CHAMPAIGN — Chris Herren saw himself in Thursday’s crowd.
As the former NBA player spoke at Combes Gym to nearly 2,000 teenagers from throughout central Illinois, he interrupted himself for a brief comment directed at two students sitting in the upper west balcony.
“You can sit tight, or you can bounce,” he said.
The students, who attend Central, were not being vocally disruptive. However, athletic director John Woods noticed their actions.
“They were on iPods,” he said. “They weren’t engaged.”
Either of those students could have been Herren 20 years earlier. That was the subliminal theme of his message.
He recalls the time he was forced to sit through such a talk, listening to an adult speak about the perils of drugs and alcohol.
Herren, a former Gatorade state Player of the Year in Massachusetts, was a freshman at Boston College. His father was a politician. His mother worked in Corporate America. He pleaded with his coach not to make the meeting mandatory.
“I said, ‘C’mon, Coach, I don’t need to hear this,’ ” Herren said.
The coach gave the 18-year-old a choice.
“He said, ‘If you don’t come, I’ll suspend you,’ ” Herren said.
He attended the gathering, but it held little meaning.
“I had the nerve to laugh and joke (during the presentation),” he said.
“Five minutes after I walked out of the assembly, I was in my dorm room and saw a pile of cocaine,” Herren said. “I said, ‘I’ll do it once and never again.’ I promised myself, but one night developed into a 14-year nightmare.”
Edwin McCraney, a senior at Champaign’s READY school, was among the attentive students.
“He touched my heart,” McCraney said, “and made me want to encourage my friends to get off drugs. I’ll never forget it. I wouldn’t want to go down the same path.”
Kato Barkstall, another student at READY, called Herren’s message an important one.
“It was motivating, for sure,” Barkstall said. “He had a big impact in a positive, self-motivating kind of way.”
Mahomet-Seymour sent 18 of its athletes. That group returned to the school at the beginning of the lunch period.
“Before lunch was over I had several students who were not able to go find me to talk about the assembly because of what they’d heard from students who went,” M-S boys’ basketball coach Chad Benedict said. “That demonstrates how powerful the message was and the impact it had on those in attendance.”
Bloomington High School intentionally sent representatives from many sports, rather than entire teams.
“Our goal is that they can then take back his message and share it with their teammates, whether that is word of mouth or leading by example,” Bloomington athletic director John Szabo said.
Herren is not glitz and glimmer. He wore tennis shoes and a blue, long-sleeved shirt, untucked.
He didn’t provide a Power Point presentation, and he had no note cards.
“I never have notes,” he said. “Kids sniff out notes. I’ve been doing it so long, I have it down. Sometimes I speak 40 times a month.”
Numerous students sought him out following the 70-minute talk. Some wanted pictures. Others wanted autographs. Some had a message for him.
“Some were struggling at home or in their family,” he said. “Some girls came forward and said they were struggling from self-harm.”
Herren still hears regularly from a girl who was touched the first time he spoke publicly about his past, at Dartmouth (Mass.) High School.
“I spoke to 2,000 kids there,” Herren said. “Two weeks later I got an email from a girl who said, ‘My father is always drunk and my mother has lost her job. For three years, I’ve worn the same clothes to school and the kids make fun of me. I’m 17. I go home every day, go in my room, lock the door and bust out the razor blade and start cutting myself. You having the courage to tell your story gave me the courage to tell mine. In the cafeteria at lunch today, I sat with a group of girls, rolled up my sleeves and said look what you’re doing to me. I hope it makes you happy.’ ”
Her story, Herren said, has an ending as good as his own.
“That girl is now 35 months free from cutting herself,” he said. “To me, that is way better than any (million-dollar) contract I signed.”
Brian Brooks is the high school principal at St. Joseph-Ogden. He is also the boys’ basketball coach. He accompanied a group of SJ-O students to listen to Herren. It was the second time Brooks heard his message in person.
“I wish every high school kid could get the opportunity to hear him speak,” Brooks said. “His story is a real-life example of how easy it is to become addicted to something and how difficult it is to get yourself out of a situation like that.
“There is no doubt in my mind that he reached more than one kid at Central High School. Our students who had the opportunity to go have been talking about it all day. They were very moved by his story and the events in his life. Our guidance counselor and I talked to our kids afterward about not only making good decisions for themselves but also about being leaders within the school in regards to these types of issues.”
Herren’s life spiraled out of control, starting as a teenager. He played in one game for Boston College, a university where he failed three drug tests and was dismissed from school as a freshman. He transferred across the country to Fresno State, where he had one failed drug test followed by a 28-day stint in rehabilitation. He managed to play basketball for parts of three years for coach Jerry Tarkanian.
His reputation preceded him to the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, who made him a second-round pick in 1999.
“They had alcohol taken off the (team) plane because of me,” Herren said. “My teammates said when we’re on the road, I don’t leave the hotel without one of them.
“With those mentors, my rookie season was a success.”
The following offseason, however, a friend hooked him up with OxyContin.
“That 40-milligram yellow pill changed my life forever,” Herren said. “That turned into a 1,600-milligram-a-day, $25,000-a-month habit.”
When he was traded to the Boston Celtics — the team the Fall River, Mass., native followed as a youth — Herren said his introductory news conference was a blur.
“The only thing I cared about was ending the press conference and getting those yellow pills in my system,” he said.
While in college, Herren married his high school sweetheart, Heather, and “little Chris was born,” he said.
After a brief 70-game NBA career during parts of two seasons, Herren became a basketball vagabond. He had overseas stints with professional teams in Turkey, Poland, Italy, China and Iran, all the time leaving his wife and children in the United States.
During one lucid moment, he remembers thinking, “I need to get help or get high.”
He continued down the latter path. At 24, Herren said, he was hooked on heroin. He became a convicted felon after hitting a woman while driving under the influence.
Drugs had such a grip, he said, that after sitting in jail five hours before making bail, his first call upon his release was to a drug dealer.
By age 27, Herren said, he wanted out. He parked his car and said, “Timed it and jumped in front of a car. The man swerved and missed me. The woman behind him called 911.”
When the police arrived, he said he told them, “Take me to jail. I can’t live like this any more.”
And yet, he did.
Bailed out again, and with $17 in his pocket, “I hit the streets of Modesto (Calif.),” making a vow to put family out of his life.
“I said, ‘My kids don’t deserve a dad like this,’ ” Herren said. “I made my bed between a Dumpster and a fence, behind a 7-11 store.”
He looks back now, amazed that he survived.
“At 18, I was the kid with the brightest future, the biggest dreams,” Herren said. “Fourteen years later, I was a junkie.”
At 32, he wanted a change. Herren said he was ready to commit to a lifestyle change.
“I sat in the hospital with a nurse for five hours as she called treatment centers,” Herren said. “I had no job, no money. Everyone said no.”
Another former NBA player who battled similar demons, Chris Mullin, heard about the dilemma and offered to be Herren’s sponsor.
“The first 35 days (at the treatment center), you couldn’t have any contact with family,” Herren said. “On Day 36, I called my wife and she said she was going into labor.”
Though counselors recommended he not leave the facility, Herren insisted.
Son Drew was born, and Chris Herren was there.
“I sat with him, sober and proud,” he said.
And then, he immediately fell again.
“I walked out of the hospital, and an hour later I was shooting cocaine,” he said.
He arrived home at 4:30 a.m., he said, to find his 9-year-old son, the one he calls “Little Chris,” waiting on the front porch.
“My son said to me, ‘Can you not come back any more because bad things happen when you do?” the elder Chris Herren related.
Those words hit home like nothing before.
“On Aug. 1, 2008, I fell to my knees and started praying,” said Herren, who returned to the treatment center. “I’ve been sober today 41/2 years.”
Central Principal Joe Williams said Thursday’s visit from the 37-year-old Herren served the purpose for which the school called one of its only all-school assemblies (excluding honors day in the spring) for years.
“Typically, whole-school assemblies may not have much of an impact and can tend toward staff members trying to keep a lid on students,” Williams said. “It was with some trepidation we held this event.
“We were thrilled, though, with the way things turned out. Many of our students took the message to heart. Many teachers emailed me about conversations they’ve had with students, students have called their parents to re-commit to improvement, cafeteria conversations have been overheard between groups of people about this topic and a small group of students who want to proclaim sobriety has already begun forming.”
Central baseball player Kurtis Brown was aware of Herren’s background from an ESPN television documentary but added, “I came in with high expectations, and he exceeded them.
“The majority of the kids paid attention, and even kids who weren’t excited for it thought it was awesome. He helps you see the dangers of small actions now, that they can lead to bigger consequences.”
Central volleyball player Jaelyn Westfield appreciated Herren’s honesty about his upbringing.
“It will give people a reality check and make them think about what they’re doing,” Westfield said. “He came from a good family. It’s not just certain groups of people that are prone to drug abuse.”
Kam Rowan, from Central’s basketball team, called the message “very inspiring” and added, “He doesn’t want anyone to end up like he did. It really got to me, not to follow in his footsteps.”
Central athletic director John Woods believes the impact will remain well after Herren’s departure.
“This is something the kids will remember for a long time,” Woods said.
The fact that it was delivered by a former professional athlete was significant.
“Any time they can hear the message from someone other than us, it’s a good thing,” Unity High School athletic director Scott Hamilton said. “It is our hope that the kids will listen to his message and learn some life lessons. They seemed very locked in to his words.”
Not once during Herren’s talk to the students — or interviews with media — did Herren mention the book he wrote in 2011, in conjunction with Bill Reynolds. His appearance wasn’t monetary greed, just the genuine hope that he can steer someone away from the pitfalls that engulfed him for nearly 14 years.
“If anyone has dreams,” Herren said, “you have to conquer you before you can conquer anything else.
“Ask yourself one question: How come on Friday and Saturday night I need to escape who I am and need to become someone different? It took me 32 years to find that.
“In this country, 2,000 kids pop a pill for the first time every day. Every 19 minutes, one drops dead from an overdose. Let me make a difference in one of them.”
Herren, who remains married to Heather, said he is no longer “scared and nervous,” standing before large audiences and admitting to his transgressions, failures and multiple felony charges related to drugs. Nothing is off limits in his talks.
“I don’t come to fluff anything up,” he said. “Kids respond to raw honesty.”
They certainly responded to Chris Herren.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.