Chris Herren, at 18, was a basketball hero. He grew up in Fall River, Mass., a dying mill town south of Boston that loved high-school basketball like Odessa, Tex., loved the Friday night lights of high-school football.
Herren liked to drink booze and smoke weed. At the substance-abuse seminars he was required to attend as a top-rated prospect, he scoffed, sat in the back, talked while the presenter spoke. He was 18. Invincible. After one such presentation at Boston College in his freshman year, he was ready to party when he went back to his dorm room. His roommate and a girlfriend had a pile of cocaine on the desk.
Herren turned to leave the room. The young woman goaded him back. She handed him a rolled-up dollar bill. It was 1994 and he knew the story of Len Bias, who eight years earlier had died of a coke overdose after being drafted No. 2 by the Boston Celtics.
Herren decided he would try it once.
“I bent down, I banged the line of cocaine, I got up and I walked right out of the room,” Herren said on Wednesday evening in suburban New Jersey in a darkened hotel conference room. The room was dead silent. Five dozen young men at the NBA’s annual rookie transition program, including Canadians Andrew Wiggins, Nik Stauskas and Tyler Ennis, had their eyes and attention fixed on Herren.
“I had no idea at 18 years old, when I promised myself one line” – Herren paused, his voice raspy, the Boston accent worn through years of abuse – “that that one time would take 14 years to walk away from.”
Herren’s story – told in the 2011 memoir Basketball Junkie and ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Unguarded – unfurled for 45 minutes. He has spoken to more than 500,000 young people. It is a harrowing story that delves into the deep abysses of addiction. Coke, OxyContin, heroin. He made the NBA – started at point guard for his beloved Celtics – and played in a half-dozen other countries. He injected almost $1-million in his veins. His audience on Wednesday barely breathed. The silence was booming.
The NBA rookie transition program, 31/2 long days of mandatory and wide-ranging sessions, is the oldest such program among North America’s major sports. The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association started their own last year. For the NBA, drugs and substance abuse is one element, but much more time is spent on issues such as financial management and personal comportment, managing the transition from venerated college star to millionaire pro athlete.
Still, drugs and how they can derail a dream and a life is a core pillar of what the NBA program is about. The first program was staged in 1986, after NBA players for years had struggled with drugs and the association’s public reputation was in tatters. The nadir was the death of the heralded Bias at the age of 22.
“It was just a recognition that we needed to do more to prepare players for life off the court,” said Greg Taylor, NBA senior vice-president of player development. “So much of the time was focused on developing their skills on the court. We now know that’s 50 per cent of the journey.”
In a front row on Wednesday, his assigned seat throughout the transition program, was Wiggins. The 19-year-old was drafted No. 1 in late June by the Cleveland Cavaliers and is set to be traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The summer has been a jarring introduction to the pro life.
Like his peers, Wiggins stared at Herren throughout the talk. Wiggins has an intimate connection with how drugs can interrupt a career. His father, Mitchell Wiggins, was a first-round NBA pick in 1983 and in 1986 reached the NBA finals with the Houston Rockets. Mitchell, a shooting guard, scored 10 points a game coming off the bench that playoff spring, a rising star.
Then, in January, 1987, at the age of 27, he and another player were banned from the NBA for cocaine. Wiggins was reinstated in 1989 and managed his best NBA season, 15.5 points a game in 1989-90, but his career sputtered and ended in the fringe leagues of Europe. “Don’t make dumb mistakes,” he would counsel Andrew and his other children as they grew up in the Toronto suburb of Vaughan.
Andrew had the embrace of a tight family. “Always told me to think, him and my mother, my grandma, my aunts, my older brothers, even my sisters,” Wiggins said in an interview. “We were all just very smart growing up, you know? We didn’t surround ourselves with bad people or people that could negatively bring us down.”
The NBA imposes decorum on its students at summer school. There are no family members, agents or hangers-on. There is a dress code; polo shirts are provided. There are no smartphones during the work sessions, and no leaving the hotel grounds for any reason.
Last year, No. 14 pick Shabazz Muhammad of the Minnesota Timberwolves brought a woman back to his room. He was thrown out of the program and is back this summer, a remedial transition program, after a humbling rookie season in which he scored four points a game.
Much of the work this past week occurred in closed-door breakout sessions, the 59 players divided into five groups. One room, with chairs assembled in a circle, had a swath of laminated, coloured pages on the floor and walls – an array of challenging scenarios: “staying away from negative influences,” “family pressures,” “pressure to stay out late,” “baby mama drama,” “peer jealousy,” “being injured.”
Back in a main session, health and wellness was discussed. “Sleep is completely underestimated. Completely underestimated,” said Derek Suite, a clinical psychiatrist.
Afterward, 19-year-old Ennis from Brampton, Ont., said the science of sleep was helpful. And while he is from a strong family, and has learned lessons of life from his family, the week has been important.
“Listening to some other guys’ problems, things other guys are going through – most of this stuff I don’t really have to deal with, mostly because I have a really solid family,” Ennis said in an interview. “I’m fortunate. But it helps to hear about it. This is good for anybody.”
Stauskas, 20 and raised in Mississauga, felt the same. “It’s always good to be reminded about this kind of stuff,” Stauskas said in an interview. “You’ve got to pay attention, and show respect to the people who are talking.”
Herren and his story of addiction, overdoses, arrests, relapses and suicide attempts – all while trying to hack out a life in pro basketball – commanded the room. The rookies, separately, learned about the NBA drug-test rules: four random urine tests between Oct. 1 and June 30, and two more between July 1 and Sept. 30.
Herren, who kicked his habit at 32 in an intense, extended-treatment program, has been clean six years. He concluded by quoting what he’s heard from some young players he’s spoken to. “Mr. Herren, it’s just weed, man. It’s just weed.”
He has the scars on his arms that prove it can be otherwise.
“Your whole life, you’ve wanted to sit in this seat,” Herren said to his audience. “Your whole life, you’ve worked for it. And you’re going jeopardize for something you call ‘just weed?’”
His final counsel was a challenge as big as those coming on the court: Be a man, be comfortable with who you are. Don’t rely on highs.
“Be a pro at being you,” Herren said. “Or this won’t last.”