Walking into The Center for the Arts shortly after 8 p.m. Wednesday evening, no one would have guessed that the entire student body, teachers and staff were sitting in the theater. The main stage area was completely quiet.
Everyone, it seemed, was stunned into rapt silence listening to former NBA pro Chris Herren share his story — of descending into 10 years of drug addiction, losing his basketball career, then nearly his life — and the heart-wrenching stories of kids and teenagers he's met in similar struggles. "My story," he said, "is not enough."
Herren (above at a previous speaking engagement) played in the NBA for two seasons.
The former All-American from Fall River, Mass., "used to think drug talks [in high school] were a joke," he admitted to the audience from the stage. "I thought, 'I'll never turn into that guy.'"
"But that attitude," he continued, "comes from the way we've irresponsibly presented addiction to kids over the years. We put way too much focus on the worst day and we forget the first day. We show you picture of drug addicts. We have you watch their movies and say, 'Look how horrible life is for them in the end!' instead of sitting you down, looking you in the eye and asking you, honestly, 'Why would you let it begin?'"
Substance abuse began for Herren — an All-American basketball star drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 1999 and then traded to the Boston Celtics — at age 13 with alcohol. It escalated to prescription-drug abuse, heroin addiction, and four overdoses.
"By the grace of God it ended when I was 32, before it killed me," he said. "...I was homeless 10 years ago. Today, I have to pinch myself for the life I live."
Herren (above on stage in Brooks' Center for the Arts) spoke Wednesday night for more than an hour.
Sober since 2008, Herren has dedicated his post-addiction life to preventing people from developing a problem like his, and helping addicts get clean. The father of three founded the nonprofit Herren Project in 2011 (which provides addicts and families with help navigating treatment and support services), the residential Herren Wellness program last year, and regularly speaks to audiences nationwide sharing his experiences as a cautionary tale.
He hopes that after hearing his speech, students will take a deeper look — at themselves. "My goal of doing this, is that one student in here goes back to his room tonight, that one student, sits down with a dorm parent, and that one student looks somebody in the eye, or says to himself, 'I want to be better than I am right now,'" he explained. "'I'm really not comfortable with the kid I'm becoming. I'm making some bad decisions and I'm tired of hiding it.'"
And he's not talking about aiming for perfection. "This is about understanding the mistakes you're making and the risks you're now taking," Herren added. "I don't know if anybody in here is really struggling [but] I hope you have a friend on this campus who's willing to help you. I hope you have a friend who's not afraid to confront you."
Khater (on right) shared a few words of introduction on stage before Herren addressed the audience.
It was the power of one, in fact, that got the ball rolling for Herren's visit to Brooks in the first place.
Colin Khater '19 had read Herren's memoir "Basketball Junkie" last year and loved it. He asked a dean about getting Herren to give a talk, but scheduling conflicts made nailing down a date difficult. Still, he kept on asking about ways to make it work. "After watching his "30 for 30" on ESPN," Khater said, "I knew he would be a great person to come and speak at Brooks."
At the same time, Khater facilitated fundraising for The Herren Project on campus, with 3-on-3 basketball tournaments last February and May. The events pulled in nearly $600.
At last, late last year, coordination with staff at the Herren Project came through and a visit was scheduled.
Why was he so intent on getting Herren to Brooks? "Being a professional sports player is something so many of us would only dream of, and his story about how he lost all of it due to his disease is not only captivating but an important example of the seriousness of addiction," said Khater. "I hope his talk helps students expand their understanding of addiction, meaning that we as a community learn it is a disease not a choice."
And Herren, for his part, wants to leave Brooksians with a better understanding of the reality that addiction affects more than just the addict. "Your little brother, your little sister, want to be just like you," he told students. "So sit in your seat right now and think of them, and think of the kid you are today, and ask yourself one question: Do you really want your little sister to do what you do? Do you really want your little brother to follow you? Do you really want them to get to school and try what you try?"
The "saddest thing about the question," he added, "is that every time I ask it, I watch students shake their heads and say, 'No.' [But] why do you want more for them and less for yourself? Why is it OK for you to do it to yourself and not for them?"
Herren's parting advice was not to be afraid to ask for help. "Every school I go to, there are sad stories," he said. "But don't be afraid to talk about your tears. Don't be afraid to share your struggle."
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