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Former NBA standout and recovering addict delivers anti-drug in Anne Arundel

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The sniffling began about 15 minutes into Chris Herren's speech. As the former NBA player recounted his battle with drug addiction, students throughout Southern High School's auditorium looked around to see who was crying.

No one needed to look far.

For the past four years, Herren — whose story of substance abuse was the subject of a 2011 ESPN documentary, "Unguarded" — has moved crowds with his gritty message at high schools, colleges and prisons nationwide.

His talk at Southern High came at a time when county police say they're dealing with an increase in heroin use. Since the start of year, Anne Arundel County has seen 17 fatal drug overdoses — 13 of them involving heroin — according to county police spokesman Justin Mulcahy.

"I was a heroin addict for eight years," said Herren, 38, who went from high school and college basketball standout and member of the Boston Celtics to a overdoses, felony convictions and a downward spiral that nearly cost him his life and his family.

"People I hung out with were hard-core drug addicts," he told students. "I never heard one that said they started with crack and heroin, man. We all started out with red Solo cups and blunts. We all started off asking our older brothers to hit the liquor store for us on Friday."

Police believe heroin use is on the rise, in part, because of increased law enforcement focus on the illicit use of oxycodone and other prescription drugs. Last month, Anne Arundel police began carrying naloxone — often sold under the name Narcan — a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdose.

The problem is not limited to Anne Arundel County. Statewide, heroin deaths increased from 245 in 2011 to 378 in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available.

"The issue with heroin is everywhere," said Herren, a Massachusetts native. "No community is safe. No demographic, no income level. Everyone now has been touched by this."

Not every student at the presentation was moved. On two occasions, Herren confronted teens he felt were disruptive, once threatening to remove them from the auditorium. He said they reminded him of himself at that age, tuning out warnings about alcohol and drugs.

"I remember what it was like walking down to this assembly … sitting in my seat with my friends, saying, 'Come on, man. This is a waste of time,'" he said.

"I had no idea at 18 years old, when I promised myself just one line of cocaine, that that one line would take 14 years to walk away from," he said.

Many students found the message powerful.

"It was very sobering, and I think it probably helped a lot of kids," said senior Sierra Gustavson, 17.

"I felt a real connection to it, only because I've been around drugs pretty much my entire life," said senior Joseph Grover, 18. "It really had an impact on me. I almost cried — I'm not going to lie."

Anne Arundel schools spokesman Bob Mosier said schools officials are concerned about heroin use among teens.

"From an anecdotal perspective, school counseling is hearing from folks at schools about a smattering of cases," Mosier said. "I wouldn't classify it as an epidemic by any means, but certainly it's a very powerful drug and a difficult addiction to overcome."

Mosier said school counselors work with students who have "these types of needs. The measures and interventions range from helping students directly to trying to assist students with treatment plans and other types of support."

Herren's visit to Southern High was sponsored by the school's Business and Community Advisory Board, an organization that enhances classroom experiences to help students transition into college and the workforce.

BCAB Vice President Lynette Entzian said the organization raised $7,000 for the appearance and has sought to bring Herren to the school since last year, after he spoke at an event at FedEx Field in Landover. She lauded his message that experimenting with drugs can be life-altering.

"Chris made a huge point. It's not about what addiction was like. It's about Day One," said Entzian as students, some teary-eyed, lined up to speak with Herren after his lecture. "Helping these kids understand what Day One looks like — and it looks like them — I'm hoping will be an impact."

Herren says he's been drug-free since 2008, and in 2011 he founded The Herren Project, an organization spreads awareness of substance abuse issues. He said he gives about 250 lectures a year and feels he's turned some teens around.

"People ask me about public speaking; I didn't think I became a good one until I was about the people I was speaking to and not about me," Herren said. "When I see these kids crying, man, it's a blessing. Although it's hard, it's a blessing."

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

jburris@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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