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As his life and NBA career unraveled in the late 1990s, Chris Herren would, wearing his Boston Celtics warm-ups, hustle down to the player's parking lot to meet his drug dealer. Herren was a junkie, in need of a fix so bad that he marched directly to the locker room to get loaded on OxyContin. The rest of the time, Herren pumped heroin into his body.
Here was a New England kid with a chance to live out his childhood dream. Only, he never had a chance. Chris Herren was killing himself.
"If I didn't get my stuff, I was too sick to even go through the pregame layup line, never mind actually play in the game," Herren says. "That was the reality of my life. If they weren't there when they were supposed to be, I couldn't function."
As the dark and riveting pages of his new memoir, "Basketball Junkie," unfold, his final NBA days in Boston were nowhere near the bottom. As he chased heroin and crack cocaine in bus terminals and back alleys across failed pro stops in Turkey, Italy and Iran, he lost all his jobs, all his money and ended up dead for 30 seconds in the back of an ambulance.
In this basketball culture, plenty of people love a good white guard, and his talent kept getting him opportunities. Eventually, he drained his wife's bank accounts with a tens of thousands-a-month heroin addiction. He ended up back in his hometown, broke, life in freefall, shooting up with his own children fastened into car seats.
Basketball wasn't to blame for Herren spending most of his grown life as an addict, though the culture surrounding it on every level probably pushed it along. His wife, Heather, the hero of this story, of his life, watched the pressures consume Herren as a prodigy in the fading, factory town of Fall River, Mass. He became the subject of a book, "Fall River Dreams," a cult figure in his backyard and far beyond. Heather watched the joy of basketball sapped, replaced with burdens to carry the family basketball heritage and a town's dream. She watched him transform into someone cynical, entitled and empty. Finally, he stumbled into drinking and weed, cocaine and heroin at Boston College and Fresno State.
She watched him unable to handle the professional life with the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics, nor manage an overseas career in exotic European and last-chance Middle East locales.
"I think basketball was a vehicle to let the addiction go further than it might have someone else," Heather says. "It was a curse and a blessing. I always cringe when I hear people say that he had so many opportunities and he messed them all up. That's not what an addict thinks. Chris would've had these issues regardless, but he was never able to build coping skills to get through all the pressures from the beginning. As long as he had talent and people around him to tell him that he could get through life by playing basketball, he just kept going.
"Chris missed out on the things that I had as a kid: a job, a normal high school life. From an early age, Chris didn't have normal responsibilities and consequences. It made his fall even harder. He was a runaway train from the beginning, and basketball became something that prolonged the escape, prolonged a pseudo reality that wasn't the real world."
Heather and Chris were childhood sweethearts. She says the only way she ever could've stayed with him through those darkest years was because she had known him before basketball stardom. She knew the good heart, the gentle soul within him. When her own mother was dying, she asked Heather: Do you still have hope for him? She did, and she never left him.
"She's the hero of my story," Chris Herren says. "The hero of our family's story."
When Chris had returned to an in-treatment program in the Catskills of New York more than three years ago loaded, a counselor told him this: "Why don't you do the only noble thing you've ever done in your life and get away from your kids? Do them a favor and get the [expletive] out of their lives. Because you're like a ball and chain around their neck and they'll be better off without you."
Looking back, the moment changed everything for him. He stayed several months in rehab and slowly, surely put his life back together. He's been clean over three years, and running basketball workouts and leagues for young players in Rhode Island. Speaking to schools and teams about drug addiction has given him something he never had: a purpose in life.
Herren's forever chasing the source of his own issues with high school parents and coaches and kids, trying to get them in front of substance issues before they ever start. "I always want the kids coming in and out of my gym smiling, happy to be playing," Herren says. He should've lost his own family long ago, his own life, but somehow he made it. He laughs when he hears everyone talk about the basketball career he threw away, because he finally figured out that he ultimately saved the most important things of all.