Today when the clock struck midnight, Chris Herren celebrated three years and three months of being drug- and alcohol-free.
Just over a month ago, on Sept. 27, he celebrated his 36th birthday.
Both are milestones that he’s proud of.
Both seemed impossible to reach at one point.
“I just knew I’d be dead by this age,” Herren said. “Truth is I should be dead, and being sober? Never thought it was a reality. I’d done so much I couldn’t imagine coming back from it. My life … It was bad, but with a lot of help I was able to turn it around.”
Tonight at 8 p.m. on ESPN, “Unguarded,” a documentary from ESPN Films, chronicles everything from Herren’s rise from high school All-American to NBA baller to his tragic fall to drug addiction and alcoholism to his rebirth.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster,” Herren said of the documentary. “The story is mostly darkness, and that’s OK because I did this for the sole purpose of inspiring someone who is in or has a loved one in the same situation. I had what every young basketball player dreamt of, but through bad choices at a young age it all fell apart for me in the end. But even with that you can bounce back and find peace like I did.”
Herren was the star every high school player aspires to be. The type of player who, these days, would have multiple highlight mix tapes all over YouTube and thousands of followers on Twitter.
As a senior at Durfee (Fall River, Mass.), Herren, a combo guard, averaged 27 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in 1993-94 and was subsequently named Massachusetts Player of the Year. He was also a legend on the AAU circuit and once scored 63 points in a game for the Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC).
He played in the McDonald’s All-American Game and went to Boston College before transferring to Fresno State. In 1999, Herren was selected by the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the NBA draft and was later traded to the Boston Celtics.
Still, off the court, addiction wasn't just destroying his life, it actually ended it.
Herren's autobiography “Basketball Junkie,” which he co-wrote with Bill Reynolds, opened with this chilling fact: “I was dead for 30 seconds."
“It was a terrible situation, there’s no way around it,” Herren said. “It was the lowest of low, but that’s why I tell it. I’m a living testament that you can turn things around even at your lowest point. When I get an email telling me I helped pull a kid back from going down the wrong path, it’s better than any NBA contract I ever had. That’s real.”
ESPN national recruiting director Paul Biancardi was a part of the coaching staff at Boston College that helped reel in Herren in 1994. Biancardi said he never saw Herren’s life taking the route that it did.
“Chris loved the game and he was so competitive and coachable, that always stood out about him,” Biancardi said. “He was such a personable kid with us, but we knew there were issues off the court. To see the path he went down was surprising in a way, but when you have issues that stay unresolved they become bigger issues and it leads to worse things. But now to see him turn it all around is special. It’s truly extraordinary. His message is relatable, so it will resonate with these younger players.”
Rasheed Sulaimon can vouch for Herren’s appeal. Sulaimon was front and center when Herren spoke to the Boost Mobile Elite 24 players in Los Angeles in August.
Sulaimon recalled Herren's story about how his addiction had gotten so bad that he once stood in the rain in his Celtics uniform outside the Boston Garden, waiting for his dealer just minutes before tipoff.
“That story was just so crazy,” said Sulaimon, a senior shooting guard at Strake Jesuit (Houston) who is committed to Duke. “The whole talk was a real eye-opener. He was sitting in those seats where we were and ended up making bad choices that led to his downfall. I really appreciated him sharing his story. It’s one that I’ll never forget.”
Herren's No. 1 goal is to have the same lasting impression on the masses "to keep kids on the right path," so he travels around the country speaking to high school and college players about his life. He also started The Herren Project, a nonprofit organization that pays for addicts to receive treatment.
“I just really want these kids to get it,” Herren said. “At the end of the day, there will be more drug addicts than NBA players. That’s a fact. It can go so fast. I was making half a million dollars a year, and four years later I was smoking cigarettes from public ashtrays and drinking $2 pints of vodka to get through the day.
"When you’re in that life, things can change drastically and they can change quickly. My only hope is that people’s lives are changed after seeing the documentary. I’ve been to hell, but I want to inspire people to come out of that hell.”
For more information on Chris Herren’s nonprofit organization, visit: TheHerrenProject.org