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Ex-NBA player Chris Herren assists fight against addiction

Former NBA player Chris Herren delivered his anti-addiction message to students at MERVO: Mergenthaler Vocational Tech High School.
Former NBA player Chris Herren delivered his anti-addiction message to students at MERVO: Mergenthaler Vocational Tech High School. (Caitlin Faw / Baltimore Sun)

As a starting NBA point guard, Chris Herren traveled coast to coast, playing the sport he had loved since childhood. But Herren wasn't just shooting hoops as he crisscrossed the country for various professional basketball teams. He was shooting heroin and popping pills.

No matter where he went, Herren could not shake the addiction. At one low point, Herren — wearing his Boston Celtics uniform — waited in the rain for a drug dealer outside the Boston Garden just minutes before tipoff.

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Eight years sober, now Herren travels to school gyms and auditoriums to deliver a cautionary tale that, luckily, ends with recovery and redemption rather than prison or death.

This week Herren brought his near-death experiences with heroin, OxyContin and alcohol to high school students in Baltimore and Harford County, jurisdictions that represent the urban legacy of heroin use and its rapid expansion into the region's rural reaches.

For the first nine months of 2015 there were 527 heroin-related overdose deaths in Maryland, 25 percent more than during the same period a year earlier. From 2010 to 2014, the number of heroin deaths statewide surged 142 percent. State and local government officials continue to devise strategies to combat what Gov. Larry Hogan has defined as a crisis.

Over a 19-hour period last weekend in Harford County, three people died of heroin overdoses, said Joseph Ryan, manager of Harford County's drug control policy office. Since Jan. 1, he added, 15 people have died of opiate overdoes there. Law enforcement throughout the region has responded by training more officers on using naloxone, a medication that reverses opiate overdoses.

"The devastation continues," Ryan said. "This is a serial killer in our neighborhoods."

Herren focused not only on the damage of addiction but the adolescent struggles with self-esteem that lead many students to smoke their first joint, drink their first beer or pop their first pill. He encouraged students to praise, not tease or cyberbully, the students who refrain from abusing substances.

"Those kids are my heroes," Herren said Wednesday at Mergenthaler Vocational-TechnicalHigh School, his first of three stops over two days. "I wish I had felt good enough just being me."

For nearly two hours at Mervo, Herren stood in front of 600 students who barely budged as he spoke, stunning their principal, Craig Rivers.

"Wow," Rivers said. "They were engaged."

Herren also spoke last night at John Carroll School in Bel Air, a public event that attracted nearly 700 people, including County Executive Barry Glassman and Christopher B. Shank, Hogan's deputy chief of staff. Herren is scheduled to speak on Thursday morning at Forest Park High School in Baltimore.

"Chris Herren has a remarkable story to tell," Shank said. "This used to be something people didn't feel comfortable talking about, which led to tragic consequences."

A 40-year-old married father of three children who lives in Portsmouth, R.I., Herren stopped using drugs and alcohol in 2008. A year later, he founded a company that develops top basketball prospects in New England. And in 2011 he published a memoir, "Basketball Junkie"; starred in an ESPN documentary film, "UnGuarded"; and started the Herren Project, a charity that aims to raise public awareness about drug abuse and helps individuals find treatment.

Herren speaks about 250 times a year in more than a dozen states to schools and professional teams.

Addiction dogged his college playing years and ended his time in the NBA, where he had the chance to play for his favorite team, the Celtics. He overdosed multiple times and woke up once to a police officer telling him he had been dead for 30 seconds.

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Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner, who sent one of her deputies to Herren's lecture at Mervo, said the former basketball player's efforts are critical to help reduce the stigma around addiction.

"Addiction affects people of all ages, no matter what color, no matter what class," Wen said.

Herren's appearances were paid for by the Nikki Perlow Foundation, a Baltimore-based charity that helps young people find treatment. The nonprofit was named for a 21-year-old woman who died in 2007 of an accidental heroin overdose.

Gary Perlow, Nikki's uncle and president of the foundation, said Herren makes it clear that addiction is a "family disease."

Herren said siblings, parents, friends and teachers need to speak up when they see a problem — before it's too late.

"The problem with high school kids is no one holds each other accountable," Herren said at Mervo. "There's always kids struggling. I wish I had been a better friend."

Dion Warren, an 18-year-old senior at Mervo in Baltimore, was blown away by Herren's lecture.

"That had a powerful impact," said Warren, who is heading to Allegheny College in Pennsylvania to study business management. "We need more of this stuff, especially in our city. We're really struggling."

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