Ex-Celtic Herren shares toll of addiction

One in a series of occasional stories on opiate abuse and its consequences.

SCITUATE — Last week, Chris Herren, a former professional basketball player, attracted a large crowd to Scituate High School to hear about the heroin addiction he says derailed his life and career with the Boston Celtics.

The powerful tale of opiate abuse told by a former star athlete sparked lively discussion across town, said Annemarie Galvin, a volunteer with the citizen coalition that helped organize the event last Tuesday. The next morning, parents eager to talk about it came up to Galvin as she walked her children to Jenkins Elementary School.

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“I was cornered at that crosswalk for over an hour. People really loved it,” she said. The turnout of about 600 people for the community forum on opiate and prescription drug abuse, the third held in Scituate this year, was awesome, she said.

“Everyone could see this was not a punk kid with bad parents,” Galvin said about Herren. “He is handsome and clean-cut. He looks like he is from Scituate. He talks like he is from here. He gets to the people in the room.”

Communities large and small are struggling with an opiate abuse epidemic fueled largely by the widespread illegal distribution of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Percocet. Young people experiment with the highly addictive painkillers and often develop an opiate habit that, police warn, leads to heroin, a cheaper alternative. The consequence is tragic: Some 3,265 people died of opiate-related overdoses in Massachusetts in a recent five-year span, authorities say.

Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey says that across just the 28 communities under his jurisdiction, on average about three people die every two weeks from opiate-related overdoses.

But middle-class shame and prejudice has made this a “silent epidemic,” a taboo issue in many neighborhoods, some say. The situation is improving in Scituate due to the efforts of the local coalition formed as part of a new regional network called South Shore Families, Adolescents, and Communities Together Against Substances, or FACTS. The other participating communities are Cohasset, Hingham, Hull, and Norwell. 

“We really do feel that Scituate is leading the way,” said Kimberly Noble, a program coordinator at South Shore Hospital, which partnered with the Plymouth district attorney’s office last fall to launch the collaborative effort.

“We’ve really taken off. I’m really proud of our community,” said Galvin, one of about 20 core volunteers in the coalition who have built links with town leaders, school officials, police, physicians, parents, and young people.

Galvin said she was inspired to get townsfolk to look at opiate abuse after she read a Globe story about a likeable 21-year-old from Scituate who said he loved his parents but they could not save him from his heroin addiction.

“It was so brave for that young man to tell his story. I was moved; it pushed me. You can be a good kid, and just taking one pill can change your whole life. I began to see this is a real health epidemic and yet people in Scituate weren’t talking about it,” she said. “Now people are talking. I think that is one of the things I’m most proud of accomplishing with our coalition.”

The group’s other efforts have included holding strategy-focused task force meetings with community stakeholders, mobilizing high school students and parents, and producing resource pamphlets and a Facebook page, ScituateFACTS.

Galvin said the coalition is applying for a grant from the federal Drug Free Communities program to help advance its mission to reduce underage drinking and marijuana and prescription-drug abuse among youth in Scituate. Funding or no, the group will continue its work, she said.

At Scituate High last week, Herren, who has also spoken at schools in Hingham and Rockland and is scheduled to appear at Milton High School on Oct. 18 and 19, told the story of his drug-fueled fall from professional sports twice.

An afternoon talk for students was funded by the town’s police union. Greg Ranieri, the school’s health and wellness department chairman and a coalition member, described the presentation as captivating, and said Herren’s story was “quite moving to both students and faculty members.”

Galvin, who attended both presentations, said dozens of adults later contacted her, and called the evening talk “amazing” and “powerful.”

Herren, 36, a star athlete at Durfee High School in Fall River, told his audience he grew up a hotshot athlete from an established family with several homes — not the profile people tend to assign to drug addicts. He said the stereotypical picture is wrong; opiate addiction can happen to anyone. It is time to change the culture of silence around addiction, he said, and people must stand up and talk about it.

After experimenting with other drugs, Herren, at age 22, started using OxyContin and within a year was hooked on heroin. His addiction followed him from the NBA’s Denver Nuggets in 1999 to the Celtics, where his addiction bit hard and he was cut after seven months. He spent the next four years bouncing from team to team in leagues in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

“Heroin addiction is misery,” said Herren, who says he has been clean four years. “You are imprisoned in your own body.”

The former star has talked about his experience at 96 high schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island over the past year, and has also spoken at more than 100 colleges and to many professional sports teams, including the Boston Red Sox.

“I tell people my story and every bad part of it. They see this guy pouring his soul out about what addiction does to you. The pain it brings. I think they walk away feeling, ‘If it can happen to him, it can happen to me,’ ” he said in an interview. “I try to explain to the kids how a couple of bad decisions can turn your world upside-down. I know the horrors.”

He said plenty of young people in his wealthy suburb drank alcohol, and as a college athlete he abused cocaine — bad decisions that made him think nothing of experimenting with prescription painkillers, which triggered his rapid descent into addiction.

“Today you have 14- or 15-year-olds jumping on a narcotic and they have no idea the power of it. When I started taking OxyContin, I had no idea the strength of it. Until I woke up sick, and then your option is to stay sick or get high. I was playing for the Celtics, and five years later I wake up a heroin addict in Tehran,” he said.

“At every school, my goal is to reach just one person,’’ Herren said. “The reality is there’s drugs everywhere.”

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