A couple of people have asked me to post the column I did on Wednesday about Chris Herren’s visit. If you have not seen the ESPN documentary, ‘Unguarded’, find it and watch it with your entire family. One way or another, you will be moved.
By Mike Dougherty
SHRUB OAK — The man in business casual pacing the aisles of another assembly did not look the part.
Chris Herren was a high school basketball phenomenon who played with so much flash and promise in Fall River, Mass. He was a poster boy in college who got a second and third chance after one tragic line of cocaine off a Boston College dorm desk eventually led to four overdoses.
Each misstep has been chronicled in detail.
Herren somehow ascended to the NBA with all kinds of hoop dreams. He got to come home and play with the Boston Celtics but closed out a disappointing career overseas with a $25,000 a month Oxycontin habit.
And on June 4, 2008, at the age of 32, a worn-out Herren was found on the side of the road with a needle in his arm. He was flat broke, emotionally and physically wasted. Chris Mullin, a former NBA star in recovery, stepped in and paid for treatment at a facility in Rhinebeck.
It’s been five-plus years since the last setback.
Herren now travels around the country sharing the most candid details of a heartbreaking life story. Over the past four years, he’s given a sobering mea culpa to half a million high school students, praying to affect one kid at each stop. Herren talked courageously for 90 minutes at Lakeland High School on Wednesday.
Frankly, there were too many empty seats.
We have a problem here. The headlines remind us that our kids are dying from heroin overdoses and our friends are struggling with addiction.
“I think the news resonates,” Herren said. “Does it sustain? The way we’re set up today with news, it comes and goes. I think it’s shocking at first to some, but I think people forget. We can’t forget. The problem with addiction is people don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to address it. … We’re trying to change that and create a conversation. I walk into these assemblies and people say, ‘That’s not the guy. There’s no way that guy stuck needles in his arm for eight years.’ You know? There’s still that image in people’s mind that it can’t look like I do now, but we know better.”
The visit was arranged by Mark McGoldrick, who is working to gain approvals for a sober living center in Yorktown. Compass Westchester has negotiated the purchase of a large home on Underhill Avenue. The facility would provide an interim residence to help 14 adults who already have spent time at treatment centers transition back into a daily routine.
Yorktown’s Alliance for Safe Kids co-sponsored the event.
“There is an underserved group we are looking to help,” said Tom McCrossman, who is partnering with McGoldrick on the project and has seen from the perspective of a parent what addiction can do to a family. “This is not a prison … and time spent in a sober living residence increases the odds of recovery.”
Not everyone in the neighborhood is big on the idea.
“That house is a second chance,” said Herren, whose life is captured in the ESPN documentary “Unguarded.” “My kids have a father because of second chances.”
All of the anecdotes from assemblies past were enough to choke up a hardcore cynic, and this wasn’t just a pep talk for recovering addicts. He admits to being an insecure teen who latched onto the red Solo cup to look cool and is the best kind of advocate for kids who are having a hard time finding their way.
Herren is not a role model, but I promise he’s got more credibility than any just-say-no athlete.
“I’ve been able to change the angle to this,” Herren said. “I set them up with my story, but then I’m telling the kids I remember Friday and Saturday night, walking out of my house, knowing that if I didn’t change, I couldn’t go, knowing that if I didn’t drink a six-pack, if I didn’t smoke some weed, I could not mingle in that crowd. And kids get very uncomfortable with that. Some adults can’t go to weddings or functions without that. And I’m trying to inspire people to be themselves.”
He is old school all the way now, encouraging parents who fear the worst to employ drug testing. He is outspoken on the popular topic of legalizing marijuana.
“If marijuana is legal, all hell breaks loose because the weed stops helping and the pills start popping and the needle is next,” said Herren, who actually welcomes personal connections in each audience.
It would be foolish to believe Herren is going to stay clean and sober but he’s one addict worth rooting for. A standing ovation punctuated the evening. It should have been louder. Let’s hope there’s an encore in the future.