That was the overarching message of Chris Herren’s emotionally charged, 90-minute presentation at Cousens Gym on Tuesday night. The audience, comprised mostly of Tufts athletes and coaches, hung on Herren’s every word as he shared his tragic life story of substance abuse, family neglect and a squandered NBA career — a nightmare he could have avoided had he not felt the need to change himself with drugs and alcohol.
“My whole life, I wanted to be a pro,” Herren said. “I just wish I was a pro at being me.”
The presentation began with a five-minute video interspersing Herren’s basketball career highlights with clips of his new career as a public speaker. By Herren’s own account, he gives 250 talks a year, sometimes speaking as often as 10-12 times per week.
“It’s a responsibility that I don’t take lightly,” the 39-year-old father of three said.
Sober since Aug. 1, 2008, the former NBA player and recovered drug addict has dedicated his life to traveling the country in the hopes of discouraging young athletes from using drugs and alcohol. Over the past five years, he has addressed nearly 1 million people, ranging from middle school students to Div. I college athletes to NFL players. His talks have inspired countless young people to turn their lives around and prevented several from committing suicide.
“I do this in the hopes that one kid will walk out of here tonight and say, ‘I want to be better,'” Herren explained. “I honestly believe I’m making a difference in their lives.”
Herren is living proof that no matter how terrible things get, it is always possible to get better. The onetime Boston Celtic nearly lost his life to heroin and OxyContin addiction. He overdosed four times, committed seven drug-related felonies and was temporarily homeless. He’s been in and out of rehab, attempted to kill himself at least twice, and was pronounced clinically dead for 30 seconds after overdosing and crashing his car into a cemetery fence. He’s disappointed his family, friends and teammates more times than he can count.
“I had failed at everything in my life,” Herren said. “I went from being my town’s biggest hero with the biggest dreams to being its biggest embarrassment and disappointment.”
Bringing Herren to Tufts was a collaborative effort by the Tufts Athletic Department, Department of Health Promotion and Prevention along with the Dean of Students Office. According to senior Carla Kruyff, co-captain of the women’s soccer team, the idea of having Herren talk at Tufts was originally proposed at a Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) Development meeting. After having Katie Hnida — the first female Div. I player football player — speak in the fall, SAAC sought another inspirational figure for its speaker series.
“When Chris Herren’s name was brought up, there was a positive feedback from the group, and his story of fighting addiction seemed particularly inspiring,” Kruyff said. “A member who had heard him speak before had incredibly positive things to say about his presentation, and his message fit the theme of ‘wellness’ that NESCAC schools are working with this year.”
Gracie Marshall, a senior tri-captain of the softball team, followed up by reaching out to Herren’s people to get a rough estimate of his price. Although it was determined to be outside the SAAC’s budget, collaboration between different departments raised the necessary funds.
“The departments … agreed that the topic of overcoming substance abuse was one that should be addressed to college students,” Kruyff explained. “We all hoped that Chris Herren’s story was one that everyone could learn something from.”
Herren’s tragic story is an important one for college students to hear. Drug and alcohol abuse is common on college campuses, where students develop hard-to-break habits.
“We wanted students to make sure they were leading healthy lifestyles first and foremost,” Kruyff said. “We wanted students to know they can ask for help if they need to and to know that there are resources available. If there are students that are struggling through substance abuse, Chris Herren’s story of recovery gives them something to identify with or at the very least reminds those students that they are not alone.”
Tufts Fan the Fire helped promote the event, which was free and open to the public. Based on the positive reactions of those in attendance, Herren’s presentation was a tremendous success.
“That was really good,” Steve Howard, a senior, said. “By far the best speech I’ve ever heard.”
Herren’s life has been the subject of ESPN’s Emmy-nominated documentary “Unguarded” (2011). He has also co-authored a memoir entitled “Basketball Junkie” (2011) with Bill Reynolds, who covered Herren’s junior year at Durfee High School in an earlier book, “Fall River Dreams” (1994).