Former NBA player Chris Herren gave a moving talk about the dangers of substance abuse on Thursday evening at Lehighton Area High School Auditorium.
"I can remember sitting in on drug talks like this one and always thinking, 'That will never be me,'" said Herren. "Well, I'm here to tell you that it can happen to anyone – from any family. I don't care who your parents are or where you live."
He emphasized the importance of open lines of communication between parents and children.
Herren shared with the crowd of all ages from throughout the area his heart-wrenching personal story of how he had the world in the palm of his hand – and the drugs and alcohol took it away from him.
His battles with substance abuse are the subject of ESPN's Emmy-nominated documentary "Unguarded." The film covers his rise, fall, and redemption both on and off the court.
Herren was a central figure in Providence Journal columnist Bill Reynolds' book about the Fall River, Massachusetts Durfee High School basketball team's 1992-93 season entitled "Fall River Dreams." A member of the McDonald's All-American Basketball Team, he was ranked the ninth best player in the nation.
Starting his collegiate career at nearby Boston College, Herren was told to leave after his third failed drug test. He went on to play for Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State team who told him, "I'm a fan of second chances." Herren averaged 18 points a game during his sophomore season.
After college, Herren was selected by the Denver Nuggest in the second round of the 1999 NBA Draft. A 6'2" guard, he played for the Nuggets, the Boston Celtics under Rick Pitino, and the Dallas Mavericks before he "walked away from $800 million for 800 milligrams of oxycontin."
According to Herren, his addiction started with "a little yellow $20 pill that turned into a $25,000 a month cocaine habit." Although he ran away to Europe to play professional basketball, Herren learned that we can't run away from our problems. His substance abuse only intensified. He lost all of his money, most of his possessions, almost his family, and eventually – almost his life.
After completing intensive rehabilitation programs, Herren has been drug-free since June 4, 2008 and sober since August 1, 2008. He credits 12 Step Recovery Program with saving his life. He has learned to let go and forgive himself. "That's what keeps me sober."
Unfortunately, Herren's story of a star athlete turned drug addict is not unique – but what he has done with that experience is. He hopes that some good can come out of his "dance with death." In June 2009, Herren launched Hoop Dreams with Chris Herren, Inc. – a basketball player development organization that mentors players of all ages and all skill levels both on and off the court.
In addition, he established the non-profit foundation The Herren Project in 2011 to assist individuals and families struggling with addiction. As a result of the popularity of his story, Herren is a much sought-after motivational speaker – having appeared before audiences as diverse as students, fellow athletes, and prisoners throughout the country.
As a tribute to a few brave students who attended one of his talks, The Herren Project encourages everyone to "Go purple" each year on April 24 in a showing of support to fight substance abuse.
Last year, Herren teamed with Reynolds to write his book entitled "Basketball Junkie: A Memoir."
Finally able to look himself in the eye in the mirror, Herren asked the crowd, "What is it about yourself that you want to change about yourself? What missing?" He continued, "You don't need drugs or alcohol to change who you are. You are perfect just the way you are."
"My wife is the superstar of this story – not me," admitted Herren. He and Heather have been sweethearts since the seventh grade. He credits her with keeping their family together – even when his children asked him at one of his lowest valleys, "How come you don't want to be our father anymore?"
During a very poignant question and answer period, Herren explained, "You're only as sick as your secrets." He revealed alcoholism and addiction are in his family.
After receiving a standing ovation for his presentation, Herren posed for photos and signed autographs.
LAHS Principal Tim Tkach summed up the evening, "We can't put our heads in the sand anymore. Our community, our county, our state, and our nation have a substance abuse problem. We've learned that a tragedy can happen in a split second. Unfortunately, we've been to too many funerals."
He continued, "If you think you need help, come and talk to us. We're all family – we're all human. Every single person is special!"
On Friday morning, Herren shared his powerful message with an assembly of all Lehighton Area School District students in grades eight through 12. School Board President Rocky Ahner said, "I think it's wonderful to have him here. He has an important message for everybody to hear – especially our students."
Herren's presentation at LAHS was a project of Lehighton Area Drug and Alcohol Task Force – which brings together schools, community, and local law enforcement in an effort to raise awareness of the dangers of substance abuse. The next task force meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, July 18 at 6:30 p.m. at LAHS.
"We are extremely pleased with the support of the school district, the Drug and Alcohol Task Force, and the community to come together and offer this event," said LAHS Assistant Principal Daniel Repsher. "Chris is a powerful speaker, delivering a message that is very important to our community."