Chris Herren Moves Audience at WHS
By Eugenia Moskowitz
The sophomores and juniors in the packed Washingtonville High School auditorium wiped away tears on Nov. 15 during a special presentation on drug use and its impact on one man’s life given by Chris Herren, the subject of the ESPN short documentary “Unguarded,” which was shown to the student just before the talk.
Herren was a high school basketball player from Fall River, Mass., who in the 1990s carried the hopes and dreams of his working-class town on his shoulders. Featured in Sports Illustrated, he went to Fresno State University at the same at the same time he was also in the newspapers for cocaine use. HIs drug use escalated even while his athleticism rose, which to him justified the drugs even though he knew professional recruiters would see him as high-risk. By age 21 he attended his first rehab and then went back to Fresno State, watched like a hawk by his coaches. “But no matter how much they watched me,” he said, “it was me who wasn’t watching me, it was me who still needed ‘that something’ to make me what I thought I wasn’t, not just in basketball but in life. Something in me was, I felt, missing.”
Drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 1999, he started taking OxyContin, a highly-addictive prescription painkiller, after sustaining a leg injury. After his rookie season, he was traded to the Boston Celtics. With a wife and small child, he now had achieved his lifelong dream of having a family and playing in the NBA in his home state. “But even while I was playing great ball and in all the sports headlines, there I was,” he said, “sweating on the street corner waiting for my dealer and my fix. I didn’t just blow all my money, I blew the hopes of my family and everyone that helped me go from that little mill-town to the NBA.”
While parents see sports as a healthy activity for kids, Herren has said it not only builds but also reveals character. “Parents have to remember that the measure of a child can’t be taken by wins and losses but by self-worth.”
He moved on to shooting heroin. With four overdoses, multiple car accidents and police arrests, and seven felonies on his record, he overdosed one last time behind the wheel and crashed. Dead for 30 seconds and revived by paramedics, his basketball career was over. “I remember walking into my high school assembly when I was your age,” he said, “and thinking this is a joke, I’ll never be that guy. But my story is that guy, and this assembly is about you.”
Drug-free since 2008, still married and now with three children, Herren has refocused his life and shares his personal story about drug abuse and recovery with sports teams and at colleges and high schools everywhere, speaking straight from the heart, without notes. For those students too shy to ask questions, he said he answers personal emails not just about drug use but also about self-harm, such as “cutting,” and online bullying. He urged people who have been childhood friends to watch out for each other and, if necessary, say, “Hey, you’ve changed, you’re not who you were and I’m calling you out.”
“But in the end, it’s you who has to call yourself out,” he said. “Look around, if you’re doing drugs you know there are kids you don’t hang with anymore because you get high and they don’t. You cut off friends you had when you were little because they have that special thing you don’t: they don’t need drugs to do things like go to games and homecoming and prom, they have self-esteem and confidence. I didn’t. Being ‘me’ never seemed enough.”
Many students asked questions, made statements about themselves, and showed no fear of speaking up about this intense subject matter. Frequently asked if he ever feels like getting high again, Herren answers, “Only when I don’t want to be me. Not being me comes before getting high. Ask yourself what it is about you that you think is missing that makes you want to be someone else.” Then tackle that, he said, instead of turning to drugs.
He left the audience of visibly moved teens with a final thought. “I’m here to say you don’t need anything extra. That cool guy? That’s not the drugs. That cool guy is you.”
For more, read “Fall River Dreams” by Bill Reynolds and “Basketball Junkie: A Memoir” by Reynolds and Herren.
CAPTION: Chris Herren speaking about the effects drug use had on his life and basketball career to students at Washingtonville High School. (Photo by Eugenia Moskowitz)