Bristol, R.I. – Fall River, Mass., native and famed “Basketball Junkie” Chris Herren delivered a sobering message to a Field House packed with student athletes and the entire Class of 2016 at Roger Williams on Thursday evening, chronicling his decade-long battle with substance abuse and his rise and fall in the basketball world.
“I’ve seen the documentary, I’ve read his book and I’ve seen him speak before – but I was still gasping,” said Kathleen McMahon, dean of students at RWU. “Chris’s story is unbelievable, relentless and truly remarkable. The countless examples of how addiction ruled his life and how he blew up his dream over and over again. He would literally walk away from million-dollar contracts because he needed his fix.”
Herren – who shared his story in the memoir “Basketball Junkie,” released a year ago –offered an uncensored account of his struggles with addiction in the hopes of reaching individuals who may confront similar challenges, now or in the future. First-year student Kelly Sobolewski said his unchecked honesty gave him credibility with the student audience.
Chris Herren poses with the University’s team of student health and wellness educators – or HAWEs – who work together to promote healthy lifestyles, with a particular emphasis on drug and alcohol use, among the student body at Roger Williams.
“I was surprised by how graphic Chris’s story was,” she said, “but that’s why it really connected with me. He was willing to share every aspect of his life with us – both good and bad – and demonstrated how he had grown from the experience. He talked to us like adults who could make our own decisions and take what we wanted from his personal story.”
Drafted in the second round of the 1999 NBA draft, Herren played for the Denver Nuggets his rookie year prior to being traded to the Boston Celtics – the hometown team for any Massachusetts native – in 2000. As a Celtic, he scored a career-high 18 points against Dallas but suffered a season-ending injury. Eventually he was released and moved on to play basketball overseas in places including Italy, Poland, Turkey, China and Iran.
From his collegiate days to his time abroad, Herren struggled with substance abuse. He’s been alcohol- and drug-free since August 1, 2008, however, and he’s refocused his life to put his sobriety and his family above all else. His message resonated with more than 1,000 first-year students who attended as part of the University’s Weeks of Welcome orientation program.
“You could have heard a pin drop,” McMahon says. “Students were on the edge of their seats and there was not a single cell phone out.”
Approximately 400 student athletes were in the audience as well. Lauren Tierney, a softball player and orientation advisor, said Herren encouraged the athletes to reach out to teammates should they suspect problems with drugs or alcohol.
“His message to those of us who are leaders on campus was to step up and do something if you recognize a problem,” Tierney said. “You may lose your friend and your teammate if you rat them out, but when they are sober 10 years from now, they will come back and thank you.”
McMahon believes Herren’s message hit home with students who have confronted addiction at one time or another, either directly or via a family member or friend. “Each decision in Chris’s life was framed not by: ‘What’s best for my family and me,’ but by ‘How am I going to feed my addiction,’ He realizes all along that he’s a junkie – he uses that word.”
Cheylsea Federle, a health and wellness educator (HAWE) at Roger Williams, said she wants everyone to hear Herren’s story because she truly believes he has the power to change people.
“I grew up around addiction and know the horrors it brings all too well,” Federle said. “Chris’s story was strongly emotional but never dramatic, and he connected in a way that make you feel as if he was speaking only to you. Roger Williams was lucky to have him here.”