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How Celtics Guard Chris Herren Battled Back From Addiction

By       Message Sherwood Ross     Permalink
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Even though Boston Celtics guard Chris Herren scored a career high 18 points in one game against Dallas in April, 2000, his agent Frank Catapano knew something was wrong. "Chris was too good a basketball player to be doing as bad (overall)as he was doing. He had a couple of injuries at Boston, a bad shoulder injury and those things seemed to delay what we knew he could do, but then the delays just got longer and...I told him, 'Look, Chris, I don't know what the reason you're not doing well is, but there's something wrong here.'"

What Catapano did not know was that the young basketball prodigy from Fall River, Mass., was seriously addicted to drugs, an addiction Herren concealed from others, saying, in retrospect, "People back at that time could not have really picked up on it." Yet, by the time he was in college, despite his "normal" exterior, both coaches and fans had grave suspicions about his substance abuse. Herren's own mother, he says, was the first to suspect something was awry and hired a detective to follow him. After being traded from the Denver Nuggets to Boston, Herren got injured playing and became hooked on prescription drug Oxycontin, which he termed a "nightmare." Herrin says he would find himself "waiting in parking lots" (for his dealer) before games, often outside the Boston Garden where, "I couldn't care less about the Celtics. I was more worried about getting those little pills."

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In his aptly titled book, " Basketball Junkie: A Memoir," co-authored with Providence Journal sports writer Bill Reynolds, Herren indicated his troubles began while still enrolled in Durfee high school in Fall River. By the time he got to the National Basketball Assn.(NBA), the highly touted Herren could score only 3.1 points per game with Denver in the 1999 season and 3.3 points per game with Boston in the 2000 season. The 6 foot two-inch guard's mediocre play in the NBA was a disappointment considering his starring careers in high school and college. In high school, he chalked up more than 2,000 points and was chosen Gatorade New England Player of the Year for the 1993-4 season. As well, he was a McDonald's All-American pick for 1994. However, the lengthening shadow of drug abuse dimmed his brilliance as he progressed from alcohol and marijuana to heroin and Oxycontin.

In an interview on the Comcast SportsNet show "Educational Forum ," produced by the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, Herren said drug addiction could begin if you're "socially awkward, or your scared or nervous around people, so you have to have a couple of beers to dance. I believe marijuana and booze is the beginning of the process." Herren reflected, "I drank in high school, I used drugs in high school---not the hardest drugs---mostly marijuana, and some hallucinogenics once in a great while (and I saw) kids in high school that were much worse than me, kids that were drinking much more, smoking much more, taking much more. But I started the process in high school." The TV show is to be broadcast at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 22nd, EST on Comcast's SportsNet.

Herren told TV host/law professor Michael Coyne, Associate Dean, that some days he would walk onto the court and play not having slept the night before. By the time he starred for Boston College, even before going to Denver's NBA franchise, opposing fans taunted him with epithets "Chris Heroin" or "The Druggie." Not only did drugs impair his performance during games but they blurred his attention to his school work. "I (was) perfectly capable to sit in a classroom and do the work (but) I didn't pay attention in school." The "problem," though, "really came out in Boston," Herren said. When on cocaine, "Friday-Saturday turns into Sunday and Monday, you know? Then you'd get off it for a couple of weeks and then get back on it. When I crossed the line into opiates, it became a daily habit, and once that became a daily habit that's when things really started to snowball."

" People knew, I'm sure, not exactly (but) like Frank said, 'the outcome was never right,' 'the results were never right,' so there was something hindering my ability not only to be a basketball player but to just be a good person and do the right things."Herrin said the power of substance abuse is so great that even though he practiced shooting into the basket on his family driveway for hours and wanted to play for the Celtics from the age of six, "once I got there I couldn't care less."

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Herrin said he was advised to get away from his friends who also were drug abusers but even that didn't work for him. "Chris Herren got high in Beijing. Chris Herren got high in Tehran. Chris Herren got high in Istanbul. Chris Herren got high everywhere he went," he said, blaming himself alone for his conduct. "So, you know, it was me who had to deal with it, and I never did, and I never took a moment to stop and look at it and go into a treatment facility and take care of this." Herrin went on to say, "Once you've crossed the lines of heroin and Oxycontin, there is no more social aspect to your life. It (substance abuse) overcomes it, it becomes your life." At one point, Herrin shot up in his car in the presence of his daughter.

Earning half a million a year playing for the Boston Celtics should have been a fairy-tale existence for Herren but it was more like a living nightmare. "I could not appreciate my life then," he told Coyne. "How could I appreciate anything when I was in a full-blown addiction mode?" Herren added, "I was living in Waltham, playing, practicing for two hours (every day), flying down to Fall River, picking up my drugs, flying back to Waltham, being a father, being a husband, you know, flying from city to city, making sure I had the drugs. It was crazy. I mean, there was no time to really appreciate that lifestyle."

In December, 2004, Herren was found slumped over the steering wheel of his car in a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot in Portsmouth, R.I., with a needle dangling from his arm and 18 empty packets containing heroin residue. "I had to break his car window just to get him out," Portsmouth police Sgt. Anthony Cambrola said. When he came around, Herren was quoted in The Fresno Bee as denying he had a drug seizure. "Some lady was in reverse and she hit my car. My head smashed into the windshield and I went unconscious. I was in a car accident. I wasn't just in a parking lot, passed out in my car." ("Some lady?")

Agent Catapano, who has represented more than 300 U.S. and foreign players, including 40 NBA stars, told TV host Coyne, "I don't think people realize what a good player he really was, and a lot of it was natural. There's no reason why he knew how to pass the ball well. He really knew how to play a team game. And that doesn't seem to mix with the selfishness he showed doing drugs and all this other stuff." Catapano went on to praise Herren as "a real team player. He knew how to win. He was a winner. And I think he had so much talent---I think those guys, sometimes, have a little more trouble than some of the guys who have to bust their butt from the beginning, just to get to the next spot, to (rise) to the next level." What it came down to in the end, Herren concluded, "was whether or not I wanted to either get sober or go to jail or die. That's what it was."

A turning point came, Herren said, when he watched his wife give birth to their third child, Drew. About that time, the man who ran his drug treatment facility "looked me dead in the eye and said, 'Why don't you do the most admirable, courageous thing of your life and get away from your children? Let them go. Let them heal. Let them live, because all you do is sink them.' And that night, I went to bed, and I contemplated whether or not I should, and from that moment on I decided to be their dad, you know? Whatever happened in the past was past. So it was a very spiritual moment for me. It was a crossroad" as "I was very close to letting my kids go."

Catapano says that while Chris in his book takes the blame for his drug addiction, he thinks that "everyone around him, all throughout his (drug) period, could have had a little more to do with him getting out of this sooner, if they were really just looking out for his best, long-term interest and not looking out about his basketball ability or his star power and things." He went on to say that he thought "everyone around him was somewhat of an enabler, whatever that means" and there is a thin line between who is just helping and who is an enabler. "At some point I just realized that Chris wasn't listening to me, and whatever I could do for him wasn't working, and we sort of split apart."

Herren said that Denver head coach Dan Issel "took a chance with me and drafted me" even though he was aware of his history of substance abuse, recalling that initially, "it went well." "I was surrounded by some very good veterans in Denver---Antonio McDyess, George McCloud, Roy Rogers---and they looked after me...and made sure that I kind of walked the straight line, which turned into a decent second half of the season for me in Denver, which led to a trade to Boston." At Denver, because of his history in college, Herren was put in the substance abuse program and he was tested more than other rookies yet survived because, he said, he was "surrounded by good friends, positive veterans who looked out for my well being. Popeye Jones and Chauncey Billups were there and they helped. My year in Denver was probably the healthiest I had been in years."

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Herren, who can take pride in being drug-free since 2008, said that he wrote his " Basketball Junkie" book not to get rich but to "raise awareness (of the drug issue) and maybe because through a program that I go to and hearing (other) people's honesty, I was able to get sober. Hearing other people talk about the pain they inflicted on their children gave me the courage to talk about the pain that I put on mine, which healed me. And if there's somebody out there that can get something out of that, then so be it." Herren added, "There was some time in my life that I never thought I could get through this guilt and this shame, and I was so wrong." Christianity, he continued, is all about forgiveness. "It's about forgiveness and allowing someone else to move forward in life." During the eighth month of his recovery he was helped by Catholic nuns who trusted him enough to give him the keys to their school and its basketball court to help him get back on the right track.

Looking back, Herren thinks too many kids don't recognize that there's more to life than basketball and that some of their parents drive them to play to cash in on athletic scholarships to college. The end of playing basketball is not to make the NBA but rather to build self-esteem and character. He points out, "Some kids, like me, thought that you'd play basketball forever. But I know there's an end to it. So if I can have an impact on a kid where they feel comfortable in their own skin, (where) they're happy to play the sport and stay fit and healthy, then I've accomplished my goal with them and, hopefully, their parents. Unfortunately, parents (can) mess up the whole process."

In 2009, Herren launched Hoop Dreams, a player development firm in Portsmouth, R.I., where he has already trained more than 200 male and female basketball players of every ability level. Additionally, he travels around the country speaking out to audiences about the perils of substance abuse. For example, in a talk at the Academy at Swift River, Cummington, Mass., Herren told students "I've been to hell and back. I lived the life that most people don't get a chance to come out of, straight up. By the grace of God and the help from a plethora of people, I was able to come out of this." He told students of his mistaken attitude that addiction "will never happen to me" and that this belief sustained his denial of his affliction. The Swift River News, which reported his talk, wrote, "Chris related that when he entered Boston College on a full basketball scholarship, he never imagined using cocaine, but a short time thereafter he was expelled for cocaine use. The news made the front page of The Boston Globe." Chris told the students that kids who do not use drugs are his heroes, adding how much he regretted mocking his peers in high school who refused to use them. Today, he thinks back to those students with admiration for their strength. One Swift River staff member said that Herren's message "made it real for our students. He showed our students by his example how easy it is to live in denial, and how powerful addiction can be. On the flip side, he showed us that there is a way out, and that sober living is not a sentence to a dull life. (His) story is still reverberating throughout the ASR community." Herren speaks widely at public schools, colleges, and to public safety officials, among others.

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Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...)
 

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