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Words of Wisdom

Motivational speaker and former basketball star discusses the dangers of substance abuse.

By Timothy Reilly

“I said, ‘Please God, one kid, man. If I can help one, it’s worth it.’ ”

Chris Herren had just begun his speech. He was explaining his rationale for bringing his crusade against drugs and alcohol to high school environments. He had the complete attention of the juniors and seniors at Bensalem High School, who had gathered in the school’s auditorium to hear Herren’s tale.

Sharing his story: Chris Herren, who played in the NBA for the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics, recently spoke to Bensalem High School students about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. PHOTO: HOOP DREAMS WITH CHRIS HERREN

Herren stood on the stage and peered out over the audience. He spoke with an accent that betrayed his Massachusetts roots. He also had a habit of pausing during his monologue to breathe into his hand, a tic that he likely carried over from his days as a basketball player.

For a former hoops star, Herren was not particularly tall. Nevertheless, his presence was imposing. He attacked his topic with all of the aggression he once reserved for opposing defenses.

He did not seem particularly nervous, either. He was used to the spotlight. Herren’s athletic talents took him to Boston College and Fresno State. Afterward, he played in the NBA for the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics.

It was at Boston College that Herren’s struggles with substance abuse spiraled out of control. During a video presentation that ran before his speech, Herren acknowledged experimenting with narcotics in his dorm room.

“That first line of cocaine opened doors for me that I was not able to close for 15 years,” he confessed.

Over time, Herren discovered OxyContin, a painkiller and an addictive opiate. When the cost of the pills became prohibitive, he moved to heroin.

Through the help of friends and the support of family, Herren was able to find an extended treatment facility. He has been sober for nearly nine years. He has spent the past six years traveling the country and telling his story.

Herren emphasized that the root of his issues could be traced back to his early teens. He drank and smoked because he wanted to fit in with his peer group. Like so many other teenagers, he struggled with insecurity and constructed a facade that concealed his identity.

“I will always find it sad when a little kid crosses that bridge and loses the ability to be himself 24/7,” he remarked.

In high school, Herren marveled at the classmates who resisted drugs and alcohol.

“Those kids have something special that I’m missing,” he stated.

Herren offered pointed criticisms about the way adults handle adolescent substance abuse.

“I think we focus on the worst day and we forget the first day,” he observed.

In his estimation, such scare tactics prove ineffective. Instead, Herren revealed his plan in the event he ever discovered one of his children was drinking or taking drugs.

“I’m gonna tell them how much I love them and I’m gonna ask them one question. As your father, please tell me why.”

Interspersed throughout Herren’s presentation were accounts of high schoolers he had met during his various speaking engagements. One particularly harrowing story involved a young girl who had been cutting herself to cope with her issues at home and the bullying she endured at school.

Herren’s visit to her school had empowered the girl to confront her peers and deal with the problems that had led her to self-harm. She provides Herren with a monthly email update highlighting her progress.

“That little girl’s email means more to me than anything I’ve ever accomplished in my life as a basketball player,” he asserted.

At the conclusion of his speech, Herren made a plea to the students at Bensalem High School: “I want you to challenge yourself socially and grow emotionally.”

Herren received an enthusiastic ovation, but he did not pause to bask in the applause. He quickly left the stage and disappeared into an exit. He was due at the University of Alabama later in the day.

He had another speech to give, another opportunity to deliver his message. And another chance to reach a young person in need of help. ••

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