Chris Herren writes the ultimate comeback story
As a talented prospect with a well-publicized history of substance abuse, Chris Herren felt a measure of gratitude when he heard his name called during the 1999 NBA Draft.
The Denver Nuggets were giving him a fresh start and an opportunity to play basketball at the highest level.
Veterans such as George McCloud, Popeye Jones and Nick Van Exel took Herren under their wing and helped him adjust to life in the NBA, while Nuggets vice president/general manager/coach Dan Issel provided an additional voice of encouragement.
“Denver will always be special,” Herren said during a telephone interview with Nuggets.com. “I was surrounded by veterans who made a decision to look out for the younger guys on the team. I think that’s admirable. They were willing to sacrifice some of their life and some of their time for my best interests rather than theirs. They would make sure that I walked a straight line, as much as possible.”
Herren played just 45 games for the Nuggets before being traded to Boston before the 2000-01 season. Derailed by continued substance abuse, his NBA career ended abruptly when he was just 25 years old.
Sober for the past 3˝ years, Herren has put his life back together and is inspiring others with his story. His autobiography “Basketball Junkie: A Memoir” came out this past spring and a documentary “Unguarded” debuted recently on ESPN.
The response has been overwhelming.
“I’ve received e-mails from all over the country from people saying they’re going to stop what they’re doing or intervene with their brother or sister or their wife or husband,” Herren said. “That type of response is what it’s all about and that’s what the intentions were for this film.”
Herren’s story of redemption went through Denver when Issel selected him 33rd overall in 1999. He recently called Issel to express his thanks for taking a chance on him after a college career that featured plenty of highs and lows at Boston College and Fresno State University.
“He didn’t have to take a shot on me. He didn’t have to waste a pick,” Herren said of Issel. “He could’ve passed me up and who knows if I ever would’ve been drafted. If that was the case, would I have had the drive to keep going? Who knows. I don’t care what I’ve gone through in my life, you can’t take that away, that I played at that level.”
Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess worked closely with Herren in 1999-2000. He made no preconceived judgments of the rookie guard and came away impressed with his athleticism and desire to get better.
“What excited me about Chris was his speed and tenaciousness,” Hess said. “He was a diamond in the rough. He was unbelievably honest with me. I feel like the entire Nuggets organization tried to create a barrier with Chris. We just wanted him to excel in basketball.”
Slowed by a sprained wrist, Herren played just four games in his first month-and-a-half with the Nuggets. When he finally stepped on the court, he found himself lacking the aggressive mentality that made him successful in college.
“I just remember being scared to shoot the ball,” Herren said. “Issel never sat down and he would always tell me to shoot. I went a couple games without even taking a shot. When I made my first three, he grabbed me and gave me a big hug.”
Though it’s been 11 years since Herren left Denver, he still has a strong Nuggets connection. Denver assistant coach John Welch was an assistant under Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State during Herren’s career with the Bulldogs.
During Herren’s first two years in Fresno, Welch would routinely pick him up at about 6:45 in the morning and put him through a 90-minute workout before class. The two would often work out again in the afternoons.
“He worked very hard,” Welch said. “I think he really improved. He became a celebrity in Fresno. Everyone wanted his time. It was him or Coach Tark for the most well-liked people in Fresno. Everybody liked Chris.”
Herren’s popularity also worked to his detriment as his continued use of drugs and alcohol prevented him from reaching his potential. He still managed to average 15.1 points and 6.8 assists in three seasons at Fresno State.
“It’s scary to think how good Chris could’ve been,” Welch said. “He could get in the paint and make the right basketball play. He had the ability to finish at the rim, but people don’t realize what a good passer he was. He’d get in the paint and he’d kick it out for 3s. The game came easy to Chris.”
Herren remembers the demanding early morning workouts with Welch, and he has adopted many of the drills while working with young players as part of his Hoop Dreams player development program in Portsmouth, R.I.
“Coach Welch is the guy who taught me how to get better on my own,” Herren said. “He was always concerned and always looked out for me. He had an amazingly tough task on his hands trying to keep me in line. He was magnificent with me on and off the court.”
Welch, who normally talks to Herren a few times each month, felt a sense of guilt while reading “Basketball Junkie” over the summer. Though he knew Herren was battling substance abuse, he never knew the magnitude of the problem and felt as though could have done more.
Herren assured Welch that he did everything possible. It was a matter of Herren wanting to help himself.
“He did everything in his power to help me from the age of 18 to 22,” Herren said. “Those were some pretty impressionable years. I’m extremely thankful for that. Even though the results were not immediate, the way he lived his life and wanted me to live mine always stuck with me.”
And now Herren’s words and actions are sticking with others who are out to write their own comeback story.
“We wanted to shed a different light on addiction – the good and the bad,” he said. “There is a possibility to recover, but it’s a long road. What happens on that road can be very difficult, but you can still come back.”