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October 13, 2020

Podcast No. 95: Former NBA player Chris Herren on Combatting Addiction with WHOOP

Chris Herren details everything from starting for his hometown Boston Celtics, to being pronounced dead briefly after a heroin overdose.

By Will Ahmed

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Chris Herren was a high school and college basketball star who eventually made his way to the NBA, but also saw his career and life derailed by drug and alcohol abuse.

He joins the WHOOP Podcast to detail the highs and lows of his journey, from starting for his hometown Boston Celtics, to being pronounced dead briefly after a heroin overdose. Chris talks candidly about his struggles and how he eventually overcame them.

Now 12 years sober, Chris is one of the leading addiction prevention and recovery advocates in the country. He has started his own treatment centers to help people find their path to recovery, and uses WHOOP to help his clients rebuild their lives.

 

Chris Herren Podcast Show Notes:

 

2:58 – Reflecting on His Basketball Career. “I never wanted to be a professional basketball player. I never said to myself, ‘I can’t wait to play in the NBA one day.’ My goal was to play for my high school basketball team, and once I conquered that goal, it was on to college. Even when I was at Fresno State, even when I was at Boston College, I never really thought of draft night. It just happened. Looking back and reflecting on where my head and where my emotional well-being was at that time, I think I was preparing myself not to fail in a sense, knowing that if I ever did get there I wasn’t going to be well enough, healthy enough, to sustain it and keep it. There was always a part of me that never dreamt it because I was afraid to lose it.”

4:46 – Pathway to Addiction. Chris shares how he was introduced to cocaine at Boston College, how he became addicted, and why he had the sense his life was “going to unravel.”

8:49 – Getting Kicked Out of College. “[My time at] Boston College lasted 4 months. I’ll never forget it, I was down at Faneuil Hall [in Boston] jumping on a trampoline for 6 hours for Sports Illustrated. I had hundreds and hundreds of people watching me. I’m this 18 year old kid doing a two-page spread for Sports Illustrated. I remember that night coming back [to campus] and partying and doing coke. In the back of my head I said to myself, ‘This is going to unravel. This is not going to be good.’”

11:20 – A Second Chance. Chris details how he landed at Fresno State after being kicked out of Boston College. “It was the geographical cure. … I traveled 3,000 miles away to Fresno, California and [thought] ‘Cocaine will never find me again, and nor will I find it.’ I had no idea that the problem travels with you.”

14:45 – Painkiller Addiction. Chris talks about how he became addicted to painkillers after his rookie season in the NBA. “I started with a $20 [purchase] and I started spending over $25,000 a month. … I [went] from 40 milligrams to 1,600 milligrams a day.”

16:50 – Downward Spiral. “I was on the Nuggets and I went back to training camp with this unbelievable oxycontin addiction. Soon after, I was traded [to the Celtics]. I’ll never forget talking to [former Celtics head coach] Rick Pitino and crying when I hung up. Not because I was a Boston Celtic and I was happy, I was devastated. It was almost like, ‘It can’t get any worse.’ I was so sick. I thought, ‘I’m going to completely fall flat on my face in front of my [hometown].’ It was my dream come true, but it was my nightmare beginning.”

18:37 – Season with the Celtics. “It was terrible. A disaster,” Chris says, describing how his painkiller addiction had completely consumed his life. “I was shipping [pills] all over the country. Every Four Seasons [Hotel], every Ritz-Carlton we checked in to, I was praying that there was a package waiting for me there.”

19:16 – Buying Drugs Before Games. On the night Chris made his first start for the Celtics, he met his drug dealer outside the arena, in his Celtics warmups. “The level of despair and desperation in that moment is as real as it gets.”

22:53 – Missing Opportunities. Chris says his drug addiction cost him another opportunity in the NBA after playing for the Dallas Mavericks summer league team in 2003. “I was on the cusp of signing a three-year contract … but I walked away,” Chris said his drug dealer “ran out” at the time. “There was no getting me there. That’s the level of insanity and dependency and control that opiates has over you.”

24:34 – Getting Addicted to Heroin. Chris says he got hooked on heroin while playing in Italy after he ran out of Oxycontin. “I was in withdrawal. … I found a guy on the corner who was selling heroin. I let him shoot me up in an alley in Bologna, Italy. After that moment, I never went back to pills. I became an IV heroin addict pretty much immediately.”

27:53 – Letting His Family Down. “It’s bad. I walked away from a huge contract [in Italy]. My wife was pregnant, I had a two-year-old son, and unbeknownst to my wife we were running out of money. I woke up one morning and went to a Dunkin’ Donuts and shot some heroin in the parking lot. I started my car and got in the drive thru and was going to order an iced coffee for me, tea for my wife, and get some munchkins for my kids, and I overdosed. The next thing I remember is the police pulling me out of the vehicle, there were heroin bags on the floor, there were needles. In 2004, two weeks before Christmas, I was ripped out of a vehicle and arrested and booked into jail. I think what people don’t understand, guys like me, people who struggle with opiates, we chase death for a feeling. We wake up every single day and it becomes the norm to take a chance at dying. … That’s how sad we are. That’s how sick we get.”

31:26 – Looking Back. “I’m unbelievably fortunate to have played in the NBA because it’s given me a platform to discuss [addiction]. It’s given me an opportunity to be a voice. … When I reflect back, did I miss opportunities? Yes. But I was a second-round draft pick and you don’t make a lot of money in the NBA [as a second rounder]. It’s not the contracts of today. I spent [my money] as fast as I made it, so I’m glad that I didn’t make it too long [in the NBA] because I probably wouldn’t be here today if I was making a million dollars a year playing basketball. I don’t think I’d be alive.”

33:42 – Using WHOOP to Help Recovering Addicts. Chris uses WHOOP at his drug and alcohol recovery center to help his clients improve their lives. “I wanted to do more, I wanted to offer more, and then WHOOP walked in. I started thinking that a very underserved area of [addiction] recovery is sleep. Anybody with alcoholism or addiction in early recovery is going to struggle with sleep. So if we can track their sleep, we can focus on performance. If we can look at data and see how well they slept and how well they recovered and match it up with their therapy and their appointments, then maybe we will get more out of them.”

35:27 – WHOOP as a Treatment Tool. “I like the [WHOOP Teams] aspect of it, I do like that there’s a level of accountability, but I also love that you get to evaluate yourself at the end of the day. … The recovery community could really, really benefit from [using WHOOP]. There’s so many different angles to it. It is a mirror, there’s no doubt about that, it’s a gut check at the end of the day. Why shouldn’t performance be analyzed in this space when you’re fighting for your life? Alabama football and all the major NBA and NFL teams want to track that data to see if they can perform well on a football field and a basketball court, but these people are fighting for their life. Why not pay attention to the data?”

38:43 – Not Just for Athletes. “A lot of times people see WHOOP and they identify it for activities, but I identify it as [an accountability tool] and life-changing for a lot of people.”

40:00 – Helping Others. “I am 12 years sober and I know what it’s like to be at my lowest and feel my lowest. Whatever tool I can give people who walk into my center that can benefit them, I’m going to give it to them. WHOOP is a major, major part of it.”

42:50 – Self-Confidence and Drug Use. “I remember going out on Friday’s and I remember looking across the room and seeing friends in high school, college, and even in my professional career, and I’d look across the room and see the kids who never drank and never smoked. They’d be there with soda water, bottled water, and I’d always look at them and say, ‘How come they don’t have to do it and I do?’”

44:00 – The Turning Point. Chris details the moment in his life that led him down the path to sobriety. He had recently overdosed in his hometown and was briefly pronounced dead by emergency personnel before he was revived. “A counselor told me I should play dead for my family. I had just relapsed and my wife was in the hospital, she had just given birth, and I relapsed on alcohol and heroin. When I went back to the [recovery center], he told me I should play dead. … He said, ‘Give your wife some peace and tell her to tell your children that their daddy died in a car accident today. I want you to get in a vehicle when you leave here and drive as far away from Massachusetts as you possibly can.” He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Play dead and let them live.’ … I thought to myself, ‘This poor woman, she chose me.’ … It was the pivotal moment. It was dig in or die and I dug in.”

46:29 – Making a Difference. “12 years ago my wife was on food stamps and we were on food stamps as a family. Now, 12 years later, my foundation has given over $4 million in treatment. We’ve sent over 4,800 people away to get free care. … There aren’t many jobs where you get to witness miracles on a daily basis and I’m fortunate to be part of it.”

Connect with Chris:

Herrenwellness.com
Herrenproject.org

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance. WHOOP today works with everyone from professional athletes to fitness enthusiasts to executives. Ahmed has raised nearly $100 million from top investors and has an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, and designers. He wrote “The Feedback Tool: Measuring Fitness, Intensity, and Recovery,” which sparked the underlying physiology and engineering for his work today. Ahmed was named a 2011 Harvard College Scholar for finishing in the top 10% of his class and a CSA Scholar Athlete; he captained the Harvard Men’s Varsity Squash Team. He was also recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal 40 Under 40.

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