SPOKANE, Washington—Chris Herren graduated from high school in the rundown mill town of Fall River, Massachusetts as a McDonald’s High School All-American basketball player and ranked 9th in the country. He had scholarship offers from practically every school in the nation. He chose Boston College, and Sports Illustrated published his full-page photo at age 18. His future was bright. That’s when he fell into a decade-long struggle with drugs and alcohol—a downward spiral that would eventually cause him to lose everything he had fought to achieve. While Herren derailed his basketball career and nearly lost his family, in the long run, he found redemption by becoming drug-free.
Herren started at Boston College in 1994, but transferred in 1996 to join the Fresno State Bulldogs in California under coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian. Despite failing drug tests at Boston and Fresno State, the 6’3″ guard’s talent out-shined his reputation for regularly partaking in drug-fueled partying till dawn. He was selected in the second round (33rd overall) by the Denver Nuggets in the 1999 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft. But his life had already sunken into an abyss of alcohol, cocaine and ultimately heroin. That Saturday night after being drafted, he celebrated with friends. “It probably cost me $5 million,” Herren said.
In 2000, Herren was traded to his hometown Boston Celtics—his and every other New England kid’s lifelong dream, but at this point he “could care less,” he said. Before his first start for Boston, he waited outside in the rain and in his Celtics uniform, for his “friend” to arrive with drugs. He got back into the gym a couple of minutes before the game started. “My first memory of being a Celtic was popping dope on a street corner.”
Herren continued on a harrowing descent, although he remained a functioning addict for some time. He appeared in 25 games for the Celtics during the 2000-2001 season, and then spent the next five years bouncing around in professional leagues in Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, drugs had taken hold of his life.
When he eventually returned to Fall River, his heroin use escalated, and his wife distanced him from the family. In June 2008, while driving and injecting heroin, Herren’s car collided into a telephone pole. He was found unconscious with the syringe still in his arm. For nearly half an hour, doctors fought to bring him back to life.
This wasn’t Herren’s only brush with death, but this incident spurred him to also battle back. He has been off drugs since August 2008. He has reunited with his wife and three kids, after almost losing them. He counts his blessings, because many other people Herren knows have never recovered. Seven of his high school teammates became heroin addicts. While he is grateful to overcome his living nightmare and reclaim his life, he still can’t relive those wasted years, wash away the pain or regain the lost millions in income.
His story has been made into an ESPN documentary called Unguarded. It’s now available on DVD. The film is powerful and chilling at times, telling of how a world-class athlete can descend from such promising heights to a penniless existence, begging on the streets for drug money. His autobiography Basketball Junkie also delves into the gritty details of his drug abuse and street-slumming days.
The Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations in Spokane hosted him for a speaking engagement just prior to Hoopfest 2012, the nation’s largest 3-on-3 basketball tournament. More than 7,000 teams competed in the outdoors festival in downtown Spokane, June 30 through July 1. (Next summer, Hoopfest will take place June 29-30, 2013.) The Healing Lodge treats young teens, 13 to 18 years of age, who have drug or alcohol problems. The combination of events seemed a perfect match to Dr. Martina Whelshula, the Healing Lodge executive director.
Dr. Whelshula had watched the DVD Unguarded and was compelled by Herren’s story. “The idea that just harmlessly drinking and smoking pot…it’s like rolling the dice. You don’t know if you’re going to be forever on drugs, or if this is just a phase for you. Do you want to take that chance? Don’t minimize or trivialize drinking and smoking pot. It could take almost half the kids down a dark road.”
Herren agrees that alcohol and marijuana are gateway drugs. “I never met one junkie who started out with cocaine and heroin,” he said.
Dr. Whelshula told the audience the Healing Lodge is adding a basketball-focused prevention program, taking hoops clinics to tribal communities. The clinics will be free, but at the core of the clinic is a screen for substance abuse and dependence. “We tell them what the symptoms are and coordinate with local service providers. If kids think they have a problem, or know someone who does, they can go directly to those people to get help. It will give us a good sense how serious the problem is.”
Hosting Chris Herren not only provided a powerful message about the dangers of drugs, but will provide funding to help pay for the prevention program.
The first evening, young people from throughout the region came in droves to hear Herren tell his dramatic and gut-wrenching story. Soft drinks and pizza were provided by Hoopfest organizers, all free to the youth players.
The following morning, a breakfast was served to adults wanting to hear Herren speak and to provide funding for the Healing Lodge. “Breakfast was $75 a seat and $1,000 a table,” Dr. Whelshula said. Cash raised for the Healing Lodge was approximately $50,000 with another $32,000 from in-kind donations.
Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, attended the opening night headlined by Herren to present a check of $5,000 to the Healing Lodge from the tribe. During breakfast, Willie Womer (Colville) of Womer & Associates, Inc., a Native-owned design firm, presented a $6,000 check to the Healing Lodge.
Herren now travels across the country to tell his story, in hopes of encouraging others to take the right path and stay clear of drugs. This was his fifth time to speak to a Native audience. “Even when I was growing up there was the stigma that Native Americans suffer from alcoholism and drug addiction,” Herren said. “I’ve traveled to reservations, and it kind of broke my heart. I have a certain soft spot for all who struggle.”
For Herren, the number of people he reached at the speaking event prior to Hoopfest is irrelevant. It’s the impact he made that counts. “I could care less how many. The people who are here were meant to be here. When I sat in the tent tonight with the kids from the Healing Lodge, that’s what it’s all about.”