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'I can't lose this game,' ex-NBA player tells Harford audience about his recovery from drug abuse

On Wednesday evening, May 18, Chris Herren, a former NBA player, discussed his drug addiction and subsquent recovery at the John Carroll School. (Bryna Zumer and Dan Griffin, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

"I often say, we can step over addicts. We can walk past them on the street, but every one of them have a mom and dad at home. They have a son or daughter that miss them on Christmas and just want to see them on their birthday," Chris Herren told more than 800 people gathered inside The John Carroll School's gym in Bel Air.

Once a rising basketball star who reached his dream of playing for the Boston Celtics, only to be waived out of the league at the end of the season, Herren knows exactly how hard drug addiction hits not just the addict but everyone around him or her.

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The 40-year-old Massachusetts native lost his promising NBA career to a self-described "nightmare" of cocaine, painkillers, heroin and alcohol, leaving his wife and children to deal with a husband and father who was never the same person from one day to the next.

Ex-NBA player Chris Herren chats with visitors before speaking about his fight to overcome substance abuse during a presentation at the John Carroll School in Bel Air Wednesday evening.
Ex-NBA player Chris Herren chats with visitors before speaking about his fight to overcome substance abuse during a presentation at the John Carroll School in Bel Air Wednesday evening.(BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

On Wednesday evening, Herren, who has been in recovery for the past eight years, shared his grim story with an enthralled crowd in Bel Air.

The program was held in partnership with the Baltimore-based Nikki Perlow Foundation and Harford County's Office of Drug Control Policy.

Herren's downward spiral began when he was his small town's biggest basketball star, partying and drinking in basements and trying cocaine for the first time at Boston College.

He eventually turned to painkillers and became solely focused on maintaining the addiction, even while playing a season for the Denver Nuggets, another for the Celtics and ultimately playing professionally in several other countries.

"I was making half a million dollars in cash, but I wasn't happy and I wasn't healthy," he said.

In Bologna, Italy, desperate for painkillers, Herren roamed the city trying to find drugs but "couldn't say 'Percocet' in Italian."

"At 24, the only thing I could do was roll up my sleeve and point to my veins," he recalled. "I said, 'I am so sick from these painkillers I have been taking; I just need some heroin to get me through.'"

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Three people died of heroin overdoses within 19 hours last weekend, and more calls have come in to police and emergency responders in the early days of this week, prompting the Harford County Sheriff's Office to urge the public to check in on family members or friends who might be struggling with drug abuse.

Herren's story, chronicled in the recent ESPN Films documentary "Unguarded" and the book "Basketball Junkie," was aimed as much at others in recovery as at those who might be in danger of starting drugs.

Among those listening in the John Carroll gym were addicts in various stages of recovery, and Herren said his message was meant to give them hope.

He noted that people often laugh at his stories, but "we can no longer laugh" at substance abuse if addiction is a disease like diabetes, "if we want to be treated as such."

He challenged parents who focus on criticizing their children's social circle to question instead why their own child might feel the need to drink or do drugs in a basement with friends he or she has known for years.

"The only time I ever think about getting drunk or high, the only time that thought runs through my mind, is when I don't want to be me," Herren said, calling the pressure put on him as a high school basketball star immense.

"Not being me has always been the issue," he said.

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Herren's appearance in Bel Air was co-sponsored by the Harford County Office of Drug Control Policy and the Nikki Perlow Foundation, which was established for families and young adults fighting addiction.

Harford County is in the grip of a monstrous heroin abuse epidemic that has resulted in multiple overdoses being reported weekly over the past two years, including at least 28 deaths last year and 13 so far this year, according to Harford County Sheriff's Office statistics. Three deaths were reported in 19 hours last weekend, and non-fatal overdoses reported to the Sheriff's Office this year are approaching 100.

"There are people in the audience tonight that are fighting this battle and I want you to know you are not alone," Harford County Executive Glassman told the gathering. "We are here to help you and we honor your courage and your commitment to recovery."

Ex-NBA player Chris Herren, center, stands with Gary Perlow, left, and his brother Cliff Perlow before speaking in Bel Air Wednesday evening about his battle to overcome substance abuse. The program was co-sponsed by Nikki Perlow Foundation that aids recovering addicts and their families.
Ex-NBA player Chris Herren, center, stands with Gary Perlow, left, and his brother Cliff Perlow before speaking in Bel Air Wednesday evening about his battle to overcome substance abuse. The program was co-sponsed by Nikki Perlow Foundation that aids recovering addicts and their families.(BRYNA ZUMER | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Attendees like Stephanie Wilson and Dana Clugston, both of whom said they are recovering heroin addicts, called Herren's presentation powerful.

"It's helpful to young people who are in recovery," Clugston, who lives in the Philadelphia area, said. "It's better than what I expected."

Wilson, of Washington, D.C., said she liked Herren's comment that people should not laugh at addiction and she liked his focus on the family aspect of substance abuse, including telling parents to ask what their children are doing and struggling with.

"You could definitely hear the emotion in his voice," Wilson said about Herren. "You could definitely relate to the situation."

Gannon Irrgang, of Bel Air, who is also in recovery, said about Herren: "I think it's great. He is an inspiration."

Andrew Cragle, who is from Elkton but lives in Havre de Grace, said he appreciated "just hearing the stories of being arrested, being on the streets," which he could relate to.

Cragle added he liked hearing Herren "keeping a positive attitude."

"I came with my mom, and even being able to come with a parent and hear him speak is a bonding experience," he said.

The book on 2015 has been closed. In Harford County the overriding theme from last year, sadly and tragically, is the theme again this year – heroin.

Gary Perlow, of the Nikki Perlow Foundation said before the event that it was his organization's first activity in Harford County.

"We want to send a positive message that, hey, it can happen to anybody. It happened to a superstar like this; it could happen to you," Perlow said. "We are aware of the issues here in Harford County and we thought it would be so important for them to hear a message from someone like Chris."

Asked if he misses basketball, Herren said sobriety is a far bigger challenge.

"The way I look at it, every single day I wake up and I have to play in the biggest game of my life, and the reality is, I can't lose this game," he said. "If I lose one game, I might never come back."

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