A kid from Fall River… maybe a 45 minute drive to Boston… lacing them up for the Celtics. It was the stuff dreams are made of.
Except for Chris Herren, it was a nightmare. His entire life was. Drugs had consumed him for years. He'd been given too many chances to count. And every time he stepped on the court, the pressure of the expectations just steered him down darker roads.
For Herren, it started early. His brother Michael was a basketball star at Durfee High School in Fall River, and he was expected to follow in his footsteps.
"I remember in sixth grade being nervous about following in his footsteps," Herren told me in an interview this morning. "It was a lot of pressure from early on to not only be good, but to fight back. And that's a lot to ask of a 14 year old."
What he was fighting back against were threats from opposing fans, the pressure of authority figures, and perhaps a bit of the expectations that were thrust upon him. Early on, he struggled with a contempt for basketball because it was the source of intense scrutiny. Yet, even when he was drinking to escape it all, he had basketball on his mind.
"I didn't want to be that basketball player. I wanted a different identity," Heren said. "So when I stepped away from it, I behaved like a totally different person. The drinking started early, but I also put a lot of work in. I played AAU, I traveled the country. I was away most weekends in the summer while my friends were hanging out and drinking, I was in Jacksonville and Vegas playing basketball."
Basketball brought him to Boston College, where discovered cocaine. Ultimately, he was kicked out of school. Fresno State came calling and gave Herren another chance. And after a relatively clean year as a transfer, he started using again once he was back on the court.
When the NBA finally came calling, he ended up living a clean life in Denver, where he was surrounded by veterans and away from the pressures and demons of home. So what many of us would consider a great twist of fate… getting traded to the Celtics… Herren saw it as being thrust back into the middle of what had been his own personal hell.
"I had cocaine issues, I had painkiller issues, and I knew that going back home, I was going to be right in the middle of the bee hive," Herren said. "When I got to Boston… Rick Pitino was great to me, the Celtics were great to me… Chris Herren just wasn't good to himself and I couldn't be a good employee."
So there Herren was, standing in the parking lot of the, then, Fleet Center… in his Celtics warmups, waiting for a drug dealer so he could get his Oxycontin. At that point, he couldn't play without it.
Basketball took Herren overseas, where he found heroin, another opiate to give him his fix. Ultimately, with basketball gone, Herren became just another junkie looking for a fix in Fall River. He nearly died of a heroin overdose… driving for miles in a blackout before being found by a passer-by.
Eventually, the birth of his third child, and the suggestion from a treatment program that he leave his family because he was the only negative thing in their life, was enough to spur him to sobriety. Now clean, Herren is telling his story in a new book, "Basketball Junkie"… co-written by Bill Reynolds of the Providence Journal.
It's an amazing story of the dark side of "living the dream." Basketball is an amazing sport that affords some people amazing opportunities. But sometimes, with the right circumstances, the right people, the right surroundings… it can lead to dark descent into self-destruction. Herren survived that descent, and is coming out on the other side prepared to help kids avoid his same mistakes.
He is using basketball to help children now with his Hoop Dreams clinics. To buy the book and read his story, go here, or to most bookstores. You can meet Chris at one of his local stops on the book tour. The next stop is tomorrow at 2pm at Borders in the Providence Place Mall.
I spoke to Chris this morning. Here's the full interview. It's almost 20 minutes long and it's quite candid. Thanks to Chris for the time, and as I said to tend the interview… the best part is that he's here and sober and he can use his story to maybe prevent another one. We all wish him the best of luck as he continues his recovery and plays his most important role yet… husband and father of three. Click here to download it for later.