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Changing of a guard

Finally clean and sober, Herren ready to embrace his post-basketball life

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / May 31, 2009

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The 33-year-old's hopes of returning to the NBA or playing pro basketball anywhere in world are now basically dead. With his Massachusetts driver's license expected to be suspended soon, the Fall River hoop legend had to give up his job repossessing cars recently and is seeking employment in tough economic times. And the ex-Celtics point guard also has a wife and three kids to support.

But considering the long fight that a now-sober Chris Herren is winning over alcohol and drugs, his current issues are far from the end of the world.

"I've been to hell and back," said Herren. "I lived the life that most people, a lot of people, don't get a chance to come out of, straight up. By the grace of God and the help from a plethora of people, I was able to come out of this.

"My financial situation is today. For today, it's fine. Am I comfortable and happy with it? Do I aspire for more? Absolutely. But like I said, from where I've been, it's a lot better."

Herren's hard fall from hoop legend to addict started when he was at Durfee High School in Fall River.

He averaged 27 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists as a senior in the 1993-94 season. The 1994 Massachusetts Player of the Year once scored 63 points - still a record - in an AAU game for the Boston Amateur Basketball Club.

Herren, a 6-foot-3-inch combo guard, was a McDonald's All-American and the focus of a book, "Fall River Dreams." He was featured in Sports Illustrated and mentioned in the same breath as prized Georgetown recruit Allen Iverson.

Through it all, Herren lived in a family that he says wasn't "Leave It To Beaver," but wasn't bad, either.

Celtics assistant executive director of basketball operations Leo Papile, who coached Herren with the BABC, said, "At his position in that era, in 1993 and 1994, there was no one better in the nation in high school as a combo guard. He could run a team, tough as nails, shoot the long ball, he had great instincts and feel for the game. He could run pick-and-rolls. He had an NBA résumé."

Said Herren, "What do you think your ego is going to be when you're a McDonald's All-American and you're in Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone magazine and you have a book written about you? Your ego can go a lot of ways."

Herren opted to go 35 miles up Route 24, signing a letter-of-intent with Boston College. But his Eagles career ended shortly after it started as he suffered a season-ending broken wrist in his debut against Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo Nov. 25, 1994.

"BC was a good idea," said Papile. "But when he got hurt, it went up in smoke."

Herren partied hard and began using cocaine. His academics suffered. A substance-abuse counselor, who requested anonymity, said Herren's father approached him about helping his son with his drug problem. After three visits, Herren stopped meeting with the counselor, one whom he would cross paths with again 14 years later.

"The one thing that struck me about him when I met him, and this is not for everyone, but I liked him," the counselor said. "He was positive even when he fired me. He said, 'You're good at what you do.'

"He had no interest in pursuing counseling. That's typical with addiction."

Said Herren, "At 19 years old, I had the blinders on and I wasn't really looking for support, help."

After academic troubles and a failed drug test, Herren decided in April 1995 to transfer. Looking back, he wishes he had stayed in Chestnut Hill.

"Today, as an adult and a grown man, you value things a lot differently," Herren said. "You become a little wiser. The education you receive at Boston College is like no other, the network, the people you deal with."

Herren's next move was 3,000 miles west to play for renowned coach Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State. After sitting out a season, Herren was eligible to play as a sophomore in 1996-97. Tarkanian believed Herren was one of the most talented guards he ever coached - even better than his Bulldogs teammate, Rafer Alston, now with the Orlando Magic. But the focus to become great wasn't there for Herren.

"He was very talented, no question about it," Tarkanian said. "He had great guard speed. He was a quick guard. He was better than Rafer at that time. But Rafer was the first one in the gym and the last one out. Chris had other things he was interested in."

One of Herren's most memorable games was when he scored 19 points in 30 minutes against the University of Massachusetts on Nov. 22, 1997. Three days later, he held a teary-eyed press conference in which he admitted to having an alcohol and drug problem. On Nov. 28, Herren departed for a three-week stint at a rehabilitation clinic in Utah.

Tarkanian said he had no clue about Herren's alcohol and drug problem, but he said Herren often had friends in town from Fall River, and they might have been a bad influence.

"I was shocked when he tested positive for drugs and had to leave the team," Tarkanian said. "After the UMass game, his father and grandfather were so happy. The following day, he tested positive. I was shocked. I was disappointed."

Said Herren, "I'd be partying for two or three days, then walk in to play UMass on an hour sleep on national TV."

New teams, new drugs
Herren averaged 7.2 assists a game, second in the nation, during his senior year at Fresno State, as well as 11.4 points. Prior to the 1999 NBA draft, Suns guard Steve Nash, who was a friend of Herren, approached then-Pacers forward Chris Mullin about helping Herren with his off-the-court problems. Mullin, who had overcome alcoholism himself, obliged. Herren spent time with Mullin in Indianapolis working out and talking about his off-the-court struggles.

"He stayed in Indiana for a few days," said Mullin. "He got to meet my wife. He kind of got to meet the family. He ate meals with us. We shared some things. My wife knew who he was before and liked him. How many times does someone hand you a card and you don't call? We stayed in contact here and there after that."

With the off-court issues hanging over him, Herren fell to the second round and was selected 33d overall by the Denver Nuggets. He averaged 3.1 points and 2.5 assists while shooting 35.8 percent from 3-point range as a rookie in 45 games during the 1999-2000 season.

Herren seemed to be on the right path in Denver until he was introduced to the pain-relieving drug OxyContin.

"If you look at those pills, they're the size of an Advil and they come in pink, yellow, green, blue," Herren said. "How could these things harm you? How could they cause such destruction? But the pain that those little pills bring, I wouldn't wish that on anybody.

"And from that point, when I got traded, I didn't play many games sober. And if I was sober, I wasn't feeling good."

The Nuggets traded Herren and Bryant Stith to the Celtics for Calbert Cheaney and Robert Pack on Oct. 16, 2000. In his last NBA season, 2000-01, Herren averaged 3.3 points and 2.2 assists. The Celtics cut him Oct. 28, 2001, to sign veteran guard Erick Strickland.

Playing career ends
With his addiction to OxyContin in full swing, Herren became a journeyman player, making stops in Italy, Turkey, China, and Germany. He thought he could hide his problem overseas, but it got worse, and he says he began using heroin in 2004. He was even put in jail in China after being arrested in a bar fight.

His wife, Heather, never saw her husband do drugs, but she knew something was wrong as money issues cropped up. She began realizing her husband had a problem while he was playing in Turkey during the 2001-02 season, but she admitted she had a "lot of denial."

"When we got back from Turkey, I realized it was a big issue," she said. "It was a big, big issue that I never fathomed. I didn't know a lot about addiction."

Herren's playing career ended in December 2004 after he was cut by the Dakota Wizards of the Continental Basketball Association following an arrest in Portsmouth, R.I. Police found him unconscious at a Dunkin' Donuts drive-thru with 18 packets containing heroin residue, along with drug paraphernalia.

Herren blames no one but himself for his drug problems.

"The reality is, I've lived in seven different foreign countries and six different American cities and I found drugs in all of them," Herren said. "So it's not where you live, it's the person that you're bringing there.

"I did plenty of geographical changes in my life, thinking, 'I'm going to go to Italy to get away.' But Chris Herren was still with Chris Herren at the end of the day."

Hours before the incident in Portsmouth, Papile said, he had a bad feeling about Herren after watching him work out at the Celtics' practice facility in Waltham.

"I smelled a rat," said Papile. "It's not good with this kid. He was always a hyper kid, always over the edge. But this time he was going too fast."

Big assist for Mullin
As odd as it sounds, Herren's life finally changed for the better on June 4, 2008, when he was still a heroin user and heavy vodka drinker. He was found unconscious over the wheel of his car after it crashed into a telephone pole in Fall River, with a bag of heroin on the passenger seat.

He was taken by ambulance to Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River for treatment and turned to his cellphone in hopes of finding someone to call for help.

"I looked at my phone and I had no friends left," Herren said. "All I had in my cell phone were people you don't call to be there when you need them except my brother's phone number and I was too ashamed to call my wife. I called my brother and told him what happened. Then I started crying.

"I was in the emergency room and this lady, her name was Mrs. Roy, she said, 'I know your mom. I was friends with your mom and we are going to get you some help because you don't need to be walking out of this emergency room by yourself and try to figure this out.' "

Upon his release four days later, Herren went to a nearby detoxification facility. Mullin and his wife, Liz, read about Herren's incident in a California newspaper and reached out to him. The Mullins sent Herren to a residential drug rehabilitation program in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where he was without outside contact from June through August of last year.

"People that go there, it's real, real hard-core," said Mullin. "Like a lot of things, it's nice for people to help each other. But doing that helped me. In life in general, the more you give away, the more you get back."

Said Papile, "Chris Mullin is a saint."

Through it all, Heather stayed by her husband's side.

"I remember being really scared," she said. "I know he was. I really didn't know what the future would hold. There were times when I'd had it. I didn't know if I'd continue to support him. We were both really scared.

"But [June 4, 2008] was a significant day," said Heather. "No more deceit. No more lies. It was needed for him to be fine."

Next up for Herren was a three-month stint at the Miller House, a 33-bed residential program housed in a Victorian manor in Falmouth. There Herren met up again with the counselor he turned down in 1994.

"I was pleased he was getting serious," the counselor said. "I've been doing this a long time. It's not a surprise to see someone from 15-20 years earlier. His story is not unusual except for his background. He pretty much lost everything except his wife."

The counselor said Herren was serious from the moment he got there and showed the kind of leadership he did in his days as a star point guard. Upon Herren's departure last November, many of the other patients were happy for him but sad to see him go.

"Miller House was the best thing I ever did," Herren said. "It gave me the confidence that I could go on in life."

"Nothing made me more happy than to hear the peace in his voice," said his wife.

'Out of the darkness'
Herren spent a month in a Falmouth halfway house before going back to his wife and three kids. He departed a new man, drug-free since the incident on June 4, 2008, and alcohol-free since Aug. 1, 2008. He attends a one-hour rehabilitation program daily and counsels people trying to overcome addiction. He hopes to start a basketball school for kids in the Portsmouth area.

"Today, I've done everything necessary to feel sober," Herren said. "That's how I look at it. Do wounds heal? Yes, absolutely. Do I feel the guilt, the shame, the resentment like I used to? Not even close. I'm much healthier today because I put the work in."

Said Heather, "We are both finally out of the darkness."

Before this year's playoffs, Papile and Celtics scout Austin Ainge invited Herren and his 10-year-old son, Christopher Jr., to a Celtics practice in Waltham. After rubbing elbows with Celtics Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Eddie House, and Stephon Marbury, Christopher went home with a wide smile and an autographed pair of Pierce Nikes, proud to be the son of a former Celtic.

"My son was on Cloud 9," Herren said. "For Paul to take the time out, for Ray to take the time out, for Stephon, Eddie House, for my son's sake . . .

"I don't need to validate anything. But for my kid growing up knowing that his father used to be a Celtic, and he had a chance to see that it was real. It wasn't just on the Internet and it wasn't just on trading cards.

"And when Paul handed him the shoes with, 'To lil' Chris,' when my son walked away, it was priceless. That's the thing. There are bad memories, real bad memories. But over the last year, there have been good ones."

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