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Jim Kenyon: No Longer a Basketball Junkie

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 10/26/2016 12:13:46 AM
Modified: 10/26/2016 12:16:20 AM

Chris Herren signed his first autographs in eighth grade. It made no difference to folks in his hardscrabble hometown of Fall River, Mass., that he had yet to play a high school basketball game.

He had greatness written all over him. And Herren didn’t disappoint. Not in the beginning, at least. In 1994, he was named the Massachusetts High School Player of the Year and a McDonald’s All-American.

With his pick of schools, Herren, a point guard, chose Boston College. By that time, however, the seeds of his troubles had already been planted.

“I started drinking my father’s beer at 14,” he said.

At 18, he tried cocaine. And took a liking to it. A string of failed drug tests ended his BC career after one year. That didn’t scare Jerry Tarkanian, a legendary coach known for taking chances on players with checkered backgrounds. At Fresno State, Herren scored 29 points against Duke on national television. In the 1999 NBA draft, the Denver Nuggets selected Herren in the second round, before trading him midway through the season to the Boston Celtics. But a $20,000-a-month drug habit is hard to hide. The Celtics released him in 2001.

By 2008, with his professional basketball career a distant memory, Herren had added prescription painkillers, crystal meth and heroin to his list of demons. In 2011, needing a title for his memoir, Herren didn’t have to think hard. Basketball Junkie fit perfectly. This past Sunday, Herren gave a sellout crowd of 200 at the Quechee Club an abbreviated version of his life story. Herren, 41, spoke at a benefit dinner for Hartford Dismas House, which provides men and women just out of prison with an affordable, supportive place to live while trying to get back on their feet. Nationally, about 70 percent of state prison inmates regularly used drugs before they were incarcerated, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

It was only by good fortune, as strange as that sounds, that Herren didn’t end up behind bars, or worse.

On June 4, 2008, after shooting four bags of heroin into his veins, Herren crashed his car into a cemetery fence. EMTs brought him back from the dead with naloxone, a miracle drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, if administered in time. It was Herren’s fourth overdose. Still handcuffed to a hospital bed, Herren received medical clearance to leave that night. A Fall River cop, who was a bit younger than Herren, removed the handcuffs and handed him a court summons.

“I just want you to know that when I was a kid, I looked up to you,” the officer said. “I made signs to take to your games.”

Herren thanked the cop for not making him spend the night in jail.

“Get some help,” the officer said.

“I promise.”

He’d broken so many promises to his family and friends over the years, what was one more to a stranger.

Before Herren reached the exit, a nurse stopped him. “I went to high school with your mother,” she said.

With him listening in, she called around to local substance abuse treatment centers. “His name is Chris Herren,” she started out. “He played for the Boston Celtics. He has no money, no insurance, and he’s a heroin addict.”

A week later, Chris Mullin, an NBA Hall-of-Famer who had battled alcoholism, and his wife, Liz, caught wind of Herren’s story. They offered to pay for a six-month stay at a New York rehab center.

Herren’s wife was eight months pregnant with the couple’s third child. After 30 days in rehab, and his wife in labor, he was allowed to return home for one night.

“I walked out of the hospital and saw a liquor store,” he said. “So I bought a pint of vodka.

Just one sip, he told himself. When the bottle was empty, Herren called his old dealer. “Thirty minutes later, I had a needle in my arm.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the rest of Herren’s story, just Google him. There’s also the ESPN documentary, Unguarded, that was nominated for two Emmys, or check out his private foundation called the Herren Project. It does good work. Herren makes more than 200 speaking appearances annually, visiting everywhere from college campuses to state prisons. Last week, the Boston Red Sox sent him to Florida to talk with minor leaguers playing in the fall instructional league.

He still finds time for Dismas House of Vermont. Sunday marked the fourth time he’s waived his speaking fee to help out the nonprofit organization. Founded 30 years ago by Rita McCaffrey, of Rutland, with a big assist from her husband, Frank, a retired state judge, Dismas operates four transitional homes in the state. The McCaffreys’ son, Jim, who played at Holy Cross in the 1980s, and Herren go back to their playground hoop days in Massachusetts. McCaffrey is now an investment banker in Boston.

“When I got sober, he reached out to me and asked me to do some speaking engagements,” Herren told me. “I think he did it to boost my confidence, and put a few bucks in my pocket.”

So Herren didn’t hesitate when McCaffrey asked him to make the 7-hour roundtrip drive on Sunday to help Hartford Dismas House raise $25,000 for heating oil and other expenses. Afterward, Herren hung around to sign a few autographs. “The autograph (seekers) went away for many years,” he said.

He’s happy to oblige. It’s nice to be known again as something other a basketball junkie.

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Jim Kenyon can be reached ay jkenyon@vnews.com.




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