On the rebound
It was early in the 2001 NBA season and Herren, a reserve guard for the Boston Celtics, sat in the locker room and watched TV with teammate Paul Pierce.
With an hour and 10 minutes before Boston would play the Washington Wizards at home, then-Celtics head coach Rick Pitino entered the room.
“Herren, go get in a good warm-up,” Pitino said. “You’re my starting point guard tonight.”
With those words, Herren — a Fall Rivers, Mass., native — met his dream: starting for his hometown team and playing in front of his friends and family on the biggest basketball stage in the world.
However, Herren had only one thing on his mind: “I got to get me some of those yellow pills so I can play in this basketball game.”
The yellow pills he needed were OxyContin, and at this point in his life, Herren was hooked.
Waiting for his dealer, he checked the clock every 10 minutes. Eight minutes before tipoff. Nothing.
“He was stuck in heavy traffic,” Herren said.
So, there’s Herren, five minutes before his first career NBA start, standing in the rain in front of the FleetCenter in his full Celtics uniform.
Finally, he met his dealer in traffic, took the OxyContin and made it back into the arena just in time for the game. He scored 13 points in a 116-109 victory.
“I don’t remember anything about that game,” Herren said.
In a sharp black suit on Sunday night, Herren unleashed his harrowing life story to a packed Chestnut Room at Youngstown State University.
From his party-hard McDonald’s High School All-American days, to his seven drug-related felonies, to his four overdoses — he told it all.
“I think it’s important to share [my story], from beginning to end, the natural and unnatural transition in drug abuse and how fast things can turn,” Herren said in a press conference before his speech.
Herren’s story has been well documented. Teaming with ESPN Films, Herren and director Jonathan Hock released the documentary “Unguarded” as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. The film was nominated for two Emmys — Outstanding Sports Documentary and Outstanding Editing.
“In my wildest dreams, I never would have thought [‘Unguarded’] would turn into this,” Herren said of his speaking opportunities. “I see a need for kids across the country struggling with self-esteem, substance abuse issues and self-harm.”
In other words, the same issues that plagued Herren.
While drinking and smoking throughout high school, Herren finished his Durfee High School career with 2,073 points. He then accepted a scholarship to play at Boston College.
But his time with the Eagles was brief. After breaking his wrist in his first game, eventually was eventually kicked off the team and out of the university when he failed multiple drug tests.
He received a second chance at Fresno State University, where he played successfully from 1996 to 1999. Still, he failed another drug test during that time.
And while he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 1999 and also played briefly for the Celtics, his drug addiction only got worse after he left FSU.
Traveling among Italy, Poland, Turkey, China and Iran to continue his professional basketball career, Herren’s addiction became more severe as the years went on.
He eventually hit rock bottom, spending all of his career earnings on drugs, including OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet, heroin and crystal meth.
But through intensive rehabilitation programs, Herren has been sober since Aug. 1, 2008.
“My basketball career is not something I look at with regret,” Herren said. “I used to when I was getting high, but today I see it as a blessing. It gave me the opportunity to do this.”
When asked at the press conference, Herren shared his knowledge of the city of Youngstown.
“‘Boom Boom’ Mancini, Kelly Pavlik, the Stoops brothers,” he joked.
But he also said he knows something else about Youngstown, which he admitted is similar to his hometown.
“It’s a hard-working, blue-collar town,” he said. “I grew up in Fall Rivers, a textile town, which also lost its economy. … I guess you can say I have a soft spot for blue-collar towns.”
So, while Herren was glad to help a city like his, Youngstown and YSU was appreciative to have him.
“To be honest with you, you’re grateful that he does this stuff and he shares his story,” said Ron Strollo, YSU executive director of athletics. “Like he said, if he affects just a couple people in this room, it’s well worth the time.”
Kendrick Perry, a member of the men’s basketball team at YSU, agreed.
“There’s just a lot you can take from it,” Perry said. “He’s been through a lot as a person, and I just think there’s a lot to take to help you in your life. There are a lot of things that athletes go through that you may not realize.”
Herren knowing this, much of his message was directed at the importance of the athletes’ decision making.
“I just thought as he was speaking to the athletes and directing some of his statements at us, it was interesting,” YSU quarterback Kurt Hess said. “It’s hard. You really have to stay focused and have your teammates there with you to achieve your goals.”
Women’s basketball player Brandi Brown said Herren’s overall message was clear.
“Just the importance of choices. Every choice we make now really affects our future,” she said. “It was just an awesome, awesome story.”