Chris Herren on D&C: The ‘Unguarded’ interview
|11.02.11 at 11:42 am ET|
In case you missed ESPN’s “Unguarded” documentary on Durfee High (Fall River, Mass.) legend and former Celtics guard Chris Herren on Tuesday night, it will air again on ESPN2 Saturday morning at 7 a.m. Set your DVR. Meanwhile, Herren joined The Dennis & Callahan Morning Show on WEEI Wednesday morning. The following is a transcript of their conversation (click here to listen):
Dennis & Callahan: For the man who was in the center of the storm, what did it seem like to you to watch that?
Chris Herren: It’s extremely difficult. It never gets easy. The Boston premiere was definitely the hardest for me, because I had to sit in the audience and watch it. It’s different when you watch it by yourself or your behind closed doors with your family, where you can kind of get up, walk around and come back to it. To me, it’s important. As I’ve said the last couple days, the easy road for me would be to run my basketball company, do public speaking, work for the substance abuse center that I work for and never look back, but I think that would be a disservice to the people who are still back.
D&C: Bill Simmons put out the call to his followers to send you a message after last night’s show. Give me an estimate: How many messages did you get on Twitter?
CH: My phone shut down. I couldn’t take on any more. Prior to this, I wasn’t a big Twitter guy. I didn’t really understand the whole Twitter and tweeting thing, but I started trending, so I started getting messages. I think I picked up around 9,000 followers in a three-hour period.
D&C: Did you think “Unguarded” was well done and accurately done and a fair portrayal?
CH: I do. I do. The greatest gift of “Unguarded” for me is that I can sit down with my 12-year-old and watch it. If “Unguarded” got pulled off the air of ESPN prior to last night, I got everything I needed it from it, because little Chris and I sat downstairs on our couch together and laughed, cried and healed. I thought it was very well done. I thought it was respectful to younger kids, where middle school kids and high school kids could watch it. And I think that’s important.
D&C: You got almost 9,000 people, including Dwyane Wade, sending you a message. Did you get a few of those?
CH: I did. Dwyane Wade sent me a great message. Stuart Scott. But I also got some messages saying, “I’m going into treatment tomorrow morning, and I admitted to my parents last night that I have a serious problem.” We had a screening in Newport, and after that screening a young high school kid walked up to me and said, “I just told my parents I’m not doing well, and they’re dropping me off at a treatment center, so thank you.” That’s priceless.
D&C: Your message was just as riveting to high school kids as it was to the prisoners. It translates. What kind of reaction do you get?
CH: It’s the same story though. That pain — the heartache you put on your kids, the shame and the guilt you have because of the levels of despair you brought your family — I don’t care how tough you are, what kind of gun you have, how many people you fight or how many years you do in prison, that type of pain is much, much harder. That emotional pain. When I open that door, at that facility with those prisoners, here I am in this powder blue Polo shirt, and I look at guys with tattoos of horns on their forehead, and I’m like, “Oh sh@t. How am I going to get across to these guys. These guys are going to be like, ‘Get this kid out of here.’”
D&C: I was wondering if they were going to laugh at your jokes and everything, but you had them absolutely captivated.
CH: It was special. Those guys sent me a poster that I have in my basement, all short notes of how they felt when I was there. And it’s amazing. It truly was.
D&C: You said toward the end of the program, “I’m a dad, I’m a husband, I’m a father, I’m a son — and a junkie.” That statement makes me ask this question: Is it still a day-to-day struggle for you? Do you know that you’ll be sober today, but not sure about tomorrow?
CH: Absolutely. If I do what I’m supposed to do today, I have a better chance at staying sober tomorrow. There’s no doubt about that. Some people look at me with a sad look on their face and say, “I’m so sorry. It must be really, really tough.” And I look at them and say, “You should have seen me four years ago. Then it was really, really tough.” Don’t feel bad for me now. I’m blessed. I’ve been given a gift that some people don’t get. Although I will live with this forever, I’m doing my best to maintain it and live that life.
D&C: There was one poignant moment where you said, “I was out the entire night before the game with two girls, cocaine, the last thing I had before I took the court was a Budweiser,” and yet you played your ass off and you played well. Did you spend or do you spend much time wondering how good you might have been without the drugs and alcohol?
CH: I really don’t. I don’t look back and say, “If I did this, it would be different,” because I’m Ok today. Sometimes, you look at it and say, “Oh, man, here he goes. That sounds corny.” But that’s the reality. I spoke to 2,800 Durfee students the other day, and I said, “What’s the perfect ending to my story? Coming in 10-11 years retired from the Boston Celtics, long career in the NBA, telling you about how it was playing with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and winning a championship? Or is it coming back a recovering drug addict and telling you my story to try to get out in front of you?” Most of those kids in those bleachers have a much, much, much better chance of becoming an alcoholic or a drug addict than an NBA basketball player.
D&C: How different would life be for you if you weren’t a great athlete, if you were just another junkie from Fall River? Would you be better off or worse off?
CH: I don’t know. That’s a very tough question. I have a lot of support because of my experiences in basketball. That’s the blessing that I have from basketball today — that there are a lot of people who have given me opportunities and helped me out because of the game. So, I believe I’m better off.
D&C: But there are a lot of people who would love to share their cocaine with you or give you a ride or give you some booze or give you some booze that enabled you along the way, right?
CH: Yeah, of course. That’s part of it as well, but there also has to be a level of accountability. People would always say to me, “Get out of Fall River, man. You’ve gotta get away from Fall River.” Fall River takes a hit, but you know something? When I woke up in Tehran, Iran, all by myself, I knew it wasn’t Fall River’s problem anymore. When I woke up in Istanbul, Fall River was far away. At the end of the day, it was me, and if I didn’t fix me then I wasn’t going to be good anywhere.
D&C: You talked about the fact that you drank alcohol and smoked marijuana in ninth grade, y0u talked about the cocaine with the two girls in college at 18 years of age. You said, “That opened doors for me I couldn’t close for 15 years.” Was there one moment you said, “That’s the moment that pushed me off the edge”?
CH: Once I started taking Oxycontin. That’s when all bets were off. Cocaine is a different drug. When I was in college, I would do it on a really long weekend for three days, but I put it down for a month and a half or two months. But once I jumped into opiates, and it became a daily drug for me, that’s when there was no turning back.
D&C: You told your Oxy dealer, “You have to get here to the Garden tonight, because I’m supposed to play, and if you don’t get here, I’m not playing.” Is that because you couldn’t play or wouldn’t play?
CH: There was just no chance of me playing. Physically, I couldn’t play. There were many nights like that, where I just physically couldn’t handle it. I walked away from a $50,000 contract in Bologna, Italy, because he called training camps in the mountains. I’m with my wife and my son, and the coach said we’re going four hours up into the mountains, and guess what? I’m not going, because my drug dealer isn’t there.
D&C: Did the Celtics know all about your issues? They do their research. Did they know they’re bringing you back here, and that was potentially big trouble for you and them?
CH: I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’m sure they were well aware of my issues leading up to it — with the cocaine stuff — but as far as the Oxycontin, I’d say no. In Denver, I had a pretty healthy year there, so there were no signs that should have stay away from him because of the year before. That being said, once I got to the Celtics, in fairness to them, I got hurt. Once I got hurt, I was gone. I kind of disappeared.
D&C: Do you want them to make a movie? We talked about this before. Hey, it’s a better story than “Moneyball,” and that’s a hit. This could be a hit. Would that be a good thing for you?
CH: I don’t know. It’s difficult to gauge that. I’m definitely a fan of this. I’m a fan of this because of the power it has. Dress it up and put a wig on it, like for Hollwood, and I don’t know if it has the same effect. To me, it doesn’t matter. If it were to happen, I know that I would lose a lot of control of the story.
D&C: They’d have to put wings and a halo on your wife. She comes across, as we all suspected, as an angel and a saint. Has she had enough? Is she enjoying this?
CH: She struggles with it, just like I do. Someone said to me at the New York screening, “You have to sit in here and watch it with us.” I said, “Watch yourself with a 12×12 head, running your mouth when you’re 22 years old, thinking that you’ve got it all figured out. It’s not easy.” She has a tough time with it, but I think we know all too well what it’s like living in that dark, seedy, secret life of shame and guilt by ourselves.
D&C: I don’t know, that alley in Modesto looked really comfortable.
CH: That’s a tough spot for me. That was probably the toughest thing for me to do, because I hit my bottom fast in that place.
D&C: Talking about [your wife] Heather, a great line she had in the piece was, “We had a lot of new beginnings.” Did you almost lose her at one point?
CH: Yeah, many times.
D&C: Why did she keep taking you back?
CH: Like Heather said, we met each other in the sixth grade, and we went through a lot together from the age of 12 to 18, when I left for college. I think that she would tell you that she knew who I was before basketball took effect in a lot of ways, and thought that she could find that person and get that person back. I think there was always hope, and I thank God for her level of compassion and her sticking to her vows, because that’s truly a woman who stuck to her vows.
D&C: A couple quick technical questions before we go: How do you say heroin in Italian?
CH: I’d point to my arm.
D&C: There are a lot of low points, and you get asked that all the time and we’ve asked you that before — the Dunkin’ Donuts crash — but driving from bus stations in Bologna, Italy, while your wife and kid are sleeping and trying to buy heroin from people who don’t even speak your language, that seems like a pretty low point.
CH: They’re all low. Any day you wake up, grab a hypodermic needle and you have to put it in your arm by 7 a.m. in order to function is a bottom. Bologna was a bottom. There’s no doubt about it. But that level of desperation, trust me: I tell kids all the time, “My vision of a heroin addict was this guy with no teeth, sleeping in his drool. I had no idea he was a professional athlete. I had no idea that that guy with no teeth and drooling on the sidewalk — that’s his last day. That guy started somewhere, just like I did.”
D&C: Do you still crave drugs and alcohol?
CH: Rarely. The thought enters my mind once in a great while a lot less than it did two years ago, let’s say. But once in a great while the thought of it would enter my mind, and I’m just blessed that I’ve stayed away.
D&C: Do you ever think about bleaching your hair again?
CH: Oh, Jesus Christ, absolutely not.
D&C: What’s under your Band-Aid on your arm?
CH: I don’t know. I think I just got a physical with Pitino.
D&C: Will you go on the road? I don’t know how many of those 9,000 messages are asking you to come speak to a group, but will you do that? To me, the most impressive was your speech to these various groups and just how compelling it was to them.
CH: Sure. I’m very fortunate. The American Program Bureau in Boston, who represents me, has sent me request already this morning to go to different places. I’m scheduled to speak at Stonybrook in New York on Nov. 6. That is something that I’m passionate about. I believe in it, because I know the response I get when I’m done. That’s something that’s near and dear to me.