HAVERHILL — Chris Herren thought his calling was basketball.
The former Durfee High sensation scored 2,000 points and was named Massachusetts Player of the Year three times.
“I loved scoring. I loved winning. I loved hitting the winning shot,” said Herren, who spoke at an assembly at Haverhill High yesterday about the travails of rampant drug abuse.
“But you want to know what the biggest high for me in my life is, even better than a basketball game?” said Herren. “It’s when I get a text like the one I got recently from a girl who said she and her boyfriend were contemplating suicide, and they had the vodka, the pills and the suicide notes with them at the assembly. But after hearing me speak they decided against it and both got help. There is not a better feeling in the world.”
Herren speaks nationwide 20 to 30 times a month on behalf of “The Herren Project,” with a Website stating, “Reaching one person, one family at a time.”
His personal story and quest to help others was recently captured by ESPN’s highly acclaimed “30 for 30” documentaries.
The Fall River native and ex-basketball sensation attended Boston College, but was suspended for testing positive for cocaine. He later transferred to Fresno State and the drug use escalated. He played two years in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics, but heroin and oxycontin ended those dreams.
For seven more years, the story got worse until after one drug and alcohol binge, which came after the birth of his fourth child and after being sober for a month, his then 9-year-old son said “Don’t ever say you’re sorry any more.”
The next day, Aug. 1, 2008, he returned to rehab, and he’s been drug and alcohol free ever since.
Herren says at many of his assemblies, a boy or girl, captivated by his words, publicly pledges to stop drinking and/or doing drugs.
That happened at Haverhill High yesterday.
“I drink and I smoke (marijuana), even though my parents tell me not to,” said a junior boy sitting two rows from the front. “I’m not going to drink or smoke anymore. I don’t want to do it any more.”
Herren says it’s responses from young people like that one that keep him traveling around the country for 20 to 25 appearances a month.
“Stand up!” Herren shouted as he walked over and hugged the boy amid huge applause. “Now that’s courage. That’s being tough. Wow ... I love it!”
Herren, who is still married to his wife, Heather -- “We’ve been together since seventh grade and she’s my best friend,” he said -- says his family now gets his undivided attention.
“Honestly, little Chris has been through a lot,” said Herren. “He’s seen me at my worst. He understands. I pray to God every day that he is strong enough to love himself. That’s really what this is about, kids drinking or taking drugs because they are trying to be someone else. Why? You are perfect.”
Herren says one misnomer about his talks with high schoolers is that it is tailored towards athletes.
“Wrong! The strange thing is I believe I connect better with the kids with pink hair and blue hair,” said Herren. “They are the ones who, in the end, get this message the best.”
Herren was in New Jersey and Connecticut on Tuesday and Haverhill yesterday. He flew out to Madison, Wisconsin last night for a speaking engagement today.
He was asked if he still as the urge, almost five years since turning sober, to take drugs again.
“Honestly, sometimes I have the urge to not be me,” said Herren. “If that happens, I call someone and talk about it. Once you’re an addict, it’s not easy. I just thank God when I go to bed that I spent another day sober ... And then I get up and sometimes I get to talk to young people about my mistakes. There is pressure that goes with that, having to hear so many stories, but I love doing it.”
"The strange thing is I believe I connect better with the kids with pink hair and blue hair." Former NBA player Chris Herren