I was dead for thirty seconds.
That's what the cop in Fall River told me.
When the EMTs found me, there was a needle in my arm and a packet of heroin in the front seat.
At basketball-crazy Durfee High School in Fall River, Massachusetts, junior guard Chris Herren carried his family's and the city's dreams on his skinny frame. His grandfather, father, and older brother had created their own sports legends in a declining city; he was the last, best hope for a career beyond the shuttered mills and factories. Herren was heavily recruited by major universities, chosen as a McDonald's All-American, featured in a Sports Illustrated cover story, and at just seventeen years old became the central figure in Fall River Dreams, an acclaimed book about the 1994 Durfee team's quest for the state championship.
Leaving Fall River for college, Herren starred on Jerry Tarkanian's Fresno State Bulldogs team of talented misfits, which included future NBA players as well as future convicted felons. His gritty, tattooed, hip-hop persona drew the ire of rival fans and more national attention: Rolling Stone profiled him, 60 Minutes interviewed him, and the Denver Nuggets drafted him. When the Boston Celtics acquired his contract, he lived the dream of every Massachusetts kid―but off the court Herren was secretly crumbling, as his alcohol and drug use escalated and his life spiraled out of control.
Twenty years later, Chris Herren was married to his high-school sweetheart, the father of three young children, and a heroin junkie. His basketball career was over, consumed by addictions; he had no job, no skills, and was a sadly familiar figure to those in Fall River who remembered him as a boy, now prowling the streets he once ruled, looking for a fix. One day, for a time he cannot remember, he would die.
In his own words, Chris Herren tells how he nearly lost everything and everyone he loved, and how he found a way back to life. Powerful, honest, and dramatic, Basketball Junkie is a remarkable memoir, harrowing in its descent, and heartening in its return.
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CHRIS HERREN is a former NBA basketball player for the Denver Nuggets and the Boston Celtics. His company, Hoop Dreams with Chris Herren, Inc., provides basketball training for young players as well as educational talks. He lives in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
Chris Herren is the founder of Hoop Dreams with Chris Herren, a basketball player development company; the author of Basketball Junkie; and a public speaker with the American Program Bureau.
BILL REYNOLDS is a sports columnist for The Providence Journal and the author of several previous books, including Fall River Dreams and (with Rick Pitino) the #1 New York Times bestseller Success Is a Choice. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I was dead for thirty seconds.
That’s what the cop in Fall River told me.
He said that two EMTs had brought me back to life.
“Just shut the fuck up,” he said when I started to say something. “You were almost dead.”
I was only a few blocks from where I had grown up, only a few blocks from B.M.C. Durfee High School, where there was a banner on the wall saying I was the highest scorer in Durfee history. I had gone off the street near the cemetery where Lizzie Borden was buried, Oak Grove. Maybe the worst thing was that I had just driven through Fall River for a couple of miles in a blackout, a ride I don’t remember to this day. When the EMTs found me there was a needle in my arm and a packet of heroin in the front seat.
It was only about two in the afternoon, but I had been going at it heavy since early in the morning. I had put my seven-year-old daughter, Samantha, in the car like I did every morning after my wife, Heather, went to work. We drove through the nice suburban neighborhood in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where we lived, and went to East Main Road, where the liquor store was. I bought a pint of Popov vodka, poured it into an empty water bottle, and started to drink. Then we went back home to wait for the bus that took Sammy to school.
By the time she was on the bus I had finished the pint, and I went back to the package store to get another one. Now I needed some money, so I drove to nearby Middletown, virtually on the Newport line, where Heather was working in a hotel. She had told me that morning that she would leave some money in the car for me. It was $40 under the mat in the front seat, and I started off to Fall River, about twenty minutes from my house, to meet one of my drug dealers. I gave him the $40, and he gave me five bags of heroin. I didn’t take heroin at night. I’d shoot up at four thirty in the afternoon, just before Heather got home, so sometimes in the morning I’d be starting to get sick and needed more.
This was my daily routine, had been for about eight months. Put Sammy on the bus, go to Fall River, do some dope, and get back in time for when Sammy and my nine-year-old son, Chris, came home on the bus. That was my life, the only way I could function.
Sometimes I couldn’t wait to put Sammy on the bus to go get my dope, because I was getting too sick, so I would put her in the backseat and speed to go meet a dealer in Fall River. I would make the buy and shoot up in the car while I was driving, Samantha still in the backseat.
How could I have done this?
People ask me that all the time. How could you shoot up with your daughter in the backseat? They can’t believe it. Not surprising. I can’t believe it either.
But that’s what I did.
People think that when you’re doing drugs you’re high all the time, out partying. They think you’re having fun. That’s not it at all. You’re not having fun. You’re in hell. Without the dope I would be “dope sick,” so sick that I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t even get up. I’d be in a fetal position. You have the sweats one minute, and you’re freezing cold the next. It’s like having the flu with restless legs, because you can’t control them. They’re kickin’ all over the place. You also can’t sleep more than fifteen minutes at a time. You wake up in the morning and there’s no blanket, no sheets, the mattress is sideways. And when it gets bad, you want to ram your head into the headboard.
With the dope I could function, if you want to call it that. I could drive a car. I could mow the lawn. I could be something of a husband, something of a father. When I pictured a heroin addict before I became one, I saw someone emaciated, someone nodding off. That wasn’t it with me, not in the beginning, anyway. I didn’t do it to get high. I did it to function. By the time I got to heroin I was so far gone on OxyContin that the dope became medicine, something that made me feel good enough to be able to get through a day.
But there had been three times in the four months leading up to the day I essentially died when I overdosed, became that guy nodding off, the stereotype of a junkie. Because I was getting worse. Once, I had left Fall River at about eleven thirty in the morning and was driving on South Main Street into neighboring Tiverton on my way home, which was maybe ten minutes away, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I nodded off, woke up by the side of the road about two and half hours later with one of my feet out the door. Another time I passed out in a house in Fall River with four other people there, and they were so scared that I was going to die they called 911. But I came out of it, and was walking out the door while the police were coming up the sidewalk.
My body was breaking down, but I didn’t stop.
That’s the fucked-up world you’re in. Someone will OD on something they got from a particular dealer, and everyone else goes to that dealer because he’s obviously got some great stuff.
So by the time I was in Fall River that June day, the heroin on top of the vodka must have put me under, because the next thing I remember was the cop talking to me on the way to Charlton Hospital, the same hospital where my mother had died three years earlier. And all I could think of was that my kids were going to see this on the news, and that I was going to go to jail, and that I was in trouble again. That this was going to be one more horror show, complete with more headlines and more TV spots.
A similar thing had happened four years earlier. I had passed out in a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through window at eight in the morning virtually around the corner from my house. I had been arrested, it had been all over the media, and it had ended my basketball career. I had come home from a CBA team in South Dakota, trying to get back to the NBA after several years of playing overseas, trying for one last shot, trying to salvage my career.
But this was worse.
I had no money.
Basketball was over.
I had no job.
My two kids were older now, nine and seven, old enough to know what was on the news. Old enough for their friends to know what was on the news.
Heather was eight months pregnant.
When I got to the hospital I was more drunk than high. The nurses were staring at me. They all knew who I was, and I wasn’t a pretty sight. I didn’t have any insurance, so the hospital wasn’t going to admit me. I was in the emergency room, and I was thinking of ways to kill myself, because I had no hope. That was gone, had been gone for a while. I couldn’t stop sweating because all the opiates were sucked out of my body after a shot of Narcan, which immediately brings on withdrawal.
Eventually, a nurse came over to me, a Mrs. Reid. She said she had known my mother, and that her husband had been a big Durfee fan, had watched the games with Mr. Karam’s brother Bob (known as “Boo Boo”).
“Where are you going?” she asked me.
“I don’t know.”
“Come sit with me.”
I broke down, and then my older brother, Michael, whom I’d called, walked in. He was crying, too.
“We’re going to figure this out,” Mrs. Reid said to me.
* * *
They got me into the hospital.
The worst thing was calling Heather, and the surprising thing was that she wasn’t angry. Or maybe it wasn’t that surprising. We were way beyond anger by this point. We had been married for nine years, but I had known her since the sixth grade, when I met her at a playground in Somerset, just across the river from Fall River. She was by far the cutest girl I had ever seen, and from the start I was in love with her, even though I put gum in her hair that day. That should have been the first red flag for her.
We were always close, and all through high school we would go out for a while, then we’d break up, but we’d always get back together. We were never really in a boyfriend-girlfriend situation, because I was in no way ready for that back then. But we were in each other’s lives. She was Heather Gray then, and came from a much more stable family situation than I did, and she watched the chaos of my life from the sidelines. She knew my world was spinning. But with her I lived a different life. She never cared about my basketball, and I liked that. With her I wasn’t a basketball player. We went to proms together. She was a homecoming queen, a cheerleader, a star. We took different roads many, many times as kids. But somehow, some way, we always reconnected.
We got married in Fall River the summer before my senior year at Fresno State. Heather was pregnant, and there was no way in the world I wasn’t going to marry her. Our son, Christopher, was born the following March.
By that afternoon in 2008, though, there had been so much heartbreak, so much horror, so much hell. There had been days living in the dark because the electricity had been turned off and we didn’t have the money to turn it back on. There had been times when we had run out of heating oil and I would take a red gasoline can to the nearby Mobil station, fill it with diesel fuel for ten bucks, and trick the oil burner into starting again. There had been many times when Heather had thrown me out, telling me it was really over this time, that she couldn’t live this way anymore, and I would end up in some fleabag motel in nearby Newport for a few days. Then the money would run out and I would sleep in my car, until finally she would feel sorry for me and take me back and then it would start all over again, all the lies and betrayals, the false promises and the squandered chances. This is how we lived. We were always trying to hide the ugly reality from the kids, even when they were sitting in the dark and the TV didn’t work and it was cold.
I would steal money from Heather, and then tell her she was crazy when she called me on it. I’d tell her she should go to a doctor and get some help, that she was losing it. I’d be screaming at her. She would find needles and show them to me.
“You’re fuckin’ crazy!” I’d yell. “They’re old ones. What’s the matter with you? You really should get some help.”
I lied to her. I lied to everybody. I would do anything to keep my lie going, to get the dope that would get me through the day—until the next day, when I had to do it all over again because without it I couldn’t do anything. And by the end, all Heather wanted to do was get through the day, too.
“What’s this, Chris?” she’d ask, coming back from the mailbox with an overdue bill. “You said you paid this.”
And it would all start again.
We bounced check after check, going through thousands of dollars in late fees and penalties. She would sit in front of her computer and shake as she went through our accounts, looking at the money that was no longer there, or that was far less than what it was supposed to be, the numbers always going down, until there were no more numbers.
So by the time she found out what had happened, she really wasn’t surprised. She knew I was sick. She knew I needed help, the kind of help she couldn’t give me.
How bad was I?
About a month earlier I had been at a drug dealer’s house in Fall River.
“Chris, this is real strong stuff,” he said. “So go easy.”
I didn’t go easy.
When I woke up I had one black eye and the other was swollen shut. Seems the dealer had been so afraid I was going to die that he kept hitting me in the face to wake me up. Yet when he drove me home I bought ten more bags of the stuff that had almost killed me. That’s how fucked up I was.
At the hospital there were women I had gone to high school with who were now nurses coming in to see me. Chuckie Moniz, who had grown up with my father, and who had functioned as one of my unofficial uncles, always around, always doing favors for me, was in the room. There were TV trucks outside ready to put the story on the eleven o’clock news. I had a security guard outside my room.
I was there for five days, but I don’t remember a whole lot of it.
I eventually got into Star, a detox facility in Fall River just down the street from Durfee. It was June 2008 and the Celtics were playing the Lakers in the NBA finals. Seven years earlier I had been playing for the Celtics, making roughly $450,000 a year. Seven years earlier I had been in the middle of some childhood fantasy—at least that was the perception—and now I was sitting in a detox center and watching the Celtics on television. No one had to tell me how far I’d fallen, what I had lost. It was right there on the TV in front of me. I didn’t have a quarter to use the phone. I didn’t have a job, or any real hope of getting one. All my money was gone. And I was too wrapped up in my own addiction to see my own reality.
There was another kid from Fall River there and he had a plan. Star was on the second floor and there was an outdoor patio where you could smoke. He had a girlfriend, and she was going to put some dope inside a tennis ball and throw the ball up onto the patio when we were out there.
I was thirty-two years old, I had two kids and a wife who was nearly eight months pregnant, and I thought that was a good plan.
Copyright © 2011 by Chris Herren
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