For at least a decade, former NBA player Chris Herren said he "chased death for a feeling" through alcohol and an escalating assortment of drugs — cocaine, prescription pills including Oxycontin, and finally heroin.
The substance abuse started at age 14 and led to a double life that included run-ins with the law, stints in rehab, and an accelerated end to his career as a professional athlete. He was a starter with NBA teams in Denver and Boston.
Before sobering up nine years ago, after an overdose, drugs nearly robbed Herren of his life and family.
"I wish somebody at my school had snatched me out of the bleachers," Herren told a packed gym of students at Kickapoo High School. "I wish somebody dragged me to the office, sat me down and said ... 'Why are you doing this?'"
The Friday assembly opened with a documentary. Through news footage, interviews and Herren's testimony, students witnessed how his meteoric rise, including scoring 2,000 points in high school and going in the first round of the NBA draft, nearly ended in tragedy when his secret life as a junkie was revealed.
But when the 42-year-old took the microphone and faced the students, he talked little about "hitting rock bottom" — a term he hates — or his second chances.
"This is no longer about my story," he said. "It's about your story. It's the kid you are becoming."
Herren, who has multiple drug-related felonies on his record, created Hoop Dreams, which provides mentors to young basketball players. Now a motivational speaker, he talks to at least 200 high school and college audiences each year.
"I'm unbelievably blessed to be here," he said.
When it comes to portraying addicts, he said, "We put too much focus on the worst day and not enough focus on the first day."
He talked about growing up in a house with an alcoholic father and promising his mother that he'd never touch the stuff. He broke that promise at age 14, when he took two beers from the refrigerator and met his best friend behind the garage.
"We all start out with a red Solo cup, taking a sip. That's the first page of every addict's story," he said. "Nobody plans on this struggle. Nobody sets out to suffer."
Herren said the worst part of partying in high school was the end of the night, as he tried to sober up enough to go home. He recalled feeling jealous of friends who were able to have fun without drugs and alcohol.
"Unfortunately, we've normalized getting drunk and getting high in high school and that is a shame," he said.
Herren said as he travels the U.S. to give talks, he hears from teens whose lives have been ravaged by drugs and alcohol. He relayed stories of teens experiencing violence, neglect and the loss of parents — who die, become homeless or go to prison.
"Every single high school I go into, there are kids struggling," he said. "... Some will walk out of this assembly and joke about it and make light of it."
He said others want to ignore it and pretend it's not happening.
Herren said while there is much a child cannot control, they can decide whether or not they experiment with drinking and drugs.
At the assembly, which lasted nearly two hours, he asked students to think about the example they're setting.
"Sit in this gym and think of the kid you are today and ask yourself one question: 'Do you really want your little sister doing what you're doing? Do you really want your little brother trying what you're trying?'" he said. "You must ask yourself, if it's not good enough for your little sister, why is it good enough for you?"
Herren said substance abuse is often about masking pain.
"Everybody thinks this talk is about drugs and alcohol," he said. "I think it's about self-esteem. It's about confidence."
He added: "If you feel so good, why do you have to get drunk on Fridays?"
Hundreds of students crowded into the gym to hear Herren speak but the room was so quiet at times, he didn't need the microphone. The sounds of students crying could be heard.
While the audience remained silent for nearly the entire talk, giving Herren two standing ovations, he chastised a small group in the back of the gym that briefly attempted to be disruptive.
At the end, several students stood up and talked about feeling helpless about friends and family members who were struggling with addiction.
One student told Herren he'd gone to an adult to seek help for a friend and he worried that decision would cost him the friendship. Herren applauded the teen for caring and taking action.
"You are the type of friend I want my kids to have," he said. "I want my kids to hang out with friends who make them better."
Kourtney David and Destinee King, both seniors at Kickapoo, said they were moved by Herren's talk. They were among the many students who wiped tears from their eyes as he spoke.
"I started thinking about choices in my own life and I am grateful I have family that is so supportive," said David, 18. "The thing that stayed with me was thinking about the way my siblings see me."
King said she has a family member who has struggled with addiction and the impact on her family has been profound.
"I definitely came in expecting it to be another drug assembly," she said.
She said hearing Herren's story of substance abuse made her think about her friends and family. "I thought how things like that affected me."
David said it was clear from the behavior of classmates that Herren's presentation had their attention.
"I've never heard this school so quiet," he said.
(shared by Springfield News-Leader, for original story click here)
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