Eighteen years after he first used cocaine as a freshman guard on the Boston College basketball team in 1994, Chris Herren returned to campus on Wednesday afternoon to speak to students from the Boston Scholar Athlete program about his battle with substance abuse.
The 36-year-old, who will celebrate four years of being sober on Aug. 1, said his drug use wasn’t a reflection of Boston College and he was glad to get the opportunity to make amends.
“Coming back to Boston College on campus is special to me,” he told students from the BSA’s free three-day ‘Summer Zone’ program for Boston public school scholar athletes. “Because at 18-years-old I took advantage of a lot when I had it and I didn’t realize how special of a place it is and what an opportunity I lost by taking advantage of it.”
The former Durfee High star and one-time Celtic candidly detailed his four overdoses in one heartbreaking story after another.
“I played for the Celtics for seven months, that’s it, but it gets me out in front of you guys,” Herren said as he described his drug-filled journey through basketball leagues in Italy, Turkey, China and Germany.
A motivational speaker for athletes of all ages, Herren launched Hoop Dreams with Chris Herren, a developmental company that mentors young basketball players in 2009. He is also the co-author of "Basketball Junkie: A memoir," and the subject of the Emmy Award-nominated documentary "Unguarded.”
Herren’s career at the Heights ended after he suffered a season-ending broken wrist in his debut game. The McDonald's All-American who was featured in Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone and a book called “Fall River Dreams,” partied hard after his injury and started using cocaine. He failed a drug test and transferred to Fresno State.
Herren excelled on the court at Fresno State despite testing positive for drugs and spending a stint in rehab. He was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in1999 but spent most of his time on the court high on the pain-relieving drug OxyContin.
He was traded to the Celtics a year later and cut seven months after that.
After jumping from team to team across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, Herren’s basketball career ended shortly after he started using heroin in 2004. That year, he was was arrested in Portsmouth, R.I. after he was found unconscious at a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru with 18 packets containing heroin residue.
Herren finally got help in 2008 from NBA Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, who is a recovering alcoholic himself.
Herren said he put too much weight on basketball when he was a kid and he’s trying to prevent his children and scores of other kids from making the same mistake.
“My love for basketball was taken before drugs entered my life because I put too much emphasis on success in basketball,” he said. “Basketball became all of me. It was my identity. It was my ego, it was everything. … If you don’t make this fun, if you don’t keep this fun, if you don’t love this sport, you’re going to pay a price one way or another. So find that passion or walk away from it.
“I forgot to aspire to be a professional human being.”
Herren said he doesn’t look back at lost opportunities and he gets more satisfaction from preventing students from going down the road he went down than from any point he ever scored or contract he ever signed.
“If I can spare one kid in this room from going down the road that I’ve gone down than I’ve done my job, then I’ve reached my goal,” he said.
Several students approached Herren after his talk on Wednesday.
“I thought it was amazing and I was personally shocked by his experiences,” Burke senior Kirina Laryea said in an interview after the talk. “I’m proud of him that he’s doing something positive with his life. He’s spreading his experiences and trying to help young children today to do better and not fall down the same path he went through.”
One of his most poignant points was when he said seven of the 12 players on his high school basketball team became junkies.
“When we were your age we sat in house parties, we drank a little bit, we smoked a little bit, we talked about going to college, we talked about getting this scholarship, that scholarship but nobody ever talked about being a junkie,” he said. “You have to be very aware of your decisions you make at a young age because it will stay with you when you get older.”
Herren spends much of his time on the road these days, doing about 250 public speaking engagements across the country. He said every so often he will feel envious of someone drinking a beer in an airport bar.
“But for me, I would never make it home,” he said. “I think about if I drink that first beer, if I’m in Philly I’m going to end up in South Philly and my family wouldn’t see me in six days. So I play the tape. I see what’s going to happen from that decision.
“You accomplish things one day at a time, I stay sober one day at a time and that’s it,
’Today I will not get high.’ So there’s never an end point to this for me. You’re never accomplished. Every day you wake up and start over and that’s how I approach my life today.”
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