Former Celtics player shares anti-drug message
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo Former Boston Celtics player Chris Herren speaks to an audience at Norwich University on Thursday evening. Herron struggled with addiction during his playing career. He said he has refocused his life, putting sobriety and family above all else. In 2009 he launched Hoop Dreams with Chris Herren, a basketball player development company that provides customized basketball training through private sessions, clinics and camps.
NORTHFIELD — He always thought he was too cool for the substance abuse talks.
Now, he gives them.
Chris Herren, his voice thick with his Boston-area roots, gave a speech Thursday night at Norwich University that he knows all too well about his own now-famous battle with substance abuse.
Norwich University students, coaches, faculty and staff opened the event to the public, drawing several current, former and future local high school basketball players, their coaches and parents. Those gathered filled most of what is normally the ice surface of Kreitzberg Arena to hear Herren tell the painfully honest story.
“It’s a story of a guy living two lives,” Spaulding High School senior Evan Grubb said before the presentation. “It shows how strong a person he is.”
Herren, now in his late 30s, grew up in Fall River, Mass., a suburb of Boston, and starred at Durfee High School from 1990-94. His basketball journey kept him close to home, at Boston College, to start his college career, then he went west to Fresno State.
That move was to escape the pressures of home, and not just those found on the court.
Three positive cocaine tests in four months meant his scholarship taken away — security waiting to take him away, he was no longer welcome on the campus of Boston College. Fresno State head men’s basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian gave him a second chance, but the cocaine use continued and even grew into intravenous heroin addiction.
It continued even after the NBA drafted Herren early in the second round, even after basketball took him to the top teams in Italy, Turkey and Poland. It naturally returned every time he returned home, through multiple overdoses, car wrecks and arrests, through a suicide attempt and through the births of his three children.
It took a rehab stint — certainly not his first — and a counselor who urged him to say goodbye to his wife and those three kids before, he said, he found God and peace with his past.
That was Aug. 1, 2008, and since then Herren has spoken to hundreds of thousands of athletes, from the top Division I programs to the smallest high school.
It’s those high school students he likes talking to the most.
“I’ve talked at West Point, Annapolis, to the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots,” he said at the beginning of his talk at Norwich. “But I can have my greatest impact at the high school and college level. I look back, and I remember all the opportunities I had, to sit in assemblies like this, and saying, ‘All I do is drink and smoke. Why do I have to sit through this?’”
For the next 90 minutes, he explained to local athletes why they have to sit through this, too.
“I really hope that they sit back and listen,” said Baylee Annis, the Norwich Campus Activity Board president who helped get Herren to Northfield, a process that began 18 months ago. “He’s got a powerful message. He speaks very frankly, very powerfully, and I’m really hoping people say, ‘You know what? He did this, he went through this, and he learned something.’”
For men’s soccer coach Kyle Dezotell, who remembers Herren’s playing days in college and with the Celtics, it was about more than seeing a famous person talk.
“I grew up in New England. I knew about Chris Herren,” he said. “I think it’s a message that I think kids, everyone, needs to hear. Most people in their lives meets or knows someone who struggles with substance abuse. It’s a story of somebody so talented whose dreams were dashed by substance abuse. I think it’s inspiring. It’s powerful for our kids to see someone bounce back.”
As a coach, Dezotell has seen athletes fall at the hands of drug use.
“I’ve always tried as a coach and an educator to be someone who teaches about these things rather than try to hide them,” he said. “I have two grads who have some pretty serious problems with drugs. They’re both trying really hard right now, are in and out of rehab for years now. Both are doing pretty well right now.”
And as an athlete, Dezotell was astonished Herren was able to live both lives as well as he did for as long as he did.
“He was addicted to drugs and still able to be an NBA-caliber athlete,” Dezotell said. “To me that’s baffling and shows just how good he was.”
Herren’s story has been told as many times as ESPN’s “30 for 30” special “Unguarded” has been replayed, as many times as his book “Basketball Junkie” has been read.
But it became that much more real for the hundreds gathered to hear him speak at Norwich University on Thursday night.
Herren has two foundations, The Herren Foundation and Project Purple, both geared toward substance abuse awareness and to help the families of addicts get the expensive treatment needed to bounce back.
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