Sports star Chris Herren shares his story of drug addiction

Chris Herren is hardly the first basketball star to pack the gymnasium at St. Joseph High School. But he is likely the first to captivate the entire student body, holding the group utterly silent while he spoke for 90 minutes.

Herren, former pro basketball player and founder of the basketball mentoring company "Hoop Dreams," told his story to the students Friday. Herren had his career derailed by drug addiction, getting arrested seven times, crashing into a utility pole while high on cocaine and nearly losing his family after numerous relapses. Today, Herren said, he has been clean for four years, though he continues to see friends and family members struggle with their own addictions.

"When I was with the Celtics, my son used to come onto the court and shoot baskets with Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan," Herren told the students. "One year later, he was waiting in the car while I ran into some strange apartment to get high. Or he was sitting on a crackhouse couch. That's how fast it can happen. One year."

Herren's slide actually began his freshman year in high school, when he was the starting point guard on the school's basketball team. Some older students invited him to his first party and later that night two of them had a fatal alcohol-related crash after dropping Herren off at home.

"It was 11 o'clock, I had to be home by 11:30," Herren said. "So one kid shotgunned his beer, refilled his cup, chugged that down, and said, 'Let's roll.'"

Herren made it home safely that night, but the other two didn't.

"Don't you think I wish I'd made a phone call, had my parents come get me?" he said. "They'll be mad. Make the call. Take the punishment."

In a 90-minute talk Herren detailed his multiple drug suspensions while in college and his two-year NBA career that ended with a serious knee injury that left him addicted to painkillers in addition to heroin. At times the talk had students shifting uncomfortably in their seats, such as when he told of how his 11-year-old son pulled him aside one morning for a reverse father-son talk.

"He told me, as a favor to him, to go away and never come home again," Herren said. "Because I was hurting him and hurting his mother, and he didn't want his newborn brother to experience that hurt."

The central theme of the talk was that drug addiction can happen to anyone. Even those with all the trappings of success, such as suburban private school students, can fall victim and find themselves doing things they never imagined.

"When I was in high school, they wrote a book about us," Herren said, referring to the 1995 publication Fall River Dreams. "We were sons of doctors and lawyers and civic leaders. And I promise you, not one of us ever said, 'I want to grown up and become a 30-year-old junkie.' But six of us became drug addicts."

Herren's redemption began with a phone call. One he didn't make.

Upon re-entering rehab after countless relapses, Herren said, a friend gave him a phone.

"He said, 'You need to call your wife and promise her she won't ever hear from you again,'" Herren said. "Because you're a no-good drug addict who's going to do nothing but hurt them, and the only way they'll ever have a decent life is if you're not in it."

Unable to make the call, Herren said he has managed to stay clean by refusing to hide his addiction anymore. In giving talks to hundreds of high schools and colleges, he said, he has found his greatest reward from students who have contacted him after hearing him talk to tell him that they have entered rehab, or found the courage to confront their problems, including one particularly harrowing story of a bullied girl who dealt with her pain by cutting herself with razor blades. The girl ultimately confronted her tormentors, showing them the scars on her arms.

Herren told the students there is help available for their problems, and that no consequence is worse than the consequences of keeping their addictions hidden.

"I know kids party, and there are people here today that know what I'm talking about," he said. "And when I told that story about the girl who cut herself, I saw more than one girl cross her arms and look away. Today, walk into the Guidance Department and tell them, 'This is what I'm doing.' Don't hide."