New Castle News

January 29, 2013

Video, Q&A: Former NBA star talks of losing career to drugs

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Chris Herren was living a dream.

The high school basketball legend from Fall River, Mass., had signed to play in the NBA with his hometown Boston Celtics.

Just months later, the dream became a nightmare as Herren lost his career — and nearly his family — to drug and alcohol addiction.

Drug- and alcohol-free since Aug. 1, 2008, Herren is now on a mission to stop young people from making the same mistakes he had made. Last year, he was the subject of the best-selling book, “Hoop Junkie,” and the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, “Unguarded,” and he is using his platform to visit schools around the nation with his anti-drug message.

The 37-year-old shared his powerful story at Youngstown State University on Sunday night, and New Castle News correspondents Jordan Greer and Liam Halferty were on hand to document the event.

Below, Herren answers a series of questions from a press conference and, at right, you can view video highlights from his talk.

Chris, you had a career in the NBA but it seems like now you are more well known for your work in drug and alcohol substance abuse prevention. How has that helped you coping with what you were addicted to?

“I would say that in my wildest dreams I would have never thought that this would turn into this.

“I walked into an office in New York City one day, thinking I was going to meet a man who makes films, and then we did one together. From that, obviously, my speaking events have picked up, and through that, I have seen a need for kids all across the country, struggling with self-esteem, substance abuse issues, self-harm. So I have made it a point to really get out there and get out in front of as many kids as possible.  

“My basketball career is not something I look at with regret. I used to; I used to when I was getting high. Today, I do not look at it like that. It’s a blessing because it gave me the opportunity to do this.  My story is not unique in any stretch — it’s just basketball is in it.”

Chris, do you know anything about Youngstown? In some ways I think it is comparable to your hometown.

“Sure. Boom Boom Mancini, Kelly Pavlik, the Stoops brothers. It’s a hard-working, blue-collar town. It’s a steel town that the industry was taken away from. I grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, which was a textile town, which also lost its economy overseas. I understand that struggle. I grew up in that struggle. My dad was a politician, so he worked for that struggle. I know a little bit about it.”

Do you think that makes it a little bit more intriguing to speak here?

“I wanna say that every place is intriguing because you just never know who’s there that’s gonna hear it. Cause that’s really what it all comes down to. I always say ‘just one’ because I was just one. I know just helping one person, me, like what my life turned out to, and how many people were affected by it.  

“Every place I go to I believe is unique. I guess you could say I have a soft spot in my heart for blue-collar towns because that’s how I was born and raised. Good question.”

Do you tailor every group you talk to a certain way? With different age groups or demographics, things like that? Your message is pretty much the same, but is there a different way you present it?

“Yes, there is. This year I spoke to the Packers, the Bears, the Patriots, the Red Sox. You know if I walk into a clubhouse like that or a locker room, you know I kind of start it in a different place.

“That being said, I think it’s important to share from beginning to end to show you the unnatural and natural transition in drug abuse and how fast things can turn. You know, it’s my story, I can’t really change it.  I can tailor it, and there’s places that I go to that say, ‘Hey, I just want to hear the recovery side.’

“You know, I do what they tell me.”

Using drugs in other countries, were you ever worried about being arrested?

“Was I? Oh, of course. You’re always worried, but the drug outweighs the worry.

“It’s often said to me when I do, like, radio shows or TV shows, and they say, they introduce me as like, the basketball player who played for the Celtics who threw his basketball career away. And it just kind of shows you where most people are at with this because why wouldn’t the intro be that I almost threw my kids away.

“Was I worried about the police? That’s minor compared to what my kids were dealing with when I got home. The police were always a minor issue in the story.”

You mentioned about being here and hopefully helping one person, that is your goal. At what point in your life did that point come that was a wake-up call?

“I went home for my child’s birth and I was 35 days sober. I was in a treatment center. Against their advice, I went against their advice, and decided to go home.

“I was high for my son Chris’ birth when I was 22.  I was high for my daughter’s birth when I was 24. So I really wanted to do this and my heart was saying I could get it done — and I was using five hours later.

“Thirty-five days into it, I’m home with the kids in the hospital, spent five hours, left, got high, came back and my wife threw me out and told me not to come back.

“When I went back to the facility the next day, the man told me that I should call my wife and cut ties, to tell my wife, to tell the kids, that I died in a car accident. That I should play dead for them, and let them live. I haven’t been high since.”

There was recently a very good, young athlete in the area, a good basketball and football player who got caught up in drugs and ended up being shot and killed. What do you feel when you hear stories like that?

“Honestly, I hear stories like that every day. I get emails every single day from people like that, numerous e-mails. I just spoke at a school in Philadelphia where a 16-year-old girl took the microphone and announced in front of 1,800 people that she was a heroin addict at 16. She said she started doing it when she was 10.

“What’s more horrifying than that? I’ve been dealing with that pretty much everywhere I go. I just spoke a few days ago at Akron East. I was just in this area. The e-mails that I got from those kids were touching.  Everywhere I go kids seem to open up and kind of pour their soul, and that’s what this is about, hopefully.”

Chris, when did you first feel the need to tell your story? Does it ever get easier to get up and tell your story?

“I would say that if it feels easy, I’ll stop, I believe. I think once it gets easy for me I won’t do it anymore. So it never gets easier, never, no matter what kind of room I’m in or how many people, it’s never easy. I started when my book came out.

“When the book came out, I started fielding calls about going to speak, and I was a little hesitant about doing it. So I started in local high schools and I saw the effect that it was having on kids in local high schools in my area.  

“From there, I kind of pushed it, and it’s been an amazing blessing.”

What was it like when ESPN did the “30 for 30” program on you? What was it like with them following you everywhere?

“It was actually not that invasive. They weren’t with me everywhere. It was a New York crew who would call me and say, ‘Call us when you think you have something that we’d like to film.’

“I was almost, not in charge, but if I felt that there was something coming up, I’d give them a call and they’d drive down. That being said, the original story that was being released was not about me speaking to people in rooms. It was basically about my life and how it changed in the gym with the kids, with Hoop Dreams.

“For instance, I think they had 700 hours of footage of me in the gym and probably 40 hours of me speaking. And then, on the last day, they said ‘We’re gonna switch it.’

“So I wanted to kill them and I said, ‘I spent 700 hours with you for no reason.’ But, they become like family. That crew is like, they’re with you, they know your kids. It’s a pretty special thing once they’re in there for a little while.”

(Tomorrow: Watch and listen to Part 2 of Chris Herren’s powerful story.)