ELLENVILLE – Addiction to alcohol and drugs is a cruel fate. The addict’s life shrinks to a single set of transactions, a very limited range of sensations. The effect on the addict’s family, loved ones, friends, is similar — a cascade of horrors, theft and terrible pain.
Chris Herren, former NBA star, outstanding high school basketball prospect of the early 1990s, brought it to his presentation at Ellenville High School Auditorium on March 1. During the day he spoke to the high school students, and in the words of Superintendent of Schools Lisa Wiles, "You could have heard a pin drop!" Phil Mattracion, both president of the Ellenville Board of Ed, and chief of the village police department, was equally impressed. "You don’t often see 500 kids sit completely silent for 42 minutes." In the evening he did the same thing with an audience of adults, parents, teachers, and concerned citizens.
Introducing Herren, Mattracion described the tragic death of Ryan Kelder, a few years ago, from a heroin overdose here in Ulster County. Ryan’s death has galvanized the Kelder family to become a voice in the movement to counter the rise of heroin and opioids.
Herren’s story is one with peculiarly strong resonance today, as heroin and opioid painkillers have become a deadly American plague. In 2016, 64,000 Americans OD’ed on heroin and opioids. Of particular concern today is the increasing use of Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate to spike street heroin. Fentanyl is about 75 times stronger than morphine, and has killed a number of celebrities, including Michael Jackson, Prince and Tom Petty.
Herren began his basketball career at Durfee High School in the depressed industrial town of Fall River, Massachusetts, where the Boston Celtics loom large in sports fan’s minds. Playing point guard, he graduated to Boston College and a perfect future in the NBA beckoned.
But, even in High School the seeds of ruin had sprouted. His father had a thing for "Miller Lite’s" and was an alcoholic. The fights over drinking turned to divorce. Young Chris had already begun pilfering those Miller Lite’s, and that spiraled into taking any kind of pills that came his way.
At Boston College he met cocaine. He lost his scholarship. Jerry Tarkarian offered him a second chance at Fresno State in California. But he failed a drug test. He did rehab, and he did go on to the NBA, being picked up by the Denver Nuggets in the draft. He moved to Florida for the off season, with his wife and family. But then came a fateful intervention. As he tells it, doom came in the shape of a knock on the door. An old friend from his youth sold him a 40 milligram Oxycontin pill for $20.
He loved Oxycontin, he said, and that $20 pill kicked off an addiction to opioids and then heroin that consumed him, ruined him and came very close to killing him.
By the time he made it to Nuggets’ training camp, he was a $600 a day addict to Oxycontin. He’d crossed the line between scoring to get high and scoring to stay ahead of withdrawal sickness.
But the promise he showed on the court was still working for him. Rick Pitino brought him to the Boston Celtics in 2000. The dream of a Fall River basketball fan was realized, but he was still a drug addict. He didn’t last long at the Boston Garden and went abroad to play in Italy.
He had to smuggle the pills in with his luggage. He switched to heroin; it was easier to get. At age 24, in Italy, he began shooting up. He quit Italian basketball, but couldn’t quit heroin. The complete descent into the nightmare had begun.
He OD’d on the road and crashed into a woman’s car. From jail he called a dealer instead of his wife. He had six more years of hell for himself and his family ahead.
Eventually, back in Fall River, broke, just another junkie, someone gave him four bags of heroin. He used them all, crashed his car into a cemetery gate and was brought to hospital dying from the overdose. This was in June 2008, and he didn’t die. But he didn’t yet have the will to quit, either. He was in a rehab center in Rhinebeck when he learned that his wife was about to have their third child. He got there, and realized it was the first time he’d been sober in a delivery room. He promised his son that he’d stay straight. Outside he went immediately to a liquor store and bought some vodka. Then he called his dealer. Then he overdosed. He was advised to stay away from his family, to pretend to be dead and just disappear from their lives. And that grim advice helped turn him sober at last, he said.
Clean for seven years now, Chris Herren devotes his life to getting the message out. He speaks to high schools and sports groups around 250 times a year. He is a riveting speaker, completely authentic and unsparing in the details of the horror that comes from utter, hopeless addiction. He said we need to focus, not on the end of days for an addict, but at the beginning. We need to look at the 13-year-old Chris Herren, sneaking Miller Lite’s from his dad, and then tumbling down the staircase to addiction, and ask: "Why are you doing that?"
He stressed that addiction doesn’t have to be a death sentence, and addicts can be saved before they hit rock bottom. "Our kids deserve more than we give them," he said, finally pointing to the way addiction and poor decision-making spread through the generations. He finished up by urging fellow addicts now sober to get out and take their stories to the people. With more Americans dying of heroin and opioids than even in car crashes, and with fentanyl deaths soaring by more than 500% in three years, Chris Herren’s story is something all kids need to see and understand.