It would be easy for Chris Herren to stand on a stage and regale today’s youth about the horrors that drug and alcohol addiction can bring.
Herren, speaking Tuesday evening at York College’s Waldner Performing Arts Center as part of the Vizzi Family Lectureship in Professional Excellence Series, said he laughed off those same speeches during his youth in Fall River, Massachusetts.
Instead, Herren chose to relate his personal tales with devastating substance abuse on a different level.
Regret, with shame as the ultimate impetus for change, was central to his message. The idea that recovery is entirely possible also played an important part.
Hoop days: Herren was prep basketball star at Durfee High School, scoring more than 2,000 points while earning a 1994 McDonald’s All-America honor.
He turned down offers to play at the most prestigious basketball schools in the nation, such as Duke and Kentucky, for a chance to stay close to home and play at Boston College.
It was in college that Herren’s career began to spiral out of control. Herren would fail a series of drug tests, leading to his dismissal from BC.
He was then given a second chance by legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State. However, trouble followed Herren out west as well.
After his collegiate career, Herren was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 1999 before being traded to his hometown Boston Celtics in 2000. He would suffer a season-ending injury in Boston before beginning a lengthy overseas career that included stops in China, Italy, Poland, Turkey and Iran.
All throughout, his addiction to pain killers, and later heroin, would prevent a career with incredible potential from coming to fruition.
Attention getter: Herren began his presentation Tuesday with an anecdote that immediately grabbed attention.
“I was getting high while my mother was passing away from cancer,” Herren regretfully admitted.
He said the instance was one of the many that he wishes he could go back and do over.
He also spoke of the many time he disappointed his family, often letting down his wife and children.
One moment that stood out for Herren came after intoxication caused him to fail to pick up his wife and children from an airport.
The overwhelming shame came later when he finally saw his family after his addiction led to extended time away from them.
“My 5-year old son said to me ‘How come you don’t want to be my daddy anymore?’” Herren said.
Easier to relate: “His story was incredible, his dedication to recovery was inspiring,” said freshman Austin Glab, 18, a member of the York College men’s lacrosse team who attended the speech.
Glab and teammate, Shane Brookhart, an 18-year-old freshman, each said Herren’s tale offered a fresh perspective, especially with both being athletes themselves and similar in age to Herren when he first found trouble. They said they were inspired to come hear him speak after watching a documentary on Herren’s basketball demise.
“Coming from a man that has been through it and started at such a young age that we’re at, it showed us we could be presented with those opportunities,” Brookhart said. “…it just put things in perspective.”
They acknowledged that what helped them separate Herren's tale from those anti-drug speeches they’ve heard before was Herren’s honesty about how it all got started. It began from his days of partying in high school, which was overlooked by some of the more lenient parents, something Glab said he's seen before.
His mission: Herren, who has been sober since 2008, is an author as well as a public speaker. His story was also the subject of an ESPN "30 for 30" series documentary entitled "Unguarded."
In 2009, Herren started "Hoops Dreams with Chris Herren," a basketball player development company that offers clinics, camps and skills training to the top prospects in the New England area.
He also founded "The Herren Project," a nonprofit organization which provides education and mentoring services to those touched by addiction, as well as educating people of all ages on the dangers of substance abuse.
Herren said he hopes his message can help just one family avoid the scourge of addiction. That would make his efforts worth it. He travels the country sharing his tale for those who are “sick like me,” Herren said. It's all done in the hopes of “giving recovery a voice.” He does an estimated 250 speeches a year.
He said that it must start with more education, beyond lectures discouraging kids from drugs and alcohol.
As a way for those in attendance to take stock of their actions, and to help them avoid the same sense of shame and regret, Herren suggested they ask themselves a simple question.
“If you were a kid, would you look up to you?"
— Reach Elijah Armold at firstname.lastname@example.org.