September 4, 2012
EAGLE, Colorado – Everyone has regrets. Chris Herren counted his by the million but then he stopped.
Now he counts his blessings.
Drinking and drugs flushed Herren’s promising NBA career. He was back in Colorado for the first time since he was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the Boston Celtics and his boyhood dream became a 14-year nightmare.
Herren spent the day in the Eagle County jail to talk to inmates and a huge group from different local recovery programs. Judge Katharine Sullivan’s drug and alcohol court program in this valley, and Bob Ferguson’s Jaywalker Lodge brought 60 people over from the Roaring Fork Valley.
Hundreds of people packed the room. The Jaywalker Lodge brought their entire staff, clients and as many alumni as could make it. Sullivan brought dozens of people from her Adult Intensive Supervision Probation – drug court – to see Herren.
“Many of my conversations have a theme of regret for opportunities lost from time wasted on drugs and alcohol,” she told the crowd.
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Most of those who saw Herren’s impassioned presentation live at the intersection of recovery and the criminal justice system, Ferguson said.
Jaywalker Lodge is a great place for a young man to start his life over, Ferguson said.
“Guys come here from all over and stay. There’s a big recovery community here.”
Herren’s presentation happened to fall on Heather’s 21st birthday. She was among the inmates who heard him.
“Heather promised me she’d have a sober 21st birthday, and she is!” Sullivan shouted, waving at Heidi in the top row, with the rest of the inmates.
Triumph and tragedy
Herren’s is a familiar story, terrible but familiar. It was not his first trip to jail but this time he was free of alcohol, free of drugs … free to leave.
Herren stole his wife’s jewelry, his children’s toys and birthday presents. He walked away from an $8 million contract guarantee. He failed drug test after drug test and in less than two years plummeted from NBA success to sleeping behind a Dumpster in a place so dangerous even the homeless guys felt compelled to help him.
Here’s the abridged version.
Chris Herren was a 6-foot-2 guard from Fall River, Mass. He scored 2,073 career points at Durfee High School, was a Boston Globe and Gatorade player of the year and McDonald’s All-American.
Every basketball factory in America recruited him, but he decided to stay home and play for Boston College. He broke his wrist during his first college game, fell into a pattern of substance abuse and failed several drug tests. Boston College kicked him loose.
Legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian gave him a second chance at Fresno State and Herren led the Western Athletic Conference and nation in assists and steals.
In 1999 The Denver Nuggets drafted him with the fourth pick of the second round. He stayed with the Nuggets for a year, and was traded to the Boston Celtics. The Celtics released him after a season-ending injury and he played basketball in five countries, Italy, Poland, Turkey, China and Iran.
Those are the facts. The story is so much more.
His stop in Eagle was his ninth day on the road, telling his story, doing what he can to keep others from wrecking their lives. On this trip he’s talked to the Green Bay Packers, the New England Patriots, NBA rookies … anyone who’ll listen. Do as I say, not as I did, but like I’m doing now.
“No matter how far you go down, you can always get back up,” he said.
He’s been drug and alcohol free since Aug. 1, 2008.
“My worst days have become my best days,” he said. “Four years ago I’d written myself off and suicide was my greatest option.”
Herren’s family has a history of addiction and substance abuse, and his started early.
The 18-year-old Herren’s Boston College coach forced him to go to a speech on substance abuse, just days after he hit campus. He doesn’t remember the speech, but he remembers he didn’t take it seriously, thinking it could never happen to him.
“I had the nerve to talk while he talked, but worst of all I had the nerve to think I was above it,” Herren said.
One night he returned to his dorm room and his roommate and some others were hiding something when he walked through the door. It turned out to be cocaine and they asked if he wanted some.
He remembered Len Bias, the college star drafted No. 1 by the Boston Celtics. Bias tried cocaine for the first time that night and it killed him.
Herren’s friends badgered him until he tried it that night. It didn’t kill him, but it spent a decade and a half trying.
“I had no idea when I picked it up it would take 14 years to put it down,” Herren said.
A day or two later Herren’s coach sent Herren down to take his first drug test as a college athlete. Herren knew he’d fail it. He did, and some subsequent tests.
He was through at Boston College. He went home and waited by the phone.
Six months later Tarkanian called from Fresno State, offering Herron a second chance. Tarkanian surrounded Herren with men in 12 step programs. He went to meetings, he tried to steer clear of trouble, but trouble drove straight at him.
He had a beer one night, and after 12 beers he called his cocaine dealer. He had a game on national television the next afternoon.
“I did my first line of cocaine at midnight,” Herren said. “I did my last line at 1:30 p.m., a half hour before the game.”
He fought a losing battle with drugs and alcohol through college, but such was his talent that he led the nation in steals and assists. The Denver Nuggets took a chance on him in 1999. Antonio McDyess and others surrounded him like a security blanket and he made it through the season clean.
He went home to Massachusetts, he and his wife bought a house and a couple cars, and settled into the good life.
Fast forward to the next NBA season. Nuggets general manager Dan Issel called him in from practice one day to take a phone call. Celtics coach Rick Pitino was on the line.
“Congratulations son. You’re a Boston Celtic,” Pitino told him.
“It was my dream come true,” Herren said.
He called his parents back in Boston.
“You know that little boy in your driveway pretending to be a Boston Celtic? I am one!” he told them.
He hosted a cookout at his new house for his old friends. One suggested they take a stroll and when they were alone he handed Herren a yellow pill, Oxycontin. Herren popped it in his mouth and swallowed, and when that pill started down so did his life.
But he could still play. Pitino tapped Herren on the shoulder and said, “You’re my starting point guard tonight.”
Herren fell into a blind panic and called the guy with the yellow pills who, by this time was on speed dial.
The guy started toward Boston’s Fleet Center, but got stuck in traffic.
With eight minutes before game time, in his full warmups, Herren walked out of the Fleet Center and into lines of cars to find the guy with the yellow pill. He did, popped his pill and made it through the game, although he doesn’t remember that game or any others.
“People ask me all the time what it was like to play for the Boston Celtics, and honestly I don’t remember. It was a blur,” Herren said.
Millions or milligrams
Alcohol and drugs are such liars, and the downward spiral is quick and relentless. It doesn’t care about your stats.
The Celtics cut him loose and he caught on with another team, then another. He was within two games of collecting his guaranteed $8 million contract, but alcohol and drugs were pulling him away.
“I had a choice, $8 million or 800 milligrams. All I had to do was get through these next two games,” Herren said.
So strong was his addiction that he turned his back on financial security for himself and his family and picked up the pill.
He was polite when he told his coach, “Sir, thank you for the opportunity but I quit.”
“I walked away from $8 million for 800 milligrams,” Herren said.
He was 24.
He landed in Italy to play professionally. They were going to pay him $25,000 a month and provide an apartment and car.
One of the first people he met in Europe was an Italian drug dealer who made heroin Herren’s drug of choice. He was soon out of that league, too.
Back home in Boston he was busted in the parking lot of a Dunkin’ Donuts after he crashed his car because he had a head full of heroin.
When he was released and went to the window to collect his belongings, he told the jailer his name, Chris Herren, a name that meant something among New England sports fans. The jailer couldn’t believe it.
“You’re a shame,” he said and handed over Herren’s worldly goods, $17.
At 24 years old he became a publicly known felon and a heroin junkie. The only team willing to take a chance on him was Istanbul, Turkey, where drugs get you a life sentence in prison.
But the drugs were stronger. Herren wired $5,000 to his friend with the yellow pill, who shipped them by Federal Express to the team offices in Turkey. A few days later Herren got a call from his team to pick up a package.
Call it luck, providence, whatever. That package of pills landed on the desk of the only person in the place who seemed unwilling to send Herren to prison.
Death and life
The stories keep coming, in no particular order because a junkie’s life has no order.
He was stopped by the California Highway Patrol.
The trooper walked up to the car and asked, “What’s the problem?”
Herren answered, “I’m 27 years old and I have heroin and cocaine addiction.”
His wife and two children flew to visit him and he left them waiting six hours on a sidewalk while he went to buy drugs. The children insisted their daddy would never leave them at the airport. But he did.
He got straight for a while and was sober for the birth of his third child, something he was not for his first two. He held his tiny infant son, handed him over to this other two children and said he’d be right back. He wasn’t. He went looking for drugs and found them. He abandoned his family in the hospital at the birth of his son.
He found a Fresno State college friend, a former football player, and they ended up back the friend’s house in a gated community where they jacked heroin into their bodies for five days straight. Days later, the friend called Herren and asked him over so they could do it again.
Herren said he couldn’t. He doesn’t remember exactly why, but it’s the first time he’d said no to drugs.
It saved his life. The next morning the friend and a 22-year-old female assistant were found in the house, face down, shot through the back of the head execution style, over a $400 drug debt.
Herren is four years clean.
Questions and answers
Herron took questions and everyone has some. In that Eagle County jail room filled with sports fans, the first question was about basketball.
What’s the best game time moment?
“I never had a moment I could cherish. Everything was a drug induced blur. People ask me what it was like to be a Boston Celtic. I don’t remember being a Boston Celtic,” Herren said.
What’s your greatest moment of sobriety?
When he gives his children his chips from Alcoholics Anonymous, he said. He got his four-year chip in August.
“They put those chips in a trophy case on their room,” he said.
He still goes to AA meetings, even on the road. He travels with sober friends, investing in an extra plane ticket and hotel rooms.
“I’m four years sober and I still babysit myself. Don’t be ashamed to babysit yourself,” he told the crowd.
Were you ever close to picking up?
“I spent 11-12 years on opiates and it took 11 months for my body and brain to feel normal again,” Herren said.
He hasn’t had a drivers license in four years. When he gets one he’ll have to blow into a hose to make a vehicle operate, which makes him laugh a little because he’s a heroin addict and not an alcoholic.
How’s your family?
His wife has known him since the seventh grade, “before basketball and before drugs,” he said. They’re up to four kids.
He remembers his oldest son messing around with Paul Pierce in the Celtics locker room, then wandering to the visitors locker room to shake hands with Kobe Bryant.
Two years later that same son was shaking hands with junkies and dope dealers.
“The greatest gift of this process has been to watch them recover. I’ve watched their eyes of fear and not knowing what’s coming around the next corner, change to love and hopefulness,” Herren said.
Advice for someone in early recovery?
This one came from Heather, celebrating her 21st birthday in jail for an alcohol-related offense. Herren looked up, smiled warmly and wished her a happy birthday.
“Ninety meetings in 90 days. That lays the foundation,” Herren said.
Five older guys in Herren’s regular meetings in Rhode Island always sit together in the front row. Together they have 220 years sober.
Is there a history of family addiction?
“Addiction is all over my family. What I’ve learned is to love my family from a distance,” he said.
He loves them, he says again, but when alcohol gets involved he knows he’s in for a verbal beating about being that drunk junkie who threw it all away.
Herren started his company, Hoop Dreams, the first year he was sober. He trains young basketball players. The Herren Project is a not-for-profit that picks up the tab for rehab when some of the junkies and alcoholics can’t pay.
Project Purple is becoming a nationwide high school organization that supports keeping teenagers drug and alcohol free.
Herren’s story of tragedy and triumph kept the crowd enthralled for more than an hour. When it was over, he met in the hallway with those who are free to leave, signing autographs, offering encouragement. He wrote an autobiography, “Basketball Junkie,” but he wasn’t selling it there.
Ferguson of Jaywalker Lodge waited patiently as their clients and staff met Herren.
Their stories are different, but the elements are the same.
“What they have in common is failure to fully embrace the surrender that comes before sobriety,” Ferguson said.
Herren’s four years of sobriety give men hope, Ferguson said.
“It equal parts heroic and tragic,” Ferguson said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.