WOONSOCKET --- Chris Herren did a fair amount of traveling during his collegiate and professional basketball careers, not only touring arenas throughout the United States, but also finishing his hoop career overseas in Europe and Asia.
It’s been 6½ years since Herren last played professionally, but these days, he’s still flying coast to coast and racking up frequent flyer miles.
And he’s doing so as part of a hectic schedule of speaking engagements, which has seen the former Boston Celtics guard talk about his past struggles as a cocaine, Oxycontin, and heroin addict that ruined a promising NBA career and nearly destroyed his life, as well as the lessons he came away with from his experiences.
“I probably do about close to 250 (speaking engagements) a year,” said Herren. “Usually, it’s Monday through Thursday and I’m home Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and then back on the road again. I could have a lot of time off if I didn’t visit as many local high schools as I do, but that’s what this is all about.”
On Thursday morning, Herren braved a 75-minute drive through the snowy weather with Bob Eagan, the Director of Clinical Partnerships with The Herren Project, from his home in Portsmouth to Woonsocket to talk to the student body and faculty at Mount St. Charles Academy.
After everyone took in a viewing of Unguarded, an ESPN Films ‘30 for 30’ documentary about Herren, in the school’s gymnasium, Herren quietly made his move to the front of the audience and proceeded to speak from the heart for 70 minutes, even encouraging a question-and-answer session with the students midway through his discussion.
Herren was operating on a few hours’ sleep, because on Wednesday morning, he was at the Kansas City Royals’ spring training complex in Surprise, Ariz. speaking to the team, and he didn’t get back to Portsmouth until 2 a.m.
But that didn’t prevent the 37-year-old Herren from speaking with the same energy, zeal, and drive that he displayed as a talented, three-time All-State guard and McDonald’s All-American selection at Durfee High School in Fall River, Mass.
“You have to have that,” Herren said about his energy, “because for one thing, I think the kids understand the honesty piece. They get that I’m here to tell them the truth and I think that’s what they can identify with.”
Herren’s story is well-known and has been documented in two books, Fall River Dreams, which follows Herren and the Durfee High boys’ basketball team during the Hilltoppers’ 1992-93 campaign, Herren’s junior year, and Basketball Junkie, a memoir about Herren’s basketball career and rise, fall, and rise again in life.
His problems with cocaine began in 1994 during his freshman year at Boston College and continued upon his transfer the following year to Fresno State. After turning pro with the Denver Nuggets in ’99, he began using Oxycontin and heroin during his 2000-01 season with the Celts and the following seasons he spent in Turkey, China, Poland, and Iran.
After his pro career ended in the fall of 2006, Herren continued to struggle with substance abuse, but he eventually received help and found sobriety on Aug. 1, 2008. “It’s been 4½ years now,” he told everyone, “a pretty amazing feat from where I came from.”
Herren, who at the beginning of his speech, noted that his goal was “to make a difference in one kid’s life,” didn’t delve much into his playing career, but chose to talk more about some of his experiences speaking at other schools and the challenges that students face today.
One point he hammered on multiple occasions to the students was a question asking them why they would have a need to use alcohol and drugs with their friends.
“When you leave here, ask yourself, ‘What it is about myself that I don’t like?’” he said. “‘Why is it that I can’t be myself on a Friday or Saturday night? Do I need to be prettier, tougher, stronger?’ It took me until I was 32 to figure that out.”
When it came to fielding questions from the students, of the dozen or so that were fired at Herren, the best may have been one of the last presented to him. If there was one thing he wanted the students to absorb from his talk with them, what would it be?
“That’s a good question,” he added, before pausing to add, “You have to believe that this can happen to you. I want to inspire kids to share their struggles, because in sharing your struggles, you will find strength and help yourself and others.”