The temperature barely hits 80 degrees on this sunny summer day in Portsmouth, R.I., but the old gym at St. Philomena’s School bakes the players on its court like pizzas in an old brick oven.
There are windows that line the side of the court, but they’re that old cloudy kind you find in grammar school gyms like this one. The kind that lets in just enough light to remind you it’s still daylight outside.
A single door is propped open, ostensibly to allow for some fresh air to flow through. But it’s the same door the players run out of when they need to puke midway through their nearly three-hour workout.
Pretty heavy stuff happens inside this gym. The players are from all over New England, and they are good. Some are in high school, some college. All of them are soaked in sweat.
They push themselves because they know Chris Herren, their instructor, is serious.
Serious about basketball. And, finally, serious about life.
“They know my story, they know my background,” says Herren of the students at his basketball boot camp, which specializes in one-on-one instruction with players of wide-ranging ability.
“If they want to talk about basketball or the background, that’s fine.”
By now, the background is a well-told story. Herren was a standout combo guard out of Fall River’s Durfee High School, averaging 27 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists as a senior during the 1993-94 season. He was a McDonald’s All-American, a star at Fresno State, an NBA prospect.
And he was also a drug addict.
In his first year at Boston College (he would eventually transfer to Fresno State), Herren fell into a decade-long battle with substance abuse — “ten years of hell,” as he puts it. Addiction robbed him of a promising pro career, ending with an arrest in December 2004. Even his last NBA season with the Celtics in 2000-01 was a blur.
“I don’t remember the first time I walked onto the Fleet Center court,” Herren now admits. “My mind wasn’t there. I was in professional basketball for two hours a day, and the other 22, I was hustling.
“Being a McDonald’s All-American, having a book written about me, an HBO series, a FOX reality show, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated — it just never stopped. And I never slowed down to appreciate it.”
Herren hit rock bottom on June 4, 2008, when he was found unconscious in his car. With the help of treatment, he has been drug-free since.
And while his fight to stay sober is a daily struggle, Herren feels content with his life.
“I wouldn’t change where I am today,” he says. “You could give me the NBA jersey and say go back to that, and I wouldn’t take it.
“It feels great to be content. Where I came from, there was no content.”
With that, the 33-year-old Herren grips the basketball in his hands — so familiar after a lifetime of playing that it’s practically an extra limb — and fires a perfect pass to one of his students.
“Basketball, I can teach that all day,” Herren concludes. “I just hope that one of these kids, when they walk out of here, if they’re feeling something, can say, ‘You know, Chris, I want to talk to you.’ And they have.”
It’s obvious that, all these years later, the game still comes naturally to him. And it goes without saying that this is the most important rebound of Chris Herren’s life.
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