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On the Rebound: Chris Herren Schools Freshmen on Substance Abuse

HAWEs team up with former Boston Celtic for substance abuse prevention presentation

BRISTOL, R.I. – Former NBA guard Chris Herren didn’t have to travel far to get to the Roger Williams University Recreation Center where he took the stage amid thunderous applause from more than 1,000 freshmen. But the Fall River, Mass., native and Portsmouth, R.I., resident’s journey was a much longer and far more tumultuous than the scenic drive over the Mount Hope Bridge.

As part of the Weeks of Welcome series that initiates new students into the RWU community, Herren came to the University by way of the Roger Williams HAWEs (Health and Wellness Educators) and The Herren Project – a nonprofit that educates about the dangers of substance abuse with a focus on treatment navigation, educational initiatives, mentoring and public awareness – to share what he calls, “my nightmare.”

A high school basketball legend in Massachusetts, Herren scored over 2,000 points and was a McDonald’s All-American who was among the top 10 players being recruited by every major college team in the U.S. In his first few weeks at Boston College, he graced the pages of Sports Illustrated alongside Ray Allen and Allen Iverson. Days later, he took his first hit of cocaine – courtesy of his college roommate.

“I was scared, but I told myself I would try it just one time and never again. I had no idea when I promised myself ‘just one time’ that one line would take 14 years to walk away from,” Herren told the captivated crowd.

That was just the start of Herren’s spiral into drug addiction that would compromise his NBA career and nearly take his life. Here are 10 takeaways from Chris Herren’s presentation:

Your Wildest Dream Will Become Your Worst Nightmare

Growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts, Herren dreamed about being a Boston Celtic. When he finally got his shot – a starting position at age 22 – he missed it all, he said. During warm-ups, while he should’ve been taking jump shots and waiting for his name to be called over the PA, Herren was in a parking lot on Causeway Street behind the Boston Garden picking up pills.

“All my life I wanted to be a pro,” he said. “Not many 6’1” white kids make it to the NBA. I worked my tail off. Now, I wish I was a pro at being me.”

Who You Hang With Makes a Difference

Surrounding yourself with positive influencers is key to making healthy choices, Herren noted. In his own experience, it was college roommates and childhood friends who initiated him into a lifestyle of cocaine binges and daily doses of OxyContin – “the little yellow pill that cost me a $20 bill” – that eventually led Herren to black tar heroin and cheap vodka.

Today, Herren says he intentionally surrounds himself with sober people. “We always want to be the best,” he said. “How come we don’t want to hang out with the best?”

Addiction Doesn’t Discriminate

It doesn’t matter where you’re from, whether you’re working class or middle class – anyone can become an addict, Herren said.

“Our parents were teachers, nurses, accountants, lawyers… And out of 15 kids on my team, eight of us turned to the needle. I can tell you, I never heard one of them say, ‘oh man, I can’t wait to stick a needle in my arm.’”

Predisposition Doesn’t Help

Herren grew up in an alcoholic’s home, and swore up and down that he would never be like his father. “I love my dad, and he loves me – but I never wanted to be like that,” he said, after telling students they will be 40 times more likely to become substance abusers if there is a history of addiction in their families. “I promised myself I wouldn’t go down that road, and at 32 I became the dad I never wanted to be.”

It’s Not ‘Just Weed’

“Be honest, it’s not ‘just weed,’” Herren told the audience during the Q&A. “It’s just that you can’t be you 24/7. If you felt good being you, you wouldn’t need substances to change yourself. The first page for every addict is smoking blunts and drinking out of red solo cups.”

You Will Lose Everything That Matters

In his effort to stay high, Herren lost his career and every penny he ever earned. But it wasn’t until he lost his family – his wife, kids and newborn son – that he committed himself to recovery.

“When the counselor came in and I told him I lost my family, he said, ‘don’t you know that’s what drugs and alcohol do? Call your wife, say goodbye, play dead for your kids and let them live. You’re a no good, scumbag junkie that doesn’t deserve a family.’”

It’s Hard, but You Can Bounce Back

Herren’s first trip to rehab was at age 21, but it took four overdoses, seven felony charges and 11 months in his third treatment center before sobriety stuck. When asked if he ever has the urge to use again, Herren answered: “Yes. I never ever want to get high, but there’s days I wake up and don’t want to be me, and want to avoid being me.”   

Still, he’s stuck to a sober lifestyle for six years, and credits prayer, meetings and his family for helping him to stay substance free.

Sobriety Takes Toughness

“It’s tragic, if you need substances to make you feel better, prettier, stronger, cooler. That’s sad,” Herren said. “The kids who go out on Friday night and don’t get drunk and high? Those kids to me are warriors. Those are the kids I want my kids to be. They have something money can’t buy: confidence, security, self-esteem. I tried to find it and buy it for years.”

Road to Recovery

“Physically I feel healthy,” said Herren, who completed the Boston Marathon this past April. “Emotionally it’s much harder.”

Earning back his family’s trust was just as challenging. Herren’s wife, whom he met in seventh grade, remains by his side. “She’s the star of this whole deal, not me,” he said. “Not too many people take their vows as seriously as she did. The best gift of treatment is having your family recovering with you. My youngest son has been in a sober house since he was born, and for the last six years, my kids have gotten the same dad coming back who left in the morning.”

How You Can Help

“It’s hard to help someone you love. I do this talk 250 times a year. I’m the face of recovery, and I can’t even help my own dad,” Herren says. “I pray that he’ll wake up at 63 years old and say ‘I’m worth a better life.’ So ask: what is so hard about your life that you’re willing to risk everything? That’s what you say to your friends.”



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