Ex-NBA player shares tale of redemption

by Samuel Evers / Beacon Staff • January 28, 2015

Chris Herren, a former NBA player, spoke to the athlete community on Jan. 22.
Chris Herren, a former NBA player, spoke to the athlete community on Jan. 22.

Though former NBA player Chris Herren makes the same speech a few hundred times a year, his story of intense drug addiction and eventual redemption still comes across as chilling and genuine. 

“He came and spoke while I was the AD at Southern Connecticut State,” said Patricia Nicol, Emerson’s athletic director. “The power of his story made the kids so quiet you could hear a pin drop.”

Student-athletes at Emerson, too, were gripped by his speech at the Semel Theatre in the Tufte Center on Jan. 22. He visited Emerson as part of his nationwide lecture series, called Rebound: The Chris Herren Story. Herren’s journey has also been featured as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series. 

“He spoke to us in a way that a lot of people don’t have the guts to,” said Steve Cameron, a junior visual and media arts major on the baseball team. “He was real to everyone in the room, and he really gave me a new perspective on how much of a gift life is.”

Though the event was open to all students, Nicol said it was mandatory for athletes because she felt it was important for them to hear Herren’s message.

“Oftentimes, when an event is optional, one does not understand or consider it a prioritized initiative,” Nicol wrote in an email to the Beacon.

Nicol said she plans to have similar mandatory events for the student-athlete body at least once a year in the future.

Herren, a native of Fall River, Massachusetts, grew up a local hero as a basketball star. At Durfee High school in his hometown, he broke virtually every basketball record and was recruited by some of the country’s best-known college basketball programs. 

He chose to play basketball at Boston College but developed a cocaine addiction shortly after his enrollment in Fall 1995. Herren played in only one game at BC before failing several drug tests and losing his athletic scholarship.

Herren’s life took many erratic turns. He competed in the NBA between 1999 and 2001—including one year on the Boston Celtics—before moving to Europe to continue playing basketball professionally. He bounced from team to team in four different countries, remaining addicted to drugs throughout. 

“I was making $100,000 a month playing in Italy,” Herren told a group of about 200 student-athletes in the Semel. “But about $25,000 of that was going to oxys and heroin.” 

By the time he was 30, Herren had overdosed twice and hit what he considered rock bottom. Now 39, Herren has been sober since August of 2008—about 6 1/2 years—and has reinvented himself as a public speaker. He has shared his story of substance abuse and recovery with high school and college teams across the country.

In his speech at Emerson, Herren was forthright about his mindset as a drug addict and his regrets. He emphasized the importance of finding help for teammates in need.

His lecture cost the college $5,000, according to Nicol.

Junior Malcolm Kelner, a member of the baseball team, said it was important to hear about the dangers that athletes face.

“I think a lot of student-athletes have the mentality that they’re invincible, that they can do things normal students don’t think are all right,” said Kelner. “To hear his story firsthand was incredibly powerful.”

Herren ended his speech with one final message.

“If I changed one person’s life in here, or made one person reconsider some bad choices they’ve made,” he said, “then I’ve done my job.”