Former NBA Star Chris Herren Discusses His Addiction, Recovery


By Curtis Garland/Staff Writer

Original Source:

Former NBA player and recovering addict Chris Herren couldn’t be trusted when he was on drugs. He was under the influence during his mother’s funeral and during the birth of his first two children. Now sober for nine years, he travels across the country as an inspirational speaker, telling heartbreaking stories of his addiction and recovery.

Held on International Overdose Awareness Day, Herren’s presentation was organized by the Franklin County Overdose Task Force. Task force chairman, Franklin County District Attorney Matt Fogal, said the presentation was made possible by sponsors as well as a donation from the Brumbaugh family — the family members of Marc Brumbaugh, a 27-year-old Waynesboro man who died on April 22 of an overdose.

“I want to recognize them for their courage,” Fogal said as the family stood on stage with a framed photograph of Marc. He told them, “You stared down stigma. You continue to stare down stigma, and your efforts are helping save lives.”

After a short video describing Herren’s descent into addiction, the former basketball standout came out to address the roughly 500 people in attendance. Herren, 41, said he has dedicated the last seven years of his life talking at hundreds of events each year around the country.

“When it comes to addiction, I truly believe we’ve gone horribly wrong with the way we present it to our kids. I think we put way too much focus on the worst day, and we forget the first day. We want to show our kids pictures of drug addicts and say, ‘Look what happens in the end,’ instead of sitting them down, looking them in the eye, and asking them honestly at a very young age, ‘Why in the world are you letting this begin?’”

His own story of substance abuse began at the age of 14 when he began drinking his alcoholic father’s Miller Lites.

“What I remembered most about my childhood was hating Miller Lites, because I saw it through my mother’s eyes. I listened to her cry at night. I used to listen to their fights in the bedroom, and I prayed that he would stop,” Herren said. He recalled promising his mother at the age of 7 that he wouldn’t drink, but he broke that promise, which was the first red flag that went unaddressed.

Despite of that, Herren’s talent in basketball led him to break scoring records at his high school in Fall River, Massachusetts. The standout earned All-American status, and he was heavily recruited by the country’s top basketball colleges. At that time, his parents were getting a divorce, and Herren chose Boston College to remain close to home to support his mother.

But his time at Boston College would be short-lived. Three weeks into his college career, he tried cocaine and became an addict. Four months later, he failed his third drug test. He lost his scholarship and was kicked off the team. He moved back home and became depressed while waiting for another opportunity.

Lucky for him, Fresno State head basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian (a future Hall of Famer) called to give him a second chance. Herren jumped at the opportunity to join the team in California.

After a big game against Duke, Herren went out to celebrate with friends. He said they started with a couple of beers, followed by shots, and he ended up in a bathroom stall doing lines of cocaine. The following day, a trainer asked him to take a drug test. He self admitted.

The school’s athletic director told Herren he would have to hold a press conference to reveal his cocaine addiction, and if he wanted to play in his senior year, he would have to complete drug treatment. At the age of 21, he checked into a treatment center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“I sat in little circles, and I listened to people tell their stories, and I thought, ‘I’ll never do what you’ve done. I’m not even close to being you.’ So I wasted my time, and I wasted their time. In hindsight, I blew the biggest opportunity of my life.”

He completed treatment and went back to play his senior year at Fresno State.

“At the end of that senior season, despite myself and my sickness, my dream still came true. I was the 33rd pick in the NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets.” He said he was fortunate to have teammates that embraced him and supported him in his fight against substance abuse.

“With those types of men, and that type of support in my life, that rookie season was the best season of my life playing basketball,” he said. After the season, Herren, his wife, Heather, and their young son, Christopher, moved into a big house and started to settle in. But one day, his friend from high school offered him the new painkiller, OxyContin, while they were out on a walk.

“I went back to my house and finished watching cartoons with my son having no idea that that decision had just changed my life forever. I had no idea that that 40 milligram pill would turn into 1600 milligrams a day,” he said.

Herren checked into Denver Nuggets training camp fully dependent and strung out. He tried to quit the painkillers, but on the fifth day of being sober, he was told he was traded to the Boston Celtics, which should have been the thrill of his life.

“What should have been my dream come true, I knew in my heart, it was the nightmare beginning. I knew that five days wasn’t enough, because when I hung up the phone with (Boston Celtics coach) Rick Pitino, I wanted to call my mom. I wanted to tell her that her little boy that she drove all over the country for basketball – it was worth it. I wanted to share it with my wife and son. But my first phone call was to the kid with the pills.”

Eight weeks later, Pitino told him that he would be the starting point guard that night.

“When he said starting point guard, I panicked. See, I’m at the tail end of my milligrams. I got nothing left and I’m starting to sweat.”

Herren called his dealer and said he needed to get the arena as soon as possible. Herren started to warm up, and he kept checking his phone. With 10 minutes to go until game time, his dealer said he was stuck in traffic outside the arena. Herren told him to stay there and he ran outside to meet him.

“I hid behind a fence on Causeway Street, head to toe in my Celtics warmups on the biggest night of my life,” he said. “My whole city is there to watch this moment. My parents are already crying inside. And I’m stuck, all because of one pill and a $20 bill.”

He was high when they announced his name in the starting lineup, and he doesn’t remember it. No recollection of a life’s dream — to hear your name announced over the PA system to a roaring crowd. Three weeks later, he tore his rotator cuff, which ended his season with the Celtics.

He later accepted an offer from a basketball team in Italy, and he smuggled 300 80-gram OxyContin pills onto the plane. He said he had every intention of weaning himself off the pills, but that failed. He eventually went to a bus station and was able to buy heroin from a dealer.

“He pulled out a spoon, lighter, and syringe, and he started cooking heroin on my front seat,” he said. “At 24, I had become an intravenous drug addict.”

When a 10-day training camp in the mountains was about to start for the Italian team, Herren realized he wouldn’t be able to get painkillers or heroin, and he quit on the spot.

His family moved back home, and for the next four months, he didn’t have a job. Every morning, he went to the same Dunkin Donuts, met his drug dealer to score some heroin, shot up in the parking lot, waited 10 minutes, and then ordered breakfast at the drive-through. But one day, his life changed again.

“This day, I had felt this feeling I had never felt before, and by the grace of God, I didn’t wait the 10 minutes, because the next thing I remember is glass hitting me in my face; two police officers screaming my name.”

Herren had overdosed, and his arm was covered in blood.

“Son, you just overdosed,” the officer told him. “And when you overdosed, it caused you to take your foot off the brake, and when you took your foot off the brake, you hit that lady right there in front of you. You got a right to remain silent. This little secret you’ve been living with as a professional athlete is about to be a public tragedy. I hope and pray your family is ready for the humiliation and pain this is going to bring.”

At the age of 24, he was arrested, and he was bailed out of jail later that day.

“When I bailed out of jail, I didn’t call my mom and dad. I didn’t call my wife to say I was sorry. My first call was to the man I met in the parking lot that morning, because what he sold me was so good, it almost killed me. That’s how sad we are. That’s how sick we get. That we wake up every single morning chasing death for a feeling,” he said. “Unfortunately, for me and my family, I chased death for a feeling for eight more years.”

After stints playing basketball in countries such as Italy, Turkey, China, Germany, Iran, and Poland, no team would hire him. At the age of 27, he couldn’t provide for his family. He started hustling heroin, driving for drug dealers, scrapping metal for money, and robbing — even robbing those who loved him because he knew they wouldn’t press charges against him.

Herren eventually couldn’t afford heroin anymore, and he started heavily drinking vodka. However, on June 4, 2008, he was able to land four bags of heroin for free.

“I sat there, shot them, and as soon as I did, I felt the overdose. It’s my fourth. I said, ‘I can’t. I can’t be found here. I have to get home to get my kids off the bus.’ So I started driving. I don’t remember. I was found a mile away, crashed into a cemetery fence.”

He was sent to the hospital, discharged, and was given a summons to show up in court in 30 days. When he walked out of that hospital, Herren, now 32, contemplated suicide because he didn’t want to hurt his family anymore. But then a nurse, who went to high school with his late mother, told him his mother would have wanted her to help him. They went back into the hospital and she started to make calls for Herren to enter a treatment facility. He thought to himself that his mother deserved so much more than what he gave her, noting he went to her funeral high on heroin.

After several unsuccessful attempts to get into a facility, NBA Hall of Famer and recovering alcoholic Chris Mullin, gave Herren the gift of going to a treatment center in New York for six months. For the first 30 days, he couldn’t contact any of his family members. On day 30, he called home, and his wife told him that she was going into labor that day. Against the wishes of his counselor, Herren left the treatment center to be with his wife.

“It was my first sober birth. I was under the influence for the first two,” he admitted. His son, Christopher, and daughter, Samantha, came into the room after the baby boy was born. Christopher jumped into his father’s arms and said, “I know what happened to you, but I still want you to be my dad.”

Crying, Herren said he went for a walk, but he didn’t come back to the hospital.

“I bought some vodka. It was the only way I knew how to forget. So I went to a liquor store and I drank as much as a I could. Thirty minutes later, I made arrangements for heroin.”

The next day, his children, knowing their father was high again, didn’t want to be near him. And his wife didn’t either.

“Drugs have destroyed you and they’ve robbed you,” his wife told him. “This is the last time you’ll ever see these kids so say what you need to say.”

Herren hugged them and said he loved them. He then drove back to the treatment center, mainly because he didn’t have anywhere else to go. Later that day, his counselor gave him a cell phone, and told him to call his wife to let her know he would never contact her or the children again. He also wanted Herren to tell his wife that when the children are ready, she should tell them that their father died in a car accident when he left the hospital.

“I want you to play dead for your kids,” the counselor told him. “I want you to let your children live, because with you, they never will. They will suffer because of you, because you’re a no-good, scumbag, junkie who has no business being a father.” Herren said he wanted to kill his counselor, but he just started crying. He said he knew he had been a failure as a father. He didn’t go through with the call. Instead, he decided to pray at the edge of his bed after thinking of his mother.

“My mom made me go to church. She taught me prayers as a boy. I never understood back then, but that night she was with me. I dropped and said the prayers she taught me. That night I hit my knees, it was Aug. 1, 2008. By the grace of God and one day at a time in my life, Aug. 1, 2008, was my sobriety date,” he said. “I thank God every day for that man’s words. I thank God for the bad days; the bad days are blessings. The beauty of living a life of sobriety for me is that you find the silver lining in all your sad stories, even though they still make you cry.”

He and his wife are still married, and their children are: Christopher, 18, Samantha, 16, and Drew, 9.

“I’ve been married for 19 years. My wife and children, they are the heroes in this story.”

He said it’s very difficult talking about his life, because recalling the memories makes it feel like yesterday. But he was glad the Brumbaugh family decided to turn such a difficult time in their lives into a positive thing for the community.

“I think their commitment to this and carrying this in their community is extremely courageous, admirable, and selfless for them to do that,” Herren said in an interview before his talk. “There are a lot of families that suffer, and they just want it to go away. This family has chosen to use this and try to make a positive impact in their community.”

Herren answered several questions during a question-and-answer period. One interesting question was how should a recovering addict deal with skeptical friends or family members. Herren said sometimes people that he has hurt need more time to heal, and he has to accept that.

“I’ve never said sorry to my kids, and I don’t plan on it. My kids don’t want to hear sorry; my kids want to see sorry. That’s all they want. And as long as my kids continue to see sorry, we’re going to be okay as a family.”

After the presentation, Marc Brumbaugh’s older sister, Lindsay Walls, and her husband, David, said the program was powerful.

“I thought it was amazing. I wish we could have had more opportunities like this a year ago,” Lindsay said.

“We have to keep the talk going. You can’t hide from it,” David said.

“Nothing is going to change if you hide from it,” Lindsay added.

Lindsay said she hopes people in the audience heard the message and learned from it.

“Their story doesn’t have to end like our story,” she said.

District Attorney Matt Fogal wrote in an email to The News-Chronicle that he loved Herren’s style and informal approach in the presentation.

“His remarks last night were authentic and full of legitimacy,” Fogal wrote. “‘Hurt people hurt people’ resonated with me very much. This is all very tricky and nuanced, and we in law enforcement are doing the best we can. Sometimes our actions and reactions in an official sense are obviously necessary, and giving accountability keeps someone alive and helps them long term. But how we treat people during that process matters as well, along with remembering WHY we are doing it.”

Fogal continued, “Things like last night, as special and moving as it was, are not the real work, really. It definitely fosters the communication for the community, and keeps this illness in the public eye. It also provides hope for those who are suffering. So, really there were two types of audiences last night. Some need to ‘get it’ in the community, and some who are ill needed to hear that someone ‘gets it’ and they can be healed. Both messages are vital.

“The real work is being done in the trenches every day, and we are focusing on EVERY part of this, including the schools. As great as it was last night, he did not come as a savior to fix everything and leave. Last night was a part of the communication strategy and stigma reduction strategy. It was GREAT, but there is just SO much more to do. Onward.”

Chambersburg high school interim principal, Brad Ocker, said he thought the presentation went well, and he wished more members of the community could have attended to hear the important message. He said he was moved by the line, “Don’t say you’re sorry, show you’re sorry.” He noted that parents and educators need to work together to find ways to help a student.

Chambersburg high school sophomore and member of the soccer team, Eliza Bellows, said the presentation was a good thing for the community, because some people in the audience needed to hear about addiction and recovery. She noted that Herron really hit a low point, but he was still able to come back from it.

High school head soccer coach, Ed Franchi, said he required the girl’s soccer team to attend Herren’s presentation in lieu of their typical practice.

“Before they are soccer players, they are people and students,” Franchi said. He said he had heard of Herren’s story, and he knew it would be important for the team to hear his message.

Couple Jill and Matt Culler both said after the presentation that they were glad substance abuse and recovery were being discussed in such a public way.

“I felt like what he said was really wise,” Jill said. She said she appreciated Herren’s comments regarding how family members heal at different rates during recovery.

They both said they thought the Brumbaugh family donation was put to good use.

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