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Chris Herren's five-year redemption

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On Aug. 1, 2008, Chris Herren was told to consider himself dead. In hearing those sobering words, the derelict former basketball star started living again.

Herren had been reluctantly granted a day's reprieve from a Daytop Village drug rehab facility in Rhinebeck, N.Y., to see his son Drew's birth that Friday. It was the first time he had been sober to witness the birth of one of his children -- he was on Oxycontin for his oldest son, Chris, in 1999, and on heroin for his daughter, Samantha, in 2001.

Two months prior to Drew's delivery, Herren was nearly declared dead after crashing his car following a heroin overdose.

And within hours of Drew's birth, Herren was gone again, relapsing in his drug dealer's car while his older children met their new brother. When Herren returned to the hospital that afternoon, his wife, Heather -- a woman who had already lived through far more heartbreak than any one person should endure -- drew the line.

"She shook her head and said, 'Don't ever come back,'" Herren said. "She said, 'You broke my heart a million times, and this is the last time I'll let you break my children's hearts.'"

It wasn't Heather's words alone that ended Herren's decade-plus cycle of addiction. Herren's true rock bottom came in the form of a challenge from a rehab counselor at Daytop later that night -- to make the toughest decision of his life, take Heather up on her request and let his family move on without him.

The counselor handed Herren a phone, told him he didn't deserve his own family, and said to call his wife and tell her to tell the kids that he had died in a car accident.

"At 32 years old, after 10 solid years in addiction, that was probably my best option, and that seemed like what I should do," Herren said. "But since that moment when I said maybe that should be my plan, I've been sober. I got down on my knees, I prayed that night, and I've done everything that I've been asked to do in recovery to this point."

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Thursday marks five years since Herren last gave in to the addictions that crippled him from the age of 18 on, and as I sat with him on plastic chairs in the empty cafeteria at Portsmouth Middle School earlier this week to discuss his half-decade of sobriety, 80 middle school-aged kids, including Chris Jr., played basketball in the gym down the hall as part of a summer camp Herren runs.

The first thing Herren did that morning when he arrived at Day 1 of the five-day camp was take a lap around a rectangle of kids as big as the basketball court, stopping to meet each one as they stretched. He says he could host a bigger camp and make some serious money if he wanted to, but that he caps them at 80 so he can get to know each individual camper.

Later that night, Herren would speak to a riveted crop of incoming college freshmen at an orientation at Regis College in Weston, Mass. -- one of hundreds of speaking engagements he's done through his Hoop Dreams foundation over the last 3 1/2 years, ranging from middle school gyms to professional athletes, hardened criminals, corporate dinners and everything in between.

And as hard as it is for you or me to believe that this is who Chris Herren is now, it's even more unbelievable for Herren, himself.

"If I told you three years ago what I envisioned in three years, I would have sold myself short," said Herren, who spent a year as a repo man after getting out of rehab for the final time before he began instructing basketball at the small gym at St. Philomena School in Portsmouth. "I would have said my life would be nowhere near what it is today if I guessed what it was going to be like. I'm in the business of helping people, and I love what I'm doing today."

This is the "after," of course, and the story of Herren's "before" is widely known. A cult hero and a standout prep star at Durfee High School in Fall River, Mass., Herren played one game at Boston College before he was kicked out following three positive tests for cocaine.

He then went on national TV and declared himself an addict after a relapse while playing for Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State.

After a clean season under the watchful eye of some Denver Nuggets veterans, Herren was traded to his hometown Boston Celtics. A painkiller addiction followed soon after -- one $20 yellow pill at a barbecue turned into a $25,000-per-month habit, he says.

Then a heroin addiction started when he played in Bologna, Italy, his introduction to the drug coming from a stranger with a string tied around his tooth, connected to bags of the drugs in his stomach.

Herren brought those addictions with him to leagues in Turkey, then China, then Iran, then Poland before returning to the U.S. and continuing his freefall stateside.

"I remember my coach walking into my room in Iran, and saying, 'I think it's time you got out of this place,'" Herren said. "Everywhere I went, somebody was telling me that I had to go, and it was because I was there."

Most of the cautionary tales Herren tells today are absolutely heartbreaking, and they all shine a light on how far he's come in the years since he decided he wasn't willing to play dead for his family.

There was the time he passed out on the way back from an 8 a.m. Dunkin Donuts stop, with empty packets of heroin in the front seat.

Or the time he left his wife and kids stranded at a California airport for eight hours after a binge left him too paranoid to stay on the highway.

At one point, with no money left to his name, Herren found himself homeless, sleeping behind a dumpster at a 7-Eleven.

During our conversation Monday, at about 1:30 p.m., Herren looked up at the clock and offered an unsolicited reflection on his life as an addict: "Right now, five years ago, I'm driving around Fall River in a panic, not feeling well, trying to find my drug dealer in time to get back home by 2:30, when my kids get off the bus," he said, "so I could go sit on my couch, drink vodka, let the heroin settle in and try to figure out how to get money to do the same thing the next day."

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If you think the throes of addiction were difficult on Herren, you can't begin to imagine how taxing it was for his family to watch him suffer -- and suffer, themselves -- for as long as it did.

Heather and Chris' love dates to high school, and though Chris continued to betray her faith in him time and time again, she still held out hope -- foolishly, most said -- that the boy she met on the playground as a kid would someday become the man she wanted him to be.

"It would be nice if I could simplify it to one thing, but I think it was the culmination of a lot of things that made me stay," Heather Herren told me. "I knew him when I was in sixth grade, and I knew the person that I'd loved for so long. I knew that this wasn't him, this wasn't the person that I married. There was so much goodness in what we had when we were younger, and so much goodness in Chris, and I still loved him and had faith that he could do it."

That said, Chris says he would have understood had Heather decided to move on.

"There were times in my life, in my addiction, when, honestly, I wish she would have," Herren said. "Because I knew that I was the only problem. And any time things started going in any type of positive direction, I'd pull her back. So there were times when I looked at her and looked at my children, and I knew I was the one that should be absent from this picture."

Chris' addiction presented huge problems for the children, too. Though they weren't necessarily old enough to understand the why at the time, Chris and Samantha could sense their father's pain.

"From the age of 28 to 32, I was a street junkie," Herren said. "You could find me in Fall River walking up and down Main Street hustling for heroin, scrapping metal. My kids would get off the school bus wondering, 'Daddy where's my X-Box? Where's my Playstation? Where's my PS3? Where's my iPod?' My wife would ask, 'Chris, where's my jewelry?' Some nights no lights, some nights no heat. Birthdays and Christmases were never the same. Addiction doesn't recognize those holidays."

To hear Herren relive the latter years of his addiction -- especially in the context of how it impacted him as a father -- is uncomfortable and harrowing, and he'd be the first to tell you that he wasn't the dad he wanted to be to those kids until he was sober.

"My routine was to put little Chris and Samantha on the bus, walk up to the local liquor store, buy two pints of vodka because that's all I could afford, and that would take me away from myself the quickest," he said.

"On the way back from the liquor store, after I bought my two pints, I'd stop by the Cumberland Farms and I'd stand out in front and watch people walk up to the ash tray and put their cigarettes out. In my pocket was an empty pack, because at 32 years old, I can't afford cigarettes. So I'd fill my pack with their pokeouts, go home, drink my vodka, smoke their cigarettes and wait for my kids to come home."

Chris' parents, Al and Cynthia, and his brother, Michael, suffered, too.

"It couldn't have been harder on them," Herren said. "I'm not trying to put cancer and addiction together, but my parents wanted me to get well, and I wouldn't. And if I was dying of cancer or I had Diabetes type 1, they would have brought me to the hospital. My parents wanted to bring me to the hospital, but I was dodging them, and I wasn't ready to get well. And a lot of people die on the road of not being ready to get well."

Unfortunately, Cynthia -- the woman who made Chris serve as an altar boy as a kid and hired a private investigator to try to keep him accountable as an adult -- never lived to see her son sober again. She passed away in 2005, and Herren was high, even at her funeral. But Chris says he's come to terms with that in the years since.

"She just wasn't here long enough to really put the brakes on -- she was in the early stages of putting the clamps on me," Herren said. "I'm closer to my mom today than I ever was, and I've made total peace with that. My mom is with me every step of the way, and she is up there smiling, proud, and I'm very comfortable with that."

He's also made amends with -- and even become an inspiration for -- his father, who suffered from alcoholism when Chris was a child. "My dad was a vicious drinker," Herren said. "All I knew about my dad was those Miller Lites, and growing up as a kid, I looked at my dad and said, 'I never want to be like him.'"

Now, Al -- who showed up to Day 1 of Chris' camp with a bright smile, wearing a fluorescent orange shirt because he "wanted to bring a little sunshine" -- is more than three months sober himself, following in the footsteps of a son who finally became the man he tried to raise him to be.

Herren's kids are learning to see their dad in a new light, too. Though they're aware of the person their dad used to be and the demons he once faced, they no longer live in fear that those shortcomings will define him, or impact them, again.

"You want them to feel OK, you want them to feel safe, you want them to feel what every kid should feel," Heather Herren said. "And that's what's been so incredible (about the last five years). When you do the right thing and you are honest and you are being true to yourself and to your family, there can be great things that come with it, and I'm just thankful every day that we've been able to see the other side of it."

Chris Jr. is a budding basketball star, like his father, and when you watch him play, you can't help but notice that the younger Chris has adopted some of the flash that made his dad so popular on the court. But Herren stressed that his only concern was that his son be happy and confident and unashamed of a name -- Chris Herren -- that once carried so much baggage.

As for Samantha, she's a beautiful little girl who can finally feel comfortable fitting in and being 11 years old, and that means everything to Chris. She recently went to see Taylor Swift -- with her mom of course -- an experience on which Chris reflected: "Five years ago, there is no Taylor Swift for her." After his meeting on Thursday, Herren will give both of his older kids a five-year chip to go with the other four.

And then there's Drew, who will someday learn about who his dad used to be -- Chris says he'd "never let him not know" -- but will hopefully never have to see it for himself.

"That would be the biggest gift to give any of the kids, and I know Chris would want nothing more," Heather Herren said. "Drew, in a lot of ways, has symbolized that new beginning for us.

"I still remember being in a treatment center in New York when he wasn't even four months old, and the fear of not knowing what the future held and if we'd be able to get through all of this. Now to look back, and see how much happiness is in our house, and how well all the kids are doing, and that we're a family, I think Chris and I appreciate what today means more than we probably ever would have."

Added Chris: "Just seeing my kids have a level of certainty that fear is gone means everything. In the beginning, it was 'Where are we going next?' There is no 'Where are we going?' anymore. They know dad is bringing them to the right place. Just watching my kids and my wife find peace in their lives has been the most rewarding thing. There's nothing more a dad can ask for than to see that."

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The thing about addiction, though, is that you're never 100 percent un-addicted. I know this because that's what Herren, himself, told me. Though five years of sobriety is an accomplishment, and he's been an inspiration to countless people struggling with addiction across the world, it means nothing if he relapses again. And that's a pressure he carries with him into every city he visits, sharing his message.

"I'm always going to have days where I don't feel the best -- everybody does," Herren said. "There are days that I feel, not that I want to get high, but the thought of going out and drinking beers comes into my head. When I'm walking through the airport and I've been traveling for three days, and I see some guy sitting at the bar with a glass of beer, I say, 'Man, that looks good.'

"But he can leave that beer; I have to leave the airport and go get an eight-ball, and from the eight-ball, it becomes three eight-balls, and from there it becomes heroin to come off the eight-balls, and then my family doesn't see me for five days."

That's a scary proposition for Heather, but one she says she's no longer concerned about. In fact, Heather says there was something different about this recovery where she knew, early on, that it was going to be permanent.

"This is a lifetime of working on this, and obviously the work that he does on it now is a lot different from the work he did on it in the beginning," she said. "I do feel like we're all a little bit more free. That first year, you're still working on being comfortable being in your own skin and building on who you are without these substances in your body. And I feel like now, Chris is more who he is than he ever has been. He's more comfortable with who he is than I've ever seen him."

Said Chris: "Sober or not, it's hard to always feel worthy. People ask me all the time, kids especially, 'Do you ever feel like getting high?' And my answer to them is no, but that there are times that I don't like being me. And when I don't like me, I don't feel like being me, that's when getting high comes into play. So the biggest battle today is being OK with who I am, as me, without any influence."

He's also learned to appreciate just how significant his accomplishment has been, and notes that reaching milestones like Thursday's carry a special significance to someone who still considers himself to be in the midst of recovery.

"I used to listen to people early in recovery saying, 'I'm coming up on three years, I'm coming up on eight years, and I'm really scared, I'm nervous,' and I'd be sitting there at 30 days sober, at 60 days sober, thinking, 'What are you talking about dude? You're eight years sober, what are you nervous about?'" Herren said.

"Today I get that. I'm nervous. I'm nervous leading up to five years, because I've always hit the emergency exit. That's kind of how addicts are programmed. When things are going really good, you hit that exit, and when things are bad, you hit it. So I stay very grounded and close to people in recovery around this time because it's an accomplishment, but then I'll wake up (on Friday) and have five years and a day, God willing."

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com .