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Magazine / Q&A

Junk Shot

A former NBA player and drug addict makes Capitol Hill his court.

Lobbying for drug-treatment funds: Chris Herren

photo of Jim O'Sullivan
February 2, 2012

Not the typical Washington influence-seeker, Chris Herren nonetheless spent two days working the Hill last month, meeting with senators, representatives, and trade-association leaders.

Herren is a former National Basketball Association player and, by his own admission, a recovering addict who spent roughly 18 years bouncing from alcohol to cocaine to painkillers to heroin. It washed out his pro career and nearly cost him his life. When he crashed his car in his hometown of Fall River, Mass., police found him with a heroin needle in his arm. He was declared dead for 30 seconds.

Now, after eight-and-a-half months in treatment and nearly four years clean, Herren runs his own youth basketball development program; stumps for his excruciatingly candid memoir, Basketball Junkie; and plans to become a more regular presence in Washington to advocate for increased funding for drug treatment and recovery.

 

In his free time, he speaks at high schools, primarily in New England, where he remains a high-school hoops legend. After his talk at one school, a 15-year-old girl with “a backpack that weighed more than her” approached him and handed him a Poland Spring bottle filled with vodka and a handful of pills; she then asked him to get rid of them for her. “Listening to me made her sick to her stomach. To me, right there, that is what it’s all about,” Herren says.

Speaking at Durfee High School, his alma mater in Fall River where he launched a career that peaked with a year playing for the Boston Celtics, Herren says, “I walk in, there’s 2,000 kids there. Right behind me is my banner that says, ‘2,000-point scorer’ and I say to myself, ‘Would it be better for me to come back here as a 10-year, retired Celtic, [having] won an NBA Finals and told my story? Or is it better for me to come back and tell this one?’ Because the last time I checked, there was only one f—ing NBA player that ever played at Durfee High School, and there’s been a ton of drug addicts and alcoholics. So, for me, doing this is way heavier and much more meaningful.”

Herren spoke recently with National Journal. Edited excerpts follow.

NJ How do you describe the path you’ve traveled?

Herren One day at a time, things changed for me. Doors opened and opportunities kept coming. Through recovery programs and through sponsors, I leaned on people to make the right decisions throughout this process.

“I think it’s inhumane that people don’t get treated.”

I remember, I was nine months sober, and I got a phone call to go back overseas and play [pro ball]. I was, at the time, a repo man with this sober tow-truck company, and I said no. I said no. I was making $25 a car. Some nights I’d make $200, some nights I’d make zero—with three kids. But I just knew that was where I was supposed to be.

I would never have imagined that today it would’ve come this far. I would have sold myself short if I would have wrote my goals down on paper. 

NJ What’s the best way to translate that for a member of Congress?

Herren I’m in a position, because of what I’ve done in my life and what I’ve been able to accomplish—levels of success—that maybe they will hear me and get my message, which is to encourage treatment, to encourage them to give back to the treatment community.

Because, without treatment, I wouldn’t be here today. I am here because of random acts of kindness, people extending their hand to me, saying, “I’ll give you a chance to come into my facility.” Like Gosnold [on Cape Cod] or Daytop [Village, in New York]. If it wasn’t for those two facilities, saying, “Come on in,” I wouldn’t be in this office. I wouldn’t be a dad. I mean, let’s keep it simple. 

NJ And what are you asking for while you’re in Washington?

Herren I think they can get on board with more funding. I think they can raise more awareness. I think they can get more people involved in it. To me, and I said this earlier, my mom passed away of cancer; there’s [a variety of ribbon] colors for cancer—why can’t there be a color for addiction?

I think it’s inhumane that people don’t get treated. I think it’s inhumane that people walk into a treatment center after 10 years of putting a needle in their arm, and they’re expected to get sober in four days. I don’t think that’s right, and I think it needs to be addressed. And how is it addressed? It’s addressed by treatment and offering more services for people to get their life back.

In today’s day and age, it’s going to get worse. I didn’t grow up with Adderall, and Ritalin, and OxyContin on the streets. Kids are getting hooked in seconds. It wasn’t around for me. I can say this from my perspective: It’s criminal. We’ve gotten away with Vicodin, Tylenol, codeine, and Percocet for a hundred years. Why all of a sudden are there all these new drugs for pain? OxyContin, stuff like that, there’s no need for it—and it’s killing kids.

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