At 18, Chris Herren dreamed of playing professional basketball, but he never figured he would wind talking about how drug abuse wrecked his career and his life.
When Herren told his story to a gym full of intently listening students at Trumbull's St. Joseph High School recently, some students walked out, overcome with emotion.
Herren was a high school basketball star in Fall River, Mass., the son of parents in business and politics. The then 18-year-old started like the students at St. Joseph, listening to a professional sports player talk about the dangers of drug abuse and saying to himself it could never happen to him.
That changed one day when he walked in on his college roommate and girlfriend using cocaine.
"At 18 years old, I said, 'I'm going to do this once and I'm never going to do it again,'" Herren recalled. But it took him 14 years to fully kick the habit.
His troubles started with failing his first college drug test at Boston University. Then between on-court injuries and failing further drug tests, he was kicked out of school.
But he got a second chance at Fresno State in California, where, despite several setbacks, was drafted into the NBA and got his dream shot to play for Boston Celtics.
After another injury sidelined him, he was released from the NBA and went on to play professional basketball for other countries, including Poland, China, Iran and Bologna (Italy).
His drug addiction dogged him throughout his career and he was released from his last team, in Poland, in 2006.
In a year, his life had changed. Instead of his son meeting basketball players, he met drug dealers in crackhouses.
"That's how fast the world flips upside down," he said.
The Toll of Substance Abuse
Before his addictions overtook his career, Herren owned his own home at 22 years old, was married and had two children. At his worst time, he was estranged from his family and had unsuccessfully tried rehabilitation several times.
When he took the court for his first Celtics game, he was more concerned about his next fix.
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"I couldn't care less about the Boston Celtics," he said. "I don't remember that moment. I don't remember that game."
When his basketball career was finished, his daily routine became buying alcohol and drugs. He also begged for change.
At one point Herren overdosed while sitting in his car and crashed into a car in front of him. He was dead for 30 seconds. After another cocaine binge, he tried to jump in front of traffic on a highway, as his wife and children waited for him to pick them up from an airport.
He contemplated suicide on another occasion but was stopped before he could leave the hospital.
He'd also sold much of his family's valuables, including video games and jewelry, to support his habit.
Fortune was on his side a few times. Once, Herren escaped arrest after a fan/postal service worker stopped him from receiving a package of illegal drugs he'd had shipped to Turkey (where he was playing basketball). In Turkey, drug offenses mean life in prison.
The former player also saw a friend murdered for $400 worth of drugs. But Herren had refused to hang out with him that day.
Finally, an old friend got him into rehab, where he stayed until his third child, Drew, was born. Herren was sober for the birth (not so for his other two children) and held his infant son for several hours. Then he said "I'll be right back," and went to call his drug dealer.
He didn't come back for a while. When he did, his family did not want to see him.
That was his breaking point. He "pounded his knees" and got serious about kicking the habit.
Herren has been clean and sober since 2008. He has rejoined his family and taken in relatives' children whom he and his wife have raised.
According to Wikipedia, "in June 2009, Herren launched Hoop Dreams with Chris Herren, a basketball player development company to mentor players on and off the court. Herren has written a book with Providence Journal columnist Bill Reynolds entitled Basketball Junkie: A Memoir, documenting his career on and off the court. Basketball Junkie was released in May 2011."
Now he talks to high schools and colleges about the dangers of abuse. Several of his high school classmates live on the street because of drug abuse, he said.
Herren credits his survival to the support of his family and friends. He wished someone would have stopped him earlier, he added.
His abuse didn't begin in college. It started in high school with "marijuana and red solo cups" of beer. That was where he said he lost the ability to say no.
In answer to a student's question, Herren said his home life was also troubled. His mother died and his father drank and still drinks, he said. However, he still has a relationship with his father, who can be verbally abusive at times, he said.
The experience has not been in vain for the former Celtic, who reported some success stories from his talks. He inspired a student who cut herself to seek help, in one instance.
He said the key is to "tell on yourself" because secrets become harder to admit over time. "You're only as sick as your secrets," he said.
Answering another questions, he said he doesn't regret his actions, rather the toll they took on his family.
"I regret everything that I put my family through in this life," he said. "That's one of the greatest gifts that I've been given is that I still have a family. My family is everything to me today."
Drug abuse, he added, knows no economic boundaries. "Our parents were doctors, politicians and lawyers," he added.