Chris Herren is a former NBA player for the Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics and was also a McDonald’s All American in 1994. He is featured in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Unguarded.” He has also played in several leagues overseas.
Chris struggled with substance abuse for much of his life and during his career but is now a recovering addict. In this interview Chris and I discuss the lowest points during his addiction, his recovery and his relationship with basketball Hall of Fame head coach Jerry Tarkanian.
SHAFIN KHAN: Chris, it is widely acknowledged that you had a substance abuse issue for over a decade and now your inspiration to a lot of people. During those years of immense struggle and in the years of your recovery which people in your life would you say had the biggest influences on you?
CHRIS HERREN: My motivation was always my family. I wanted to be a better dad. I wanted to be the father that they needed and longed for. That was always my motivation to get sober as well as stay sober. The people who I met early in recovery that showed up every day to work on themselves and help others, it was those faces that were always my main inspiration.
KHAN: What was the lowest point in your life during your addiction?
HERREN: I think when I started chasing death for a feeling. That was the bottom for me. I think the word rock bottom is used to loosely sometimes around recovery and addiction. I think we all have this thought that there will be this moment that will completely turn me. I never had a good day shooting heroin and I shot it for eight years. So, from the beginning I was at the bottom.
KHAN: Was your addiction worse while you were playing basketball abroad or in the U.S.?
HERREN: I was always living in constant wreckage and hiding. Everyday I spent abroad I was chasing something. So, I think that in the beginning there was no good day, they were all bad. I knew the consequences, I knew the pain and suffering I was causing myself and others. I knew the hearts that were breaking over it. So, no matter if I was in Italy, Turkey, China, Denver, Boston, California, they were all pretty lonely. That was a very tough world to live in.
KHAN: Did the first overdose not give you the reality check you needed?
HERREN: It definitely didn’t. Nobody see’s it coming. Everybody thinks that they can manage. The reality to it is that I shot heroin for eight years and I overdosed four times.
KHAN: What was your thought process after the first one?
HERREN: My thought process was to somehow or someway minimize it as much as possible so my family doesn’t think I am as bad as I really am. It was damage control. In 2004 heroin and overdose was not something people were really talking about. Part of me was caught off guard, I never really thought it was possible. When it happened, it was a shock. I immediately went into damage control so I didn’t lose everything, everything that was important.
KHAN: In the ESPN 30 for 30 Unguarded documentary you describe your rookie season with the Denver Nuggets as the healthiest year of your life. What helped you stay clean that year?
HERREN: I was surrounded by a group of men who were motivated to help me and wanted to see me succeed. They took it upon themselves to guide me and support me and to make sure I was doing what was necessary to sustain an NBA basketball career. It was Chauncy Billups, Popeye Jones, Antonio McDyess, George McCloud, I had great guys on that team.
KHAN: Who were some of the toughest guys you had to go up against in college and during your time in the NBA?
HERREN: Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Stephon Marbury. John Stockton was older but unbelievably difficult to guard. Gary Payton was another one.
KHAN: What was your relationship like with Hall of Fame coach, Jerry Tarkanian?
HERREN: It was special from the beginning. I think we were both at a crossroad in our life. He was starting over and I need a place to start fresh. So, I think me being one of his first recruits to go with him to a place not many people had heard of was special. Special to him and special to me. He saw the faith I had in him and I saw the opportunity he gave me. I loved him like an uncle, a friend, a coach. He was everything when I was there.
KHAN: What is a good memory you have with Coach Tarkanian?
HERREN: I think coming off the court when I played at UMass my sophomore year after redshirting was a special moment. He knew what it meant to me to be home. He knew what I had been through, publicly back home. So, to walk off that court and hug him and embrace that I was able to come back here was a pivotal moment in my basketball career.
KHAN: What do you think your best in game was in college?
HERREN: I think my game at UMass my sophomore year was one of them. I loved playing at the University of Hawaii. It was always the last game of our season and every year for three years it was going to decide our conference championship so it always very special. There were guys I played against that we had an unbelievable rivalry with.
KHAN: What is your message to those who struggle with addiction?
HERREN: I think people who struggle with addiction feel that there is no hope. That there is really no return. I think the stigma around addiction has created a hopeless fate that because I have come this far down, there is no way out or way up. I think recovery gives you an unbelievable perspective on life. I think it allows you to cherish it, embrace it and go after it. I believe in the professional world it gives you an unbelievable advantage and competitive edge. I think there is a lot to be said about understanding that your addiction shouldn’t and won’t define you if you don’t allow it.