Commentary

The rise, fall and recovery of a phenom

Clean and sober, Fall River's Chris Herren finds redemption in (what else?) basketball

Updated: May 26, 2011, 6:46 PM ET
By Scott Barboza | ESPNBoston.com

Chris HerrenGetty Images/Courtesy of Thomas Dunne BooksAfter flaming out in the NBA, Chris Herren's story was one of unfulfilled promise until he got clean.

BOSTON -- Chris Herren fidgets in his chair. He glances toward the door with a look of dread.

"How many people are out there?" he asks.

On a table in the conference room, copies of his new memoir, "Basketball Junkie," are stacked high. Outside the door, around 20 people are waiting in line for Herren to emerge and sign their copies. The bookstore in Boston's Downtown Crossing bustles with all kinds of people. There are college kids decked out in Celtics garb, professionals wearing power suits who are killing time during lunch, some of Herren's former classmates from Durfee High School.

In this moment, Herren, 35, is fearful. His piercing eyes stare at the floor just beyond the soles of his Chuck Taylors. He isn't sure whether he'll be asked to read from the book. Would there be questions from the audience after that? He spent the morning doing local television shows.

[+] EnlargeChris Herran
Scott BarbozaChris Herren recently signed copies of his new memoir, "Basketball Junkie," at a bookstore in Downtown Crossing.

After sitting quietly for a moment, Herren moves toward the door and out into the unknown. He's introduced and sits at a table next to the line to his left. To his side, there's also a giant cardboard cutout of the book's cover featuring Herren with bleach-blond-tipped hair from his days at Fresno State. One of the nearby aisles contains literature based in and about Massachusetts. On its shelf are copies of Bill Reynolds' "Fall River Dreams," the chronicle of Herren's junior year of high school playing in the basketball-crazed mill town.

Since "Fall River Dreams" was published, the story of Chris Herren has continued to unfold. From his lost chance at Boston College to the resurrection of his basketball career at Fresno to the Denver Nuggets, the Boston Celtics, the European leagues and back to New England, drugs followed him each step of the way.

His was the story of unfulfilled promise.

Now, that's changed. He's living life clean and sober.

Haunted by his hometown

Passing through Fall River on a Friday night in the summer tells you everything you need to know about the city. Driving over the Braga Bridge heading eastbound on Interstate 195, the cars are from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut. It's a holiday road for families headed to Cape Cod for the weekend.

They never stop; they just pass through.

Riding along 195 is like visiting an open-air museum for the Industrial Revolution. The French, Portuguese, Ukrainian, Polish, German, Lebanese and Irish immigrants all sweated together by day in the city's mills. By night, they returned to their respective ethnic enclaves.

[+] EnlargeChris Herren
Courtesy Fall River Herald NewsHerren scored 2,073 career points at Durfee High School.

All that remains today are the skeleton frames of the textile mills. If Fall River had its version of the Hollywood sign, it would be the "F.R. Knitting" sign on the roof of the mill of the same name. The "G" of the neon sign has collapsed. The building has had a "For Lease" sign on it for as long as most people can remember.

Chris Herren was fundamentally Fall River. He was a working-class hero -- a flawed one, but all theirs. He was the Durfee basketball prodigy who started playing Milliken-Silva youth basketball and made it all the way to the NBA.

The problem for "Chrissie" was that Fall River seemed to follow him wherever he went. We're not talking about the part of "The Riv" most people are proud to be a part of, that blue-collar mentality, the one where you would lend the shirt off your back to help a neighbor, the one Herren carries on his right arm like a badge of honor, with the tattoo of his family's coat of arms.

No, it's the other Fall River that haunted him. The one where heroin addicts, which he once was, exchange needles full of blood. The one where you find syringes littered in the street.

As Herren puts it, Fall River teaches you to "be a wolf," and his voracious appetite for drugs knew no bounds. He burned through the NBA and spent stints in Turkey and Italy trying to get back to the NBA. Drugs were there at every turn. He even played in China and Iran before returning home to Fall River broke and high.

Herren's road back from the abyss began on June 4, 2008. He wrapped his car around a pole near Oak Grove Cemetery, where Fall River's most famous native, alleged murderer Lizzie Borden, is buried. Police found Herren unconscious with a needle in his arm, heroin on the passenger's seat.

He was pronounced dead for 30 seconds.

"People told me it must have been the worst day of my life," Herren said before the book signing. "I look at it as the best day. That was the day that started me on the journey to where I am today.

"It's been a long, rough road to finally find the inner peace that I needed to be happy with the person I am today," he said.

Chris Mullin, who, as a member of the Indiana Pacers, had helped Herren get ready for the NBA draft many moons before, arranged his stay at the Daytop rehab clinic in upstate New York. It marked the beginning of Herren's journey to sobriety and reconciliation with his family.

Herren's wife, Heather, who met him in sixth grade and became his high school sweetheart, stuck by him through it all, but his addiction had taken its toll.

"My family went through some really tough times with me," Herren said. "I went through this process high. I went through it numb. They had to live it firsthand, though. They had to see me crumbling right in front of their eyes."

Basketball was no longer in the picture. There were no more features in Sports Illustrated or Rolling Stone. He always would be the kid who scored 2,073 career points at Durfee, but Chris Herren as a basketball star was talked about in the past tense.

"I learned how to be a husband, a dad, a friend," Herren said. "The things I wasn't able to be before that. That taught me how to fight through certain situations."

He trailed off.

"Sober."

Putting demons behind him

After drugs ravaged Herren's life, his family was left with little money. At age 32, he had three children he was incapable of taking care of and was living at the rehab facility, battling his demons day by day. He felt hopeless.

But he put those demons behind him and says he has been clean and sober since the summer of 2008.

Shortly thereafter in 2009, Herren started Hoop Dreams, a basketball skills and conditioning school. It began when the father of Northfield Mount Hermon guard Joe Sharkey called to ask whether Herren would work with his son. Others soon followed, and he now attracts a group of talented regulars from across southern New England.

Inside the gym at the Pennfield School in Portsmouth, R.I., recently, three players ran themselves ragged at Herren's instruction. Billy Baron, the son of University of Rhode Island basketball coach Jim Baron, recently left Virginia for the opportunity to return home and play for his father next season. He was joined by brothers Alex and Erik Murphy of South Kingstown, R.I. Alex, a senior at South Kingstown High and a standout at St. Mark's School (he transferred to South Kingstown after the hoops season so he could graduate on time), has signed to play at Duke next year, while Erik recently finished his sophomore season at Florida.

The sun was shining for the first time in a week, and Herren, who now lives in Portsmouth about 20 minutes from Fall River, was considering moving the workout so he could bask in the sunshine.

"I think we should do everything outside today," he said, pointing to a nearby set of basketball hoops.

[+] EnlargeChris Herran
Courtesy Scott BarbozaNow clean and sober, Herren runs a basketball skills and conditioning school in Portsmouth, R.I.

Basketball is back at the center of Herren's universe. But he's now the teacher, and the instruction goes beyond basketball. He's taken a page from legendary Durfee coach Skip Karam. Much like his high school coach, who was always there to lend a hand, Herren has provided guidance to his players. The hour doesn't matter; he's made it clear he's available to talk whenever they need him.

For players such as Alex Murphy, the relationship works on many levels. Herren can relate to the pressures of being a nationally renowned prospect, the feeling of living life in a fishbowl as a teenager.

"He's been great to me," Murphy said. "A lot of people can give me their insight -- family, friends, anybody -- but unless you've lived that, gone through it and know what that's like, you really have no idea. But with Chris, he knows where I'm coming from because he's experienced all of that."

That relationship extends to daily calls and text messages that Murphy exchanges with Herren. Even when Murphy was away at school and wasn't working with Herren in the gym, they remained in constant contact.

"Whether you have a problem on the court, off the court or you just want to talk about work, girls, anything like that, he's always there to talk," Murphy said. "And whenever he says something to you, you really take it in. You take it to heart."

Herren has been there to support Murphy's brother Erik, who was arrested in April after allegedly breaking into a car. Erik Murphy was charged with felony burglary and was suspended from his Florida team by coach Billy Donovan. The charges against him have since been reduced to a misdemeanor.

Erik Murphy's lawyer advised him not to speak for this story, citing his impending court date in June.

"We have plenty of great basketball players in there, but without being a happy player, without liking yourself and enjoying it, basketball is going to end for you," Herren said. "That's what I want to get across to them. I want them to learn from my mistakes."

And when things go wrong, he's there to back up his players.

"I've had problems myself over the past few years," said Alex Murphy, who's in his second year working with Herren. "When I do, Chris is the first person I go to talk to. It's just his personality. He has such a way of engaging you. Everything he says, you just zone into him. I think that's a gift some people have, and he definitely has that."

Those relationships also have had an impact on Herren.

"I like the individual side because I get to know the kids," he said. "I get to know who their teachers are, what they're going through. I get to know what kind of music they listen to, who they are as people."

Alex Murphy said Herren's workouts are the toughest he's endured. He wiped the sweat from his brow while sitting on a picnic table outside the gym between reps.

After graduating in June, Murphy will head to North Carolina in July to prepare for the basketball season. He talked about his goals for the upcoming season: earning a spot on the roster, earning minutes, earning a role on the team.

"It's about toughness," Murphy said. "That's the one thing people have always told me about [Herren] and the way he played the game, that he was the toughest kid on the court every time he played.

"I think working with him and talking with him has helped instill that killer's mentality, that mentality to never back down from anybody."

'I've made peace with my past'

Herren cracks a smile, and with a Fall River accent he bellows.

"How's it goin'?" he greets his first visitors at the book signing.

That's the affable Chris Herren the outside world (and many times, his family and friends) seldom saw -- the charming phantom who sometimes made appearances between bouts of addiction. The one who wrapped his arm around teammates after losses even though he couldn't bear defeat. The one who spent countless hours at the Boys & Girls Club in Fall River shooting hoops with kids after school. The one who made the town proud about Durfee basketball all those years ago.

[+] EnlargeChris Herren and family
Herren Family Photo Herren's wife, Heather, who met Herren in sixth grade and became his high school sweetheart, has stuck by him through his addiction and recovery. They have three children.

Herren still gets nervous talking in public about his experiences. Whether it's in front of a school group warning about the dangers of drugs or as part of the book's publicity tour, it's tough to retrace the missteps all over again. But that's part of the process.

"It's about true love," Herren said. "That's what I want people to get out of this book. Some people are going to focus on the drugs, but there's love throughout. My wife is a saint; she's the hero in the story."

It turned out Herren wouldn't have to speak at the signing. He didn't have to read a chapter from the book. One by one, everyone got his copy signed. With every compliment paid, Herren responded with an effusive "thank you, thank you, thank you."

There was plenty to be thankful for.

"I've made peace with my past," Herren said. "It's hard for me to look back and reflect back and want to be there when I'm happy as I am right now."

Scott Barboza is co-editor of ESPNBoston.com's high schools coverage.

Scott Barboza

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
Scott Barboza joined ESPNBoston.com as a high schools editor/reporter in May 2010. He spent the previous three seasons working in the New England Patriots media relations department after a stint at the Taunton Daily Gazette, where he covered everything from Little League baseball to the Boston Red Sox.

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