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Chris Herren: Triumph out of tragedy

POSTED May 09, 2015
BY Rick Wilson
Twitter: @scribewilson

            THOMASTON – The question seems a natural one. Chris Herren: Triumph or Tragedy?

            After all, the Fall River, Mass. basketball phenom has been as high the peak of Mt. Everest in terms of accomplishment with all the power and glory that comes from being an elite athlete and as low as the bottom of the Marianas trench when he squandered it all away including nearly his life.

            He has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and on the receiving end of the needle. He has seen the best and worst of both sides. He has been the subject of two books, `Fall River Dreams’ about the basketball rise and `Basketball Junkie: A Memoir’ about his descent into the drug world. There is a powerful ESPN Documentary, Unguarded.’

            For now, a triumph fueled by tragedy. And you have to say for now because for alcohol and drug addicts it is a day-to-day thing. The battle never stops.  But clearly Herren is in a good place now and so are the thousands who have heard him tell his tale.

            Herren has a bit of a different take on it but first, a little background for those who haven’t been exposed to Herren.  

            Herren speaks to groups today. Big groups, small groups, teen groups, professional groups. There is a story here, a good one for the listeners. You hurt for him, you learn from him. You get angry at him. You applaud him. In the end you appreciate him.

            Recently Herren spoke to the entire student body of Thomaston High. He has blanketed the area in the last year – Litchfield, Northwestern Regional, Terryville, Watertown and other schools and parent groups.

            And he is mesmerizing.  All-school assemblies are things of the past. Smaller groups are better, easier to handle, more intimate. At Thomaston they filled the auditorium and for more than an hour you could hear a pin drop and minute hands on the watch moving. No problems with talking or those dreaded cell phones that have become the addiction of most of the teenage world and beyond these days.

            Eyes and ears were on Herren.  His story and his style of presentation demand it.

            Herren, 39, lit up Fall River High School in the early 1990s. One of the top 10 guards in the nation, he was a McDonald’s All-American, scoring 2,073 points.

            He was the home town and home state hero and went on to Boston College. That’s where the high took on a different meaning. Not that the roots hadn’t been there in high school but this is where it got out of hand.

            Failed tests for marijuana and cocaine numerous times and before you could say what happened, he was expelled from Boston College. Legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian, who never met a troubled basketball player he didn’t like,  took Herren in at Fresno State and despite continued drug use, he averaged 15 points and five assists over86 games while there.

            Herren was drafted by the Denver Nuggets and then on to his hometown Boston Celtics. The drugs continued, he was released and ended up playing in Europe. As of 2011 Herren had seven drug-related felonies on his record.  Painkillers like OxyContin joined the alcohol and other assorted drugs.
            Crystal meth, heroin, you name it Herren was good at it. In Fall River he overdosed on heroin and crashed into a utility pole and paramedics brought him back after being dead for 30 seconds.

            That’s the Marianas trench. Family and all that goes with it like birthdays and Christmas didn’t matter, at least not enough. The bottle, the sniff, the needle, now that mattered.

            Extensive rehab finally found a willing companion and Herren has been alcohol and drug free for the last six and a half years, since 2008.

            So he talks now to the Packers and Patriots to Thomaston High School, Terryville and any other school that will listen. The kid and man that played in front of thousands in cavernous gyms and on national television still gets nervous.

            While a half hour introductory video introduces Herren to his audience he is in back or down the hall, nervous, thinking about his message. His presentation is a bit differerent. It’s about his experience but far more than just a life story and don’t do this.

            “We seem to focus on the last day and we need to focus on the first day when it all starts,” Herren told the Thomaston audience.  All followed by a powerful question.

            “What is it about you that come Friday and Saturday night in those basement rooms that it isn’t enough?,” he says. “I wish I was tough enough that I didn’t pretend to be somebody I wasn’t.”

            Herren talks off the cuff, there are no notes. He probably can memorize much of it from past appearances but it is not canned. There is a real emotion here and not at them or down to them. He talks to students not at them or down to them.

            He joked about going to assemblies like this when he was in school and laughing at the old guy (s) telling their story. Students don’t laugh at Chris Herren. He told the group of a girl who raised her hand to ask a question at a high school where the reaction to his talk was more chuckles than respect for the message.

            Later she told she didn’t have a question, that students in her school didn’t ask questions. Obviously moved, Herren always remembers the girl who he talked that day who gave the example that it is okay to hurt and ask. And she was hurting as he found out later.

            Herren struck a chord. Many amidst tears latched on to his message about being themselves, about asking for help, about staying above it all.

            Herren knows about needing help. His wife Heather is his high school sweet heart. She has stuck with him through the dream and the drugs.

            “She’s the toughest one in the family,” says Herren problem. “Through all odds she stuck with me. I’m a real dad because of her.”

            Herren’s son, Chris Jr., is a second team All-Stater for Portsmouth, High in Rhode Island. A lot like his basketball and a lot give him this chant, “Heroin, heroin,” in some gyms.

            “He gets it, he knows where I’ve been,” says Herren.

            Chris Herren came, he saw and he conquered. Then he got conquered. But, he is coming again armed with more than just an eye-opening basketball game this time around. “If the Celtics called again today, I would say no,” he said.

            Basketball has long been secondary, still a part of his life but an anvenue to get to the primary – helping kids. Herren knows his mission. He embraces it. He knows it is more important than the bouncing ball. He has the insatiable desire to touch someone, to help someone, even if it is only one.

            Kids warm up to Herren. They sense a kindred soul, somebody who has been there and somebody who understands. His Herren Project provides assistance in taking the first steps towards recovery and sobriety.  He wants to help, he sees it and feels it.

            Triumph or Tragedy? – “It’s a triumph when people like me can sustain sobriety, but I don’t look at it as a triumph but as being a survivor.”

            Asked once what he wanted said about him his reply was, “Just tell them he helps people, keep it simple.’

            Chris Herren keep on. He fights his addiction on a daily basis but has found peace in speaking to students who are where he has been or who may end up where he has been. He knows.

            Most importantly the students I saw know he cares.

            Chris Herren back on top, higher than basketball ever took him. Let’s hope he stays there. From what I saw, students desperately need him.   

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