical thing that goes on. We allow it to go on. We’re almost comfortable with it. Until the community stands up against it, until we demand longer treatment and care, we will continue with the five-day detox.”

Project Purple can give people in these neighborhoods instructions on how to start the initiative in their neighborhoods, Herren explained.

Herren’s talk was the first in a four-part Diversity Lecture Series, sponsored by the Student Center/Student Activities Office, Athletics Office, Health and Wellness Office, Residence Life and Housing Office, and the Student Events Committee.

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