“This assembly is about you, not me” – Chris Herren
Chris Herren is done telling you the “former Boston Celtic” part of his story. He’s finished telling you about his battles with alcoholism and drug addiction and how his story turned out. He wants to focus on your story. Or maybe it’s your son, daughter, brother, sister, cousin or friend who can use Chris’s story as an inspiration and a guide for looking inward.
Chris grew up a basketball phenom in Fall River, Massachusetts. He scored over 2,000 points and was a McDonald’s All-American in his four years at BMC Durfee High School while playing in an environment that he compares in football terms to Friday Night Lights. Winning was mandatory. He played college basketball first for Boston College and later transferred to Fresno State. His dream of playing professional basketball came true on June 30, 1999, when the Denver Nuggets selected him 33rd overall in the NBA draft.
After being traded to his hometown Boston Celtics the following season, Chris later played professional basketball in Italy, China, Turkey, Iran and Poland. Despite his successes on the court, a grueling battle with drug addiction and alcoholism eventually derailed his basketball career and almost claimed his life more than once. Since getting sober 13 years ago, Chris has spent the second act of his life helping others overcome similar struggles.
I became friends with Chris’s son, Chris Jr., in sixth grade. In 2012, a day before starting eighth grade, the Herrens and my family moved into houses on the same street, on the same day, and the rest is history. Today, Chris Jr. is one of my very best friends. Chris Sr. and his wife, Heather, routinely make the friends of their three kids feel at home and welcome at their house. They want to know what’s going on in your life and how your family is doing. They make sure everyone has eaten. If a big pay-per-view boxing match or UFC fight is on, they buy it for us. They never minded when kids would stay at their house for days on end. They understand all too well how important it is for kids to feel like they belong.
Over the years, Chris has made more of a name for himself as a speaker than he ever did as a basketball player. He’s spent his recovery from addiction sharing his story and message. He’s spoken in front of nearly everyone you can think of, from local high schools to every level of professional and college sports. He’s spoken at churches and treatment centers. He’s helped celebrity athletes like Lamar Odom and Johnny Manziel with their addiction battles. He’s seen a million faces and impacted them all in one way or another.
He certainly had no idea his story was going to turn out this way, and admits that in the beginning of his recovery, he never envisioned his current path. His story was eloquently told in a 2011 ESPN 30 for 30 feature documentary called, “Unguarded.” The film gave Chris an opening for the second act of his life.
“I’ll never be this public speaker booked out two years in advance,” he said, still in amazement over how the documentary changed everything. “You know, I’m not going to be presenting to the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks and Alabama football and the LA Kings. I would’ve laughed at you.”
But that’s his life today–sharing his story, listening to others tell their stories and helping people find their way out of the maze of addiction.
“‘Unguarded’ totally changed everybody’s life around me,” Chris tells me over the phone. “It had an unbelievably positive effect on all of us. It changed us. It put us in a totally different lifestyle, and that’s the power of ESPN and that’s the power of storytelling. I mean, it opened doors for me that continue to open.”
Indeed they do. In 2018, Chris and Heather co-founded Herren Wellness, a treatment center at the Jacob Hill Inn Estate in Seekonk, Massachusetts. It’s been such a success that a second location was opened in Fall River, and a third in Warrenton, Virginia. The success of the program has created unforeseen problems, but not bad problems necessarily.
“Most patients go through a 90-day program,” he said. “And, yeah, that’s good for business, but honestly, one of the problems we’ve actually faced is getting people to leave. They don’t want to leave.”
Even after rehabilitation, Herren Wellness patients feel forever connected. Tristan, a close personal friend of mine, had a recent battle with alcoholism, and after stays in multiple treatment centers, was finally successful at Herren Wellness. He, too, didn’t want to leave at the end of his stay.
“Chris, his wife Heather, and the people he wrapped around me through my recovery will be a part of my life forever,” Tristan told me via text. “The candid, ever-present compassion and empathy that Chris feels is contagious. The positive, life-changing decisions I make daily have some connection to what I’ve learned from him. My family, dear friends, and I will always be grateful!”
Chris credits much of this success to Herren Wellness being different from your average treatment center.
“Addiction just tears away your self esteem,” he said. “And that’s what we look to build back up. Recovery isn’t just about not doing drugs or drinking, it’s about the whole person. So we focus on the holistic approach with workout programs, personal trainers, hyperbaric chambers. There’s very much a physical and body aspect to it as well, so we really emphasize that.”
He also relates this to his experiences at treatment centers and how they failed to reach him personally.
“You know, when I got to treatment,” he said, “I was given a big blue book and told to read it and talk about it every day. And that’s not going to work for everybody. You know, not everyone is going to believe in the finding God part, because not everyone recovers that way.”
Today, Chris is mostly concerned about the first day of addiction that no one wants to talk about. Chris explains that focusing on what the end of addiction looks like will never help you see the full picture of someone’s struggle.
After speaking enough times and hearing enough stories in return – he presents roughly 250 times per year all across the country – Chris’s message has changed: we pay far too much attention to the worst day of addiction and not the first day.
“The First Day” is the title of his most recent film that first aired on ESPN and is now available for rental on thefirstdayfilm.com.
“Everybody wants to show pictures of drug addicts and tell stories about how ugly it was in the end instead of asking very simply, ‘why would you take a chance at letting this begin?’” he said. “And every kid out there takes a chance at letting it begin. The scary thing about addiction and alcoholism, nobody knows who has it. Growing up as a kid, when you’re drinking in somebody’s basement, you have no idea who’s going to be the one to struggle.”
This, according to Chris, is where the real sadness of addiction lies.
“There’s tragedy in that, the first day,” he said, “when a kid feels like they have to change themself in order to fit in.”
The first day, however, is only part of the equation. The other part is a one-word question about alcohol and drug use that so many parents fail to ask and discuss with their children.
“Parents never ask their kids why,” Chris said. “They want to know who they were with, where they were, who bought it, when they did it and what house or whatever. The only question that needs to be asked is ‘why?’ Parents won’t ask it because parents are afraid of the answer.”
The “why” is what Chris believes are the uncomfortable subjects that parents like to think don’t apply to their kids.
“And ‘why’ is the insecurities,” Chris said. “‘Why’ is ‘Dad, I just feel more at ease when I have four beers in my system.’ ‘Dad, I can talk to girls much easier when I have four beers in my system’… Nobody asks why, and ‘why?’ is the one that hurts. And ‘why?’ is the beginning. But parents are afraid to deal with those issues.”
Chris sees this as a vital issue with kids today. He worries about our nation’s ever-growing mental health crisis, especially in teenagers, and how it makes them more susceptible to substance abuse. That, along with the proliferation of drug and alcohol abuse in movies and TV shows, such as HBO’s “Euphoria,” and some of the conversation surrounding it, have contributed to those worries.
“You wouldn’t believe how many parents I have calling me about that show,” Chris said. “I have this famous person calling me about their kid and saying ‘my son thinks he’s a character on ‘Euphoria.’ Can you please talk some sense into him?’”
Chris’s why in his teenage years wasn’t what it is for most kids. He was the Durfee basketball phenom. He was playing under the shadow of his brother, Michael, a Durfee basketball legend. He had NBA potential. And he had thousands of people packing into gyms on Tuesday nights, not to watch Durfee or their opponent, but to watch him.
His two sons, both standout basketball players, have faced similar pressure. Chris Jr., now 23, faced constant, intense pressure in middle school, high school and college due to his NBA bloodline. The youngest Herren child, 13-year-old Drew, will enter high school next year poised for basketball stardom. For Chris Sr., the parental focus has never been what happens on the court, but about managing the pressure that comes with it.
“Christopher [Jr.] has gotten that the worst,” Chris said. “Drew and Chris [and Samantha] have the luxury I didn’t have of growing up in a household where someone will say, ‘Hey, are you feeling okay? You know, you have this immense pressure on you and how are you feeling about it?’”
He knows that no kid wants their parents constantly over their shoulder, criticizing their every move. Having played professionally, he understands that his expectations for his sons are inherently high, but learning how to control those expectations is something he says parents need to recognize.
“We’re father and son,” he says. “Not coach and player, and I’m not good at separating the two. And once I learned that, I think we’re all better off for it.”
When Chris Jr. was playing high school and college basketball, his father wasn’t often seen at his games for multiple reasons–one so he wouldn’t become the story, and so his presence wouldn’t add to an already high-pressure situation for his son. Between that and his travel schedule, if Big Chris was there, that meant it was a big game.
While we hear a lot about the horrors of heroin, fentanyl and other opioids, Chris said news about those substances takes the focus off the one that inflicts more harm than any other.
“What really does the most damage is actually alcohol,” he says. “It’s so much harder to make someone realize they have a problem because it’s everywhere. It’s legal. With heroin, merely doing it means you have a problem. It’s not that simple with booze. Alcohol has been given this amazing pass through the years, and it’s caused a lot of harm. It will slowly and methodically chip away at you. And, you know, nearly eight in 10 of the people at Herren Wellness are there for alcohol.”
Chris feels alcohol harmed his family during his childhood. Many of his first drinks were Miller Lites that he stole from his father, who, according to Chris, had a drinking problem.
“I hated drinking those fucking beers growing up because it tasted horrible,” he said, “and I could see what it was doing to my family, to my mother especially. But drinking those beers was my escape.”
Those Miller Lite cans were Chris’s beginning. When you ask him what his rock bottom was, he’ll go back to the beer cans, and he’ll refer to them as “the beginning of the bottom.” He believes that with more focus on moments like those and less focus on him losing his basketball career to addiction, the better we will begin to understand this disease. But Chris wants us to stop using the phrase “rock bottom,” because it diminishes everything that led up to that moment.
“The phrase ‘rock bottom’ kills people,” he says. “It’s the only illness that we face in this world that people wait until their loved ones get as sick as they can possibly get before they’re offered help.”
If you ask Chris what his journey has taught him, his answer is simple.
“Empathy,” he said. “To be caring, kind, empathetic toward people. To understand them and not judge by first impression or by looking at somebody. Because I think everyone has a struggle inside of them. And when you’re struggling, no matter how big or small, it’s always easier when you have someone to help you through it.”