Book Excerpt: B-Ball Junkie
Former NBA player Chris Herren recaps how drug abuse almost ended his life.
If you look at Chris Herren’s Basketball-Reference page, you would think that he was just one unexceptional NBA player in a long line of unexceptional NBA players. The numbers don’t come close to telling Herren’s tale, though…but Basketball Junkie does.
Basketball Junkie, a newly released St. Martin’s Press book by Chris Herren with Bill Reynolds, tells of Herren’s arduous journey from prep start to drug dabbler to NBA player to addict. Though you can find out a lot about Basketball Junkie and Herren on the book’s Twitter and Facebook page, it’s really a must-read from cover to cover. And while we can’t post the whole book here—you can purchase it on Amazon—thanks to Chris and the good people at St. Martin’s Press, we’re able to post a sizable excerpt below. The book and this excerpt (which also appears in SLAM 149) will tell you where Chris has been and what he’s went through. Check back in next week for a Q+A and an update on what he’s up to now.—Ed.
I was dead for 30 seconds.
That’s what the cop in Fall River told me.
He said that two EMTs had brought me back to life.
“Just shut the fuck up,” he said when I started to say something.
“You were almost dead.”
I was only a few blocks from where I had grown up, only a few blocks from B.M.C. Durfee High School, where there was a banner on the wall saying I was the highest scorer in Durfee history. I had gone off the street near the cemetery where Lizzie Borden was buried, Oak Grove. Maybe the worst thing was that I had just driven through Fall River for a couple of miles in a blackout, a ride I don’t remember to this day. When the EMTs found me there was a needle in my arm and a packet of heroin in the front seat.
It was only about two in the afternoon, but I had been going at it heavy since early in the morning. I had put my 7-year-old daughter, Samantha, in the car like I did every morning after my wife Heather went to work. We drove through the nice suburban neighborhood in Portsmouth, RI, where we lived, and went to East Main Road, where the liquor store was. I bought a pint of Popov vodka, poured it into an empty water bottle, and started to drink. Then we went back home to wait for the bus that took Sammy to school.
By the time she was on the bus I had finished the pint, and I went back to the package store to get another one. Now I needed some money, so I drove to nearby Middletown, virtually on the Newport line, where Heather was working in a hotel. She had told me that morning that she would leave some money in the car for me. It was $40 under the mat in the front seat, and I started off to Fall River, about 20 minutes from my house, to meet one of my drug dealers. I gave him the $40, and he gave me five bags of heroin. I didn’t take heroin at night. I’d shoot up at 4:30 in the afternoon, just before Heather got home, so sometimes in the morning I’d be starting to get sick and needed more.
This was my daily routine, had been for about eight months.
Put Sammy on the bus, go to Fall River, do some dope, and get back in time for when Sammy and my 9-year-old son, Chris, came home on the bus. That was my life, the only way I could function.
Sometimes I couldn’t wait to put Sammy on the bus to go get my dope, because I was getting too sick, so I would put her in the backseat and speed to go meet a dealer in Fall River. I would make the buy and shoot up in the car while I was driving, Samantha still in the backseat.
How could I have done this?
People ask me that all the time. How could you shoot up with your daughter in the backseat? They can’t believe it. Not surprising. I can’t believe it either.
But that’s what I did.
People think that when you’re doing drugs you’re high all the time, out partying. They think you’re having fun. That’s not it at all. You’re not having fun. You’re in hell. Without the dope I would be “dope sick,” so sick that I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t even get up. I’d be in a fetal position. You have the sweats one minute, and you’re freezing cold the next. It’s like having the flu with restless legs, because you can’t control them. They’re kickin’ all over the place. You also can’t sleep more than 15 minutes at a time. You wake up in the morning and there’s no blanket, no sheets, the mattress is sideways. And when it gets bad, you want to ram your head into the headboard.
With the dope I could function, if you want to call it that. I could drive a car. I could mow the lawn. I could be something of a husband, something of a father. When I pictured a heroin addict before I became one, I saw someone emaciated, someone nodding off. That wasn’t it with me, not in the beginning, anyway. I didn’t do it to get high. I did it to function. By the time I got to heroin I was so far gone on OxyContin that the dope became medicine, something that made me feel good enough to be able to get through a day.
But there had been three times in the four months leading up to the day I essentially died when I overdosed, became that guy nodding off, the stereotype of a junkie. Because I was getting worse. Once, I had left Fall River at about 11:30 in the morning and was driving on South Main Street into neighboring Tiverton on my way home, which was maybe 10 minutes away, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I nodded off, woke up by the side of the road about two and a half hours later with one of my feet out the door. Another time I passed out in a house in Fall River with four other people there, and they were so scared that I was going to die they called 911. But I came out of it and was walking out the door while the police were coming up the sidewalk.
My body was breaking down, but I didn’t stop.
That’s the fucked-up world you’re in. Someone will OD on something they got from a particular dealer, and everyone else goes to that dealer because he’s obviously got some great stuff.
So by the time I was in Fall River that June day, the heroin on top of the vodka must have put me under, because the next thing I remember was the cop talking to me on the way to Charlton Hospital, the same hospital where my mother had died three years earlier. And all I could think of was that my kids were going to see this on the news, and that I was going to go to jail, and that I was in trouble again. That this was going to be one more horror show, complete with more headlines and more TV spots.
A similar thing had happened four years earlier. I had passed out in a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through window at eight in the morning virtually around the corner from my house. I had been arrested, it had been all over the media, and it had ended my basketball career. I had come home from a CBA team in South Dakota, trying to get back to the NBA after several years of playing overseas, trying for one last shot, trying to salvage my career.
But this was worse.
I had no money.
Basketball was over.
I had no job.
My two kids were older now, 9 and 7, old enough to know what was on the news. Old enough for their friends to know what was on the news.
Heather was eight months pregnant.
When I got to the hospital I was more drunk than high. The nurses were staring at me. They all knew who I was, and I wasn’t a pretty sight. I didn’t have any insurance, so the hospital wasn’t going to admit me. I was in the emergency room, and I was thinking of ways to kill myself, because I had no hope. That was gone, had been gone for a while. I couldn’t stop sweating because all the opiates were sucked out of my body after a shot of Narcan, which immediately brings on withdrawal.
Eventually, a nurse came over to me, a Mrs. Reid. She said she had known my mother, and that her husband had been a big Durfee fan, had watched the games with Mr. Karam’s brother Bob (known as “Boo Boo”).
“Where are you going?” she asked me.
“I don’t know.”
“Come sit with me.”
I broke down, and then my older brother, Michael, whom I’d called, walked in. He was crying, too.
“We’re going to ﬁgure this out,” Mrs. Reid said to me.
In October 2000 I was introduced at a press conference as the newest member of the Boston Celtics, one of a handful of New England guys who had ever played for the team.
The Celtics were everything when I was a kid. I idolized them. When I was out in the driveway with the spotlight on the basket, playing imaginary games in my head, the shot clock ticking off while I made the big shot to win the game, I was Danny Ainge, Larry Bird. Every ball I bounced, every shot I took, it was always about the Celtics. My father had taken me and my brother to a big rally in Government Center in Boston in 1986 when they won the title. I was 11 years old. I even had an autographed picture of Larry Bird, which said, “To Chris, keep playing,” signed on a place mat from a Boston bar that my father and his cronies used to frequent.
But that day at the press conference, none of that mattered. That day should have been one of the highlights of my life. Instead, it’s all a blur, half-remembered, if remembered at all. My life was much too painful by then. Everything was about just trying to get through the day and keep the lie going, because the reality was that by the time I got to the Celtics, I was hooked on OxyContin.
I started getting into opiates that summer, when Heather and I left Denver for what was supposed to be a happy summer with our baby, Chris, in Fall River. Actually, I had started in my junior year at Fresno after I came back from rehab and was getting off cocaine. I’d always hated cocaine, even when I was using it, hated coming down from it, the depression, the empty feeling. Cocaine brought me to a point where I couldn’t look at myself. Vicodin was different. Vicodin was mellow. It slowed things down. And for some reason, I could play basketball on it. The first few times it made me sleepy and tired me out, but after a while it was like a pep pill.
But in the summer of 2000 I discovered OxyContin.
It was the first time OxyContin had been in Fall River, and I began using it.
Why did I take it?
That’s the million-dollar question.
Was it just my insecurities, fears, anxieties?
Was it my addictive personality that had never been dealt with, even if I had lived a fairly clean year in Denver?
Was it the fact I had never felt comfortable in my own skin and still didn’t, even if on the surface it seemed like I was living some dream life?
Was it all of the above?
Whatever it was, if drugs were around, odds were I was going to take them.
If it was cocaine, I was going to snort it. If it was acid, I was going to drop it. If it was painkillers, I was going to chew them. If it was mushrooms, I was going to eat them. I wasn’t saying no very often. It was like getting all fucked up the night before the CBS game against UMass in Fresno my junior year. Couldn’t I have just taken that night off and stayed home? It was like playing for the WAC championship one year in Hawaii when I spent the night before the game in a strip club. Couldn’t I have stayed in the hotel that one night?
And if I started putting substances in my body, I couldn’t stop. That had always been the case, and it wasn’t any different now.
OxyContin began as a pain medicine for cancer patients, a very powerful narcotic. Now it had become a street drug, as kids were getting it from people who were dying of HIV, dying of horrible things like pancreatic cancer. You weren’t taking Vicodin, something that people with toothaches were taking. Or Percocet, what people with bad backs were taking. You were taking painkillers that people with terminal illnesses were taking.
You were crossing a line.
I knew they were the most powerful things I had ever put in my body. I knew I shouldn’t be taking them.
I took them anyway.
They came in a pack of four little pills in different colors, all increasing in strength. The 20 milligrams were pink. The 40 milligrams were yellow. The 80 milligrams were green. And the 160 milligrams were blue. From the beginning, OxyContin made me feel comfortable in my own skin, and I went strong at it. Alcohol made me angry and aggressive. Cocaine made me severely depressed. OxyContin made me mellow. It took the edge off, took away the anxiety. I was able to trick myself into thinking I was better off taking it, that it was helping me.
My friend and I called them “Scooby snacks,” like they were some little kids’ thing.
“Got any Scooby snacks?”
Like they were no big deal.
But very soon my whole world depended on them. They were $50 a pill, and I started off at two pills a day, but that soon became a $500-a-day habit, then more.
That’s when the nightmare began.
I soon knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t be without it. Some mornings I would wake up in the fetal position, sweating when it was cold, shivering when it was hot. And when that happened, the only thing that would fix it was more pills.
The chase was on.
I continued to work out that summer, only not as hard as the summer before, doing it to keep people off my back. I ran another summer camp at Durfee that was very successful. I signed basketball cards for money. I had a deal with Reebok, a Massachusetts sneaker company. It was all part of another smoke and mirrors act, only this time the act was coming home and in the middle of the biggest spotlight I ever could have envisioned.
I’ve seen pictures of that press conference when I first came to Boston, but I don’t remember what I said. I do remember that it was a big story in both the Globe and the Herald and on TV, the fact that I had been a two-time Massachusetts high school Player of the Year, and now I was coming home to play for the Celtics, part of a deal that sent Bryant Stith and me to the Celtics for Robert Pack and Calbert Cheaney in a low-level NBA trade.
What a great story it was.
I also remember Rick Pitino invited Heather and me to his townhouse on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, not far from Boston Common, for lunch.
He talked about the guys he had coached before, guys I could pattern myself after. He talked a lot about motivation, and that if I bought into what he was saying it could do great things for me, that all I had to do was buy into it. He was very positive, talked about the great opportunity there was for me in Boston.
But I felt awkward, too, intimidated by the lifestyle he had. The catered lunch. The fact he had both a wine cellar and a movie theater in his house. Rick Pitino would have been overpowering if he’d been sitting in a living room in Fall River, nevermind in a Boston town house.
And my head was already in a bad place.
I like Pitino. He was always good to me. But he was in his fourth year in Boston then, and it wasn’t living up to the promise. He had arrived with so much attention, so many expectations, with a national championship at Kentucky on his résumé. He was going to make the Celtics the Celtics again, bring back the glory days of Bird and Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in the 1980s when the old Garden rang with cheers, and the Celtics and the Lakers were NBA royalty, Bird and the Lakers’ Magic Johnson taking the League to new heights of popularity. There had been a huge press conference on the floor of the Fleet Center when he’d been formally announced, complete with all the banners in the rafters brought down to floor level, all the great Celtics history behind him. It hadn’t been just a press conference. It had been like a coronation. He was the hottest college coach in the country, he had NBA experience, both as an assistant coach and as a head coach with the Knicks, he had played at UMass and coached at Boston University, and at the time he seemed like the perfect guy to be the new Celtics coach.
But here they were, just another young team going nowhere, in a league full of them. He was under tremendous pressure. He was Rick Pitino, one of the biggest names in basketball, and he was supposed to win.
But by the time I got traded, I was happy for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t happy because I was back home and had grown up idolizing the Celtics.
I was happy because I was back home and I knew where to get drugs. I also had the money to buy them.
It was a deadly combination.
Even then, it was beginning to feel like a minute-to-minute life, but I could fool the shit out of people. I was afraid of help. But I could function, too. Even fake it through a press conference. Everything revolved around keeping the lie going.
Before I could officially join the Celtics, they had me go down to the University of Florida on the sly to work out with Billy Donovan. He was the coach of Florida, but he had played for Rick Pitino at Providence College, the star of a team that had somehow gotten to the Final Four in 1987, and he had also been an assistant with Pitino at Kentucky, the one who had been involved in recruiting me. So he and I had a relationship. And Donovan was doing Pitino a favor.
And now Pitino was telling me through my agent to go work out with Donovan.
The only problem was that my habit was getting worse.
I had been taking OxyContin every day, and now I didn’t have it.
Try getting through a Billy Donovan workout when you feel great, nevermind when you’re sick as a dog and aren’t sure you’re going to be able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone play basketball.
Work out in the gym.
Then on the treadmill, where you had to go hard.
Back to the gym.
Back on the treadmill.
Back to the gym.
From Basketball Junkie by Chris Herren with Bill Reynolds. Copyright © 2011 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.