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Chris Elsberry: At last, Herren likes his own reflection

Updated 12:47 am, Thursday, February 7, 2013
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NEW HAVEN -- What does Chris Herren see today when he looks into the mirror?

A father. A husband. And a friend.

Most importantly, he sees a sober man.

But for years, however, he wouldn't even peek at that mirror. He would take his toothbrush and razor into the shower and conduct his business in there while the water ran. He was too ashamed, too despondent to even spend a second looking at the reflection that would stare back. Totally devastated at what he had become.

A man addicted to drugs.

"I see something that I can be proud of. I've worked really hard to get where I am today," Herren said. "I've struggled for many years and once I found recovery, I worked really hard at getting it. I'm proud of that."

First it was beer and booze and then pot and pills. Then cocaine and Oxycontin, and then heroin and crystal meth. For some 15 years, Herren fought a losing battle against the demons that threatened to take away his family, his friends and everything he had spent his life to that point working to achieve -- a dream of playing in the NBA.

Today, Herren is clean and sober, although the struggle to stay that way continues every day. He knows temptation lurks behind every corner. He knows that one tiny mistake could ruin everything he's spent the last four-plus years working on.

He knows that he always has to be on his guard.

So he does it for Heather, his wife, and his kids, Christopher, Samantha, Drew and Cynthia.

And he does it to try to make a difference.

Tuesday night at The Lyman Center at Southern Connecticut State University, Herren spoke to over 800 people -- including all 400-plus student-athletes from the Owls' 19 athletic teams -- about his story, which has been documented by ESPN in its 30 for 30 series "Unguarded."

"It's never easy doing this," Herren said after his hour-long talk. "Some nights are harder than others. Some nights a little more emotional, but it's always well worth it because you usually get to meet somebody struggling like me. The questions they ask, that's powerful stuff. That's enough to make it all worth it."

Herren scored 2,073 points at Durfee High, twice leading the Hilltoppers to the Massachusetts State Championship. He chose Boston College but broke his wrist in his very first game. He spent the rest of the season partying, failing two drug tests.

He transferred to Fresno State and in three seasons with the Bulldogs, Herren averaged 15.1 points and 5.4 assists a game. But he also failed another drug test.

Despite all that, he was selected by Denver in the second round of the 1999 NBA draft and averaged 3.1 points in 45 games. He was traded to Boston for the 2000 season and averaged 3.3 points in 25 games before being injured. He was later released.

The basketball ride continued with stops in Turkey, China, Iran, Italy and Poland, but Herren's life was in a free fall.

At one point, he stood in the rain outside Boston's Fleet Center, literally minutes before he was supposed to play for the Celtics, waiting for his drug dealer to arrive with a batch of painkillers that he was addicted to. To the point where he sold off nearly everything his family owned, including his wife's jewelry, just so he could buy heroin.

To the point where Chris Herren thought about suicide.

"Every day is suicide in that world," he said. "You take that bag and you rip it and you pour it into a spoon ... I have no idea what's in that bag. And every day I'd put it into a syringe and put it into my arm and think there's a chance I'll die. So, every day, I was looking at suicide. I was at the brink many times through thought, and I thank God every day that I never carried it out."

Still, four times he overdosed on drugs. On June 4, 2008, police found him crashed into a cemetery wall, overdosed to the point where he was literally dead for 30 seconds before the paramedics brought him back. He spent 45 days in rehab at the Daytop Village Meadow Run clinic in Rhinebeck, N.Y., getting sober. On July 21, 2008, he was released to go home for the birth of his third child.

That night, Herren celebrated by drinking vodka.

Given a second chance at Daytop, Herren spent the next three weeks stuck in what he calls "the pot sink" where he washed dishes from 5:30 in the morning until 10 at night. In "Unguarded" he says about the pot sink: "I found myself in that place. I found my soul."

He has been sober since August 1, 2008.

That's 1,650 days. And counting.

Today, he runs basketball clinics for boys and girls called "Hoop Dreams" in both Riverside, R.I., and Portsmouth, R.I.

Toward the end of "Unguarded," Herren speaks of a time when Heather asked him why his razor and toothbrush weren't in the shower anymore.

His answer?

"Because I can finally look at myself in the mirror again."

Today, what does Chris Herren see when he looks at his reflection?

He sees a father. A husband. And a friend.

Most importantly, he sees a sober man.

celsberry@ctpost.com http://Twitter@elsctpost