Chris Herren, a native of Fall River, MA, who went on to become a college basketball star and NBA player before substance abuse destroyed his dream, spoke to students at West Hartford’s Conard and Hall high schools on Tuesday.
By Ronni Newton
There’s not much that can engage a room full of teenagers – let alone a gymnasium full of 1,600 of them – but on Tuesday morning former basketball star Chris Herren kept the entire Conard High School student body, as well as teachers and staff, spellbound and silent for more than an hour as he recounted his journey to sobriety and drove home the important message of self worth.
The program began with a video in which Herren states he “would give anything to go back to 1994.”
That was when Herren graduated from high school in Fall River, MA, was a McDonald’s All American basketball player headed to play at Boston College, was the focus of the acclaimed book “Fall River Dreams.” Failed drug tests derailed his Boston College plan, but he transferred to Fresno State where despite continued substance use he managed to put together a career that got him drafted by the NBA’s Denver Nuggets in the second round in 1999. A year later he was traded to the Celtics – his dream of playing for his hometown team seemingly fulfilled.
In an interview given to CNN several years ago, Herren recounted how he stood outside the Fleet Center in Boston, in the pouring rain, dressed in his full Celtics uniform, waiting for his drug dealer. After one season Herren was released by the Celtics but continued to play basketball overseas, in five different countries.
Herren has many horror stories to share, stories of his own overdoses and brush with death, stories of his childhood with an alcoholic father. But his presentation isn’t a typical “scared straight” approach. Herren didn’t have just one “worst day” that propelled him into sobriety.
“I think we put too much focus on the worst day and forget about the first day,” he told the students.
Herren has been sober since Aug. 1, 2008, and has been sharing his story with audiences in the hopes of making a difference in at least one life. “If I can save one kid, that’s enough,” Herren said.
The Conard students remained transfixed on Herren, the room silent, as he shared stories of the teens he has met since he has been traveling around the country.
One girl, whose father was a drunk, had been bullied by the “cool” kids, mocked for her clothing and behavior. She had become a cutter. Herren said that after she heard him speak she sat down in the cafeteria next to those “cool” kids and showed them her scars, told them they had no idea what she had been going through. They never said another word. Herren said the girl emailed him. “She said, ‘I want to thank you. I’ll be that one kid,'” he said.
Herren said they have kept in touch for the past six years. “That means more to me than anything I’ve accomplished in my life as a basketball player.”
He said he gets a lot of emails. “If your friends would tell you what they tell me in the emails, they would pull you aside on a Friday night and tell you they feel bad … feel bad for your mom and dad … that you’re not the kid you thought you’d be.”
Herren, 41, has three children of his own. Two are teens: a 17-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter. He said if he found out that they were drinking or doing drugs, his concern would not be where they got the stuff from or where they were using it, but why.
“Every single one of us has a ‘why,’ but most of us, we don’t want to answer it. Most of us want to forget why,” Herren said.
He and his high school friends would have been the kids who would have laughed through an assembly about substance abuse. The were the kids who drank from red Solo cups in basements and smoked blunts in the backs of cars. Seven of his best friends became heroin addicts, he said.
“I never heard one say, ‘I can’t wait to stick needles in my arms when I get older,'” Herren said.
Herren saw what his father’s drinking did to his own family. “I remember saying to myself ‘I promise,’ but I broke that at 14 when I started drinking my dad’s beer.”
Younger siblings look up to their older siblings, he said. “The kid you are today, do you really want your little brother to be like you, to behave like you behave?” he said, sharing a story of an eighth grader who just wanted to get high like his sister, but died of an overdose.
“I do this because I wish … wish I separated myself from the friends I tried to hide amongst … wish after an assembly like this I grabbed a teacher, a coach, and said, ‘I don’t want to hide anymore. I’m tired of acting like nothing matters.'”
Herren said the audience thinks he’s standing in front of the room to talk about drugs and alcohol.
“To me this talk is about self-esteem and self-worth.” It’s about “struggle.”
It’s about how kids feel on a Friday or Saturday night. When he would put Visine in his eyes and chew gum and sneak past his parents into his room, Herren said, “Not one night did I say to myself, ‘I’m so proud of you, man.'”
Herren told the students that there were probably kids listening in the gym who just a few years ago promised their parents they would never let them down, but now have no idea who they have become. Some in the audience have likely already made sacrifices for drugs, chosen drugs instead of friendship, he said.
“I walk in here and I pray that one of you gets off the bleachers … one of you says to yourself without a doubt that you can be better than that, that your mom and dad deserve more than that,” Herren said.
“This assembly is not about me. This is your story, man. This is all about you.”
Herren took questions from several students, including one who asked about the reasons kids turn to drugs. He said that parents don’t usually ask why. They hover over their kids academics and athletics, but not what’s going on with them socially.
One student asked Herren if he wished he had never done what he did, or if he’s glad because now he has become a good person. He said that he speaks to students 250 times a year, sometimes as many as 10 times a week, but he’s still not comfortable.
“I would never change what I went through in my life. I would just take my kids out of it because they don’t deserve it,” said Herren. He said he didn’t stop shooting heroin until his son was 9 and his daughter was 6.
“This assembly is not easy and it shouldn’t be. Ask yourself if you see the kid you want to be. Challenge yourself to be better. Believe in yourself,” Herren said.
After the program, Herren told We-Ha.com that he doesn’t think there are any hopeless cases. “Never,” he said.
During the program a handful of students had left the room, at least one visibly crying. After Herren was done speaking many students gathered around him taking photos and asking questions. There were hugs and more tears.
When the assembly started, Conard Principal Julio Duarte told students that he remembered Herren as a basketball icon in high school, and had followed his career and the struggles that ended it. “Certain mistakes can be life altering,” Duarte told the students.
“We’re just so thankful to the groups who brought him here,” Duarte said. “The message of ‘Are you the students you want to be?’ is a real walkaway,” Duarte said. There’s still time for them to change.
Conard High School PTO Co-President Cyndi Brown said that the effort to get Herren to speak to students in West Hartford began last April. “It’s a great message for students,” she said.
Karen Tiernan, a vice president of Hall’s PTO, said that she researched Herren’s program, and watched the video, and thought it was important to bring the program to both schools.
The Capital Area Substance Abuse Prevention Commission also supported the effort to bring the program to West Hartford, and the War-Chief Sports Council – the combined Conard/Hall athletic booster club – financed the program.
Herren spoke to Conard students in the gym Tuesday morning, while parents from both high schools were invited to watch a live stream in the auditorium. The program was repeated at Hall for students on Tuesday afternoon.
Herren has shared his harrowing story of abuse and recovery in his memoir, “Basketball Junkie.” He is also the subject of the ESPN documentary “Unguarded.”
He founded The Herren Project in 2011 to “to answer those calls, increase education and public awareness on the dangers of substance abuse and to assist one person, one family at a time through a combination of treatment navigation, educational initiatives, mentoring, and public awareness.” The Project Purple Initiative is a non-profit foundation associated with The Herren Project that provides assistance and support to individuals and families struggling with addiction.
Herren also runs the basketball program Hoop Dreams in Portsmouth, RI, where he now lives with his wife and three children.
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