Denial is a Rosetta Stone of modern life. When in doubt: deny, deny, deny until you run out of excuses. We see it in politics, in business, in sports, at home, in the confessional, and in those who struggle with addictions. Mark Twain was fully on point when he declared, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
Chris Herren, a former college and NBA basketball star with the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets, was a king of denial in his addiction to alcohol, cocaine, and heroin—until he ran out of excuses. Hindsight, the grace of God, and a guardian angel named Chris Mullin, a former NBA all-star with the Golden State Warriors and Indiana Pacers put the breaks on Herren’s denial. Hall-of-Famer Mullin, in recovery himself at the time from alcohol abuse, and a friend of Mullin’s named “Murph,” also in recovery, brought mercy to Chris’s life and were instrumental years ago in getting Herren—down and out and with no money, into in-patient treatment that lasted 10-and-a-half months. A “God moment,” as Herren calls it. Mullin and his wife Liz, financially supported the treatment. Murph, a persistent support to Herren, later died from his addiction—a loss that still troubles Herren today. “Murph” saved my life,” he says.
In recovery for 14 years, Herren, 47, is now an author and motivational speaker; he established a non-profit, as well as a residential substance use, health, and wellness organization for men and women.
Herren, an individual of deep faith, is an inspiring example of triumph over denial. His recovery has been the subject of award-winning documentaries, including the ESPN 30-for-30 film, “Unguarded.”
He recently reflected on his passage. “Over the years I have discovered—both personally and through working with thousands of struggling and recovering people—that there is much more to recovery than ceasing the use of substances and unhealthy behaviors,” he says. “Recovery is a journey of self-discovery and reflection, and for it to be sustainable, it needs to include every aspect of a person’s life: mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. Developing new tools and a healthy lifestyle is essential, and more emphasis needs to be placed not just on treatment, but also on relapse prevention, and collective education on the disease of addiction.”
The numbers today are staggering. Herren, who still looks fit enough for competitive hoops, says: “There are an estimated 60 million Americans who misuse substances but have not yet become dependent. Many of these individuals do not need a traditional inpatient rehabilitation program or a hospital stay, but rather a place to recalibrate their lives, adopt a wellness lifestyle, learn techniques to improve their health, and help them realize their full potential.”
It took time for Herren to realize his full potential.
By his own admission, he lived a “double life,” as a collegiate and professional basketball player, as well as a husband and father, while at the same time frantically trying to cope with intense addiction that nearly cost him his marriage, his three children, and his life. Herren’s wife Heather stuck by him in the darkest of days.
Herren was raised in a troubled family. His father struggled with alcohol and yet managed to represent a blue-collar district in Fall River, outside of Boston, for 17 years in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The Herren family was good at deflecting and athletic prowess. Yet addiction prowled.
Chris Herren took his first drink at age 14, a Miller Lite, one of his dad’s. Over time, the alcohol and drugs slowly took over, a blackhole of addiction that included cocaine, oxycontin, heroin, and other lethal drugs that led to multiple overdoses. “I came from an accomplished athletic family, and felt I had to be the best,” reflects Herren. “I needed a boost. I had a fear of failing. And so I created a certain mentality to succeed, a dangerous mentality that brought on the drinking the drugs, and the numbness. The older I got the more reckless I became.”
No one would question that Herren was thoroughly blessed with basketball talent; so was his older brother Michael, who held the record for most points scored at Durfee High in Fall River where more than 4,000 showed up for many of the games. Michael’s record was broken years later by Chris—a McDonald’s All-American his senior year.
The universities came looking, and Herren received a basketball scholarship to Boston College (BC) where addiction and related struggles once again pounced. Chris failed a drug test at BC and had to leave the school, landing 3,000 miles away at Fresno State on coach Jerry Tarkanian’s infamous team where players often made both the police blotter and All-American lists. Herren ended the first season at Fresno averaging 17 points a game; a 31-point average for the last four games. Yet, once again, he failed his drug test and was sent to rehabilitation for 21 days. Upon his return to Fresno, Herren was featured in a FoxSports documentary, “Between the Madness.”
He played in 86 games at Fresno, averaging 15 points and five assists per game—enough to be drafted in 1999 by the Denver Nuggets as a second-round pick; his average playing time in Denver was 13 minutes per game. The next season Herren joined the Celtics where he became a starter for the first time in his professional career. He was released a year later after a season-ending injury. While playing for the Celtics, Herren, by his own admission, purchased painkillers worth an estimated $20,000.
Herren then limped into the European pro basketball circuit where he rejected a $50,000-a-month contract with an Italian club because the team’s training grounds were so remote that he could not purchase drugs. All in all, Herren played for five European teams in Italy, Turkey, Germany, Poland, and China.
Then on August 1, 2008, he overdosed again on heroin, crashed into a utility pole, and was initially considered dead by paramedics. In God’s hands now, Herren had a rebirth, and his awakening had begun. His late mother, Cynthia, was clearly pulling for her son in Heaven; she passed away at 50 from lung cancer. She never smoked. Her death left a large void in the family.
“My Mom died with a broken heart,” says Herren. “She wanted me healed. Her dying wish was for me to get sober. I didn’t give it to her, and that haunts me. But I’m closer today to my Mom than I was in her life. She left me with her faith. I’m very spiritual now. My family is the center of my life; recovery has allowed me to be the father and husband I always dreamed I would be. Church is a place now where I sit with my mother, free of my denial. And I love her for that.”
Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.