Slam Dunkin' Sobriety: The NBA's Chris Herren Speaks Out
Clean and sober since 2008, former Boston Celtics star tells The Fix about the extremes of his addiction to Oxy and heroin, and the joys of an honest paycheck.
Many professional athletes who experience drug problems do so once they retire, but Chris Herren was an addict at the peak of his playing career. After racking up more than 2,000 points during his high school basketball days, he was touted in Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated as a “can’t miss” future NBA superstar. But after being introduced to cocaine during his freshman year at Boston College, he began to play most of his nationally televised games under the influence—and failed numerous drug tests.
Despite this, he was still a star college athlete and competed in the NBA from 1999-2001. But his drug use escalated to a crippling $25,000 per month Oxycontin habit, and later to heroin. With his addiction eventually robbing him of his playing career, Herren nearly died from a drug-induced car crash and began contemplating suicide. He then went to rehab and has been sober since August 1, 2008. Herren, now 37, speaks at schools and corporate events throughout the country about his life experiences and leads several anti-drug initiatives.
You’ve previously talked about partying for two or three days and then playing games on an hour of sleep. How were you able to sustain that lifestyle and not have it affect your performance?
Figuring that out is the baffling part of this process. Although I had no sleep and was under the influence, I needed to deliver on the court in order to not get caught and let anyone know I was using. When there were accusations or chatter about what my lifestyle was like, I would score 30 points and it would quiet that noise. People would think that there was no way I could be on anything and produce results like that.
When you were eventually given Oxycontin, was that injury-related or for recreational use?
It was purely recreational. In high school, we might have been able to get hold of Vicodin or Percocet if someone had their wisdom teeth removed or a parent blew their back out. When I was 22, I had just bought a house and was throwing a party there when a buddy gave me a 40 milligram pill of Oxy. I put it in my mouth and before you knew it, I had a 1,600 milligram per day habit that was costing me $25,000 a month. Eventually, I switched over to heroin. There was one day my dealer wasn’t going to be available for a few hours and I was sick, so I bought that to hold me over and the rest is history.
My career was having the same progression as my drug addiction: fast and right to the bottom.
When you started playing for basketball teams internationally, was it any more or less challenging to score drugs?
It’s a universal language when you point to your veins. There was obviously a trust issue at first in those countries and they had to know me before they would sell it. Eventually, I could just show the dealers my track-marks. The thing about pro basketball in European and Asian countries is that they don’t ever see you face-to-face; they sign you solely off your tapes. I’d get there and then they would see I had a drug problem before sending me home after two or three months.
How did you still manage to get contracts after a certain point, though? Wouldn’t you have developed a reputation?
I did, but then you start to sign contracts for $10,000 a month instead of $50,000. You go play in the countries that nobody wants to be in. I ended up copping drugs while playing in Tehran, Iran. My career was having the same progression as my drug addiction: fast and right to the bottom.
Did it ever get to the point where your drug use prevented you from playing professionally anywhere?
Eventually, my life was in total shambles. I couldn’t work and was stealing anything of any value to get high. I’d put my two kids on the school bus and go to the liquor store to buy two pints of vodka, fill up my pack of cigarettes with poke-outs at the convenience store, and sit home and smoke and drink. My dealer called one day and said he would give me four free bags of this heroin he wanted me to try. I took it and don’t remember driving afterwards, but I crashed into a cemetery fence. When the police showed up, I was unconscious and had a needle in my arm. They rushed me to the hospital and I was pronounced dead for 30 seconds, but eventually came to. The hospital tossed me out as soon as they could though because they didn’t have any room for junkies. I was going to blow my brains out if it weren’t for a nurse who was kind enough to follow me outside and ask me to come back in. I ended up staying for three days.
Was that experience what made you decide to go to rehab?
Chris Mullin, who I played in the NBA with, eventually called and said he would set me up for six months at the Daytop rehab clinic in upstate New York, if I wanted to take it. After 35 days there, my wife called and said she was going to go into labor. I left the facility against everyone’s advice, but I thought I could handle it. Four hours after getting off the plane, I was shooting dope. When my wife saw the state I was in, she told me not to come back. My counselor actually told me to call my wife and not only tell her that I wasn’t going to come back, but have her tell my kids that I was dead. He said, “Play dead for your children and let them live. That’s the best thing you can do.” At 32 years old, that made a whole lot of sense. Maybe I should just disappear and not let them deal with addiction in their home. But a couple of days later, I started praying and something finally clicked inside me. I finished treatment and I’ve been sober ever since by the grace of God.
When you started taking regular jobs after your basketball career—like working as a repo man—what was that experience like?
It was beautiful. That was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had and the least amount of money I’ve ever made. I won battles day in and day out, went to meetings and pulled into my driveway every night. From the age of 28 to 32, I made no money and all I did was steal and take. To come home with a hard earned check and hand it over to my wife to make her feel more comfortable is something you can’t beat.
What are some of the projects you’re working on now?
I’m working on an anti-substance use campaign geared towards kids—Project Purple—which is about creating sober cultures for kids in schools. We’ve gotten 100,000 kids to take part in it so far. I also created the Herren Project, which is a foundation I started to pay for people’s drug treatment. The Mullin family picked up the phone and paid my bills, so my mission is to do the same because a lot of people can’t afford to spend $30,000 on treatment. I also speak about my life experiences at schools and events across the country.
Do you mainly talk about your past issues with drugs at these speaking engagements?
It varies on the audience, but I hold true to what I believe in. I spoke at a corporate event where everyone was drinking and the guy running it told me to change my message up. That wasn’t in the contract and I thought someone in the audience might really need to hear what I had planned to say, so I gave it to them as cold as I could. When I walked out, this guy in a three-piece suit came after me and said he had been smoking crack for the last four hours. We walked out together and he smashed his glass pipe to the ground, looked me at said, “I needed to hear that. Thank you.” That’s why I do this.
McCarton Ackerman is a regular contributor to The Fix. His last interview was with Jake the Snake Roberts.