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Former Celtic Tells of Dark Addiction, Inspires Hope in Packed House

In a gripping and at times horrifying re-telling of his decline from basketball superstar to hollow drug addiction, former Boston Celtic Chris Herren filled the Barnstable High School auditorium and then some last night, with nary a dry eye in the house.

In his darkest hour nearly four years ago, Chris Herren stood in oncoming traffic, still high from a day of doing cocaine and heroin, hoping a car would run him over.

In the span of about 60 minutes last night, this was just one of dozens of gripping and at the same time horrifying stories the former Boston Celtic relayed to a standing-room only audience at Barnstable High School, all in hope of steering teenagers away from the dim path he once took. And took again. And again, and again.

"And when a car breezed by me and knocked me over, I fell and hit the pavement and knocked out my front tooth," Herren said. "And then I saw the blue lights (of the police) and I ran to those blue lights and said take me away. Lock me up."

"Addiction is the disease of our age. It is cunning and powerful. It proceeds from our chronic spiritual hunger and is nourished by our focus on getting and spending, and on news and gossip outside ourselves. Everything we need is happening within us."

- Erica Jong, Fear of Fifty: A Midlife Memoir, 1994

Herren, the subject of ESPN's award-winning documentary "Unguarded," went from being a basketball superhero in his hometown of Fall River and at B.M.C. Durfee High School, to being the starting point guard at Boston College and in the span of just four months found himself helplessly addicted to cocaine, alcohol, oxycontin, heroin and virtually anything that might get him high.

"As an 18-year-old I had no idea it would take 14 years to stop," Herren told a hushed and almost incredulous audience.

Herren failed three drug tests in four months at Boston College in 1994, had played just two games before breaking his wrist, and then soon found himself back in Fall River hoping the phone would one day ring as it had during his high school days with "offers" from anyone who might be able to utilize his enormous basketball-playing talent.

Chiefly, though, he seemed to be surrounded by a never-ending stream of "friends" who constantly offered him the opportunity to take drugs. Eventually, then Fresno State Head Coach Jerry Tarkanian called and offered him a "second chance."

Herren took that chance, hopped a plane to California and quickly launched into an intensely successful basketball career for the basketball legend, Tarkanian. The school gave him the opportunity to immediately attend a recovery program, thanks to current Denver Nuggets assistant coach John Welch, but Herren says he took it all for granted, disbelieving he had any sort of a problem.

He detailed how he went out one night with some friends who had come to see him play for Fresno State at UMass-Amherst and a "few beers" quickly led to "buying eight balls" on an all-night drug-binge. Herren said he never went to sleep that night and had a game on national television the following day at noon. He said he played in that game having never gone to sleep and being completely, totally high on cocaine.

Fresno State wasn't sold on Herren's supposed "soberness" any longer and suspended him, sent him to rehab again in Salt Lake City, Utah for 28 days, yet Herren said he was blinded by his thirst for drugs. Incredibly, he would soon be drafted in the second round with the 33rd overall pick by the National Basketball Association (NBA) by the Denver Nuggets.

His rookie year in the NBA (1999), Herren claims was the "best season of my life," but it was a season where he was being supervised nearly 24 hours a day by then Denver Nuggets' players Chauncy Billups, Antonio Mcdyess and Nick Van Exel. Herren claims he was drug and alcohol-free during that rookie campaign in the NBA, he "finished the season strong" and then returned home to Fall River to a new house with his wife Heather and children.

"Then we had a cookout and one of my old friends I went to high school with said to me 'take a walk', so I went out in front of the house and he pulled out a plastic baggie with a bunch of yellow pills and said 'this is the new thing, Oxycontin', so I gave him $20 for one and I took it and I thought I'd be done with it," Herren said.

But what occurred instead was an immediate addicition to one of the most insidious and instantaneously addictive drugs available today. Earning $25,000 a month, Herren was soon popping "10" 80 milligram Oxycontin pills every morning at 8:00 a.m. and 10 more at 3:00 p.m. every afternoon.

Herren said he could not wait to get back to the caring confine of the tight-knit Denver Nuggets family and be as far away from the temptations of "home" as possible. Once he returned to Denver, though, he received a phone call from then Boston Celtic head coach Rick Pitino who offered him "congratulations" because Herren had just been traded to the Boston Celtics.

Herren's nightmare of drug addiction soon became a sort of personal hell reserved only for the most tormented of souls.

Pencilled into the starting lineup for the Celtics, Herren stood in full uniform on the corner of Causeway Street in the pouring rain "just four minutes until my name was being called" inside the Fleet Center, "waiting for my dealer."

"I called my man and said you have to get here. I can't play an NBA game without my stuff," Herren said.

Herren played that game "high on Oxycontin," he admitted.

After sustaining an injury that required immediate surgery in a Celtics' game soon thereafter, Herren's NBA career had come to a close. He said he played for the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Summer League and was leading the league in points and assists when approached for a three-year, $7.5 million contract by the Utah Jazz. Herren said he turned it down because he was unsure if he'd be able to continue to obtain Oxycontin.

"I chose my 80s over $8 million," he said.

A professional team in Italy then offered to move him and his family to Europe, bought him a home, two cars and paid him "$50,000 in cash" each month just to shoot a leather ball into a round hoop. What ensued after he arrived in Europe was a seemingly never-ending, twisted journey of playing basketball and pouring drugs into his system enough so that it simply boggles the mind he survived. His addiction and journey took him from Italy to Istanbul, Turkey and then finally, to Warsaw, Poland where he had declined to the point no team would believe he was healthy.

Because he wasn't even remotely healthy.

Herren had gone so low he was soon scoring and shooting heroin in Istanbul, Turkey; then he brought that new addiction home with him to Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and in a dizzying whirlwind of self-deceit found himself on a plane back to Fresno, California where he met up with an "NFL" version of himself where the two men spent "five days in the living room smoking cocaine and shooting heroin."

His life had fully and completely spun out of control and for the next two years Herren drove his family penniless, even selling the household "vacuum cleaner" for drugs.

Near dead, laying in an alley in California, being "poked and kicked in the ribs by two homeless guys," with $17 in his pocket and no health insurance, his wife pregnant with their third child and not even aware of where he was, former NBA star Chris Mullin reached out and purchased Herren six months of recovery at the Gosnold of Cape Cod Treatment Center in Falmouth, MA. 

Herren said he was there for about 50 days when his wife went into labor and he pleaded to go and see his child born. He said he was in the hospital with his wife for about "two hours" when his other children came and he opted to leave and he went right back to "smoking cocaine and shooting up."

Herren was fortunate to be allowed to return to the Miller House which was the point when a "man" there tried to convince him to cut off all ties with his family because Herren had become "a no good scumbag junkie."

"Tell your wife to tell your kids you died in a car crash on the way back to rehab," Herren said the man told him to tell his wife.

Which brought him to the end and at the same time, the beginning, where he spent months washing dishes in the Miller House.

"In that sink, in that little room, I found my soul," Herren said.

Herren now runs a basketball school and tours the country telling his story. He has been clean and sober since 2008. He said if he can help get through to just one teenager or person to help them "have the courage and self-esteem" to make the right choices, then it's a "better feeling" than any experience he's had before.

"My name's Chris Herren," he said. "Thank you for listening to my story."

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