The motivational speaker and former NBA player uses running to aid in his journey to recovery.
Runners Word Magazine – June 2014
Can you talk about your big accomplishment this April in Boston, and why you did it?
I just ran the Boston Marathon, my first marathon, with my nonprofit, Herren Project. I founded it in 2011 to assist individuals and families struggling with addiction. In 2012, we also launched an initiative called Project Purple, a national anti-substance abuse campaign designed to encourage positive decision making and standing up to substance abuse.
How did the race go? You were a newbie runner diving right into the Boston Marathon.
I had not run more than three miles before I started my marathon training. But I feel good. I felt horrible the next day, but the day after I was great. The crowds were just so positive. It was such an uplifting atmosphere. I even had runners coming by me saying, “You can do it,” “You can pick it up.” “Don’t quit.” You come around the corner and see a mile sign and say, “Oh man, I have 13 miles to go,” and a half mile up the road, it’s a family from where I live [in Portsmouth, Rhode Island] and they have drinks and GUs and I stand with them a couple minutes and take pictures and then you’re ready to go. It hit me later that, wow, I was out there for six hours. But I didn’t do it for time. That was the nice thing about the first time running it. I can’t wait to do another, hopefully New York. It was a wicked amazing experience.
Were you nervous having never run seriously before?
A doctor told me, “I don’t think you should do this.” My MRI results before the race were horrifying. I have these crazy bone spurs, these partially torn tendons. I have ganglion cysts surrounding the biggest nerve on my ankle, right next to an artery. I attempted to have it drained twice. But the crowd, the moment, it took all that away. I really didn’t feel my foot, the ankle, or the pain during the race.
And it got hot out there.
Yeah, I ran Boston in all black. Rookie mistake. It got painful around mile 19. I ran into a restaurant to grab salt packets and finished it.
What did it mean to you as a recovering addict, especially one whose struggles were once broadcast in the Boston media, to be hearing those cheers and celebration as you came down Boylston Street?
The best. I dare say it’s the most rewarding athletic thing I’ve done because I did it with no substances. I did it sober. I’ve already received emails from people who say, “I’m going to run a marathon. I’m four years, five years sober and that’s my goal. I’m going to do it.” It’s pushing yourself and fighting through the fear of not being able to accomplish stuff. A lot of us are programmed to fail. Some of us push the emergency button way too early. That’s how we’re wired. But we also have the perseverance, that drive, and you can dig deep on that. The marathon, that’s the ultimate test of digging deep.
You mentioned you’d like to run another marathon.
One of the things I’ve taken away from all this is I want to run it with people who have never run it. Seeing their enjoyment and watching someone complete a marathon, it’s amazing. It’s like sitting in an AA meeting and watching someone come in on the first day and seeing them six months later and how different they are. I can’t wait to go through it again. I can’t wait to watch someone do it who hasn’t done it before. It’s the most uplifting thing you can go through. Maybe somebody saw me and said, “There’s a recovering heroin addict running the marathon. Maybe I can do it.”
For Runner’s World readers not familiar with your journey from basketball phenom to junkie, take us through some of your story. How bad did it get?
As bad as it can get. Endless bottoms. I was spending $25,000 a month on Oxycontin, switched over to heroin, shot heroin for six years. Obviously, spent every dime I ever made, and then stole every dime that was left over in my house and ended a $3-pint vodka drinker, three pints a day, a blackout drunk. I was basically a hostage in my own home. It couldn’t get any worse: four overdoses, three arrests, two DUIs. When I came back from relapsing after my son’s birth, a counselor told me I should play dead and let my family live in peace. It was a breakthrough moment for me because I really believed that was the best option for me, that I should run away and let them be. Hearing that from another person really resonated. I’ve been sober ever since, six years.
Why do you think you went down this path?
Pressure. I was very gifted at basketball from a young age, and I didn’t handle the pressure well. College coaches from all over the country came in and watched me and critiqued. People will criticize me saying, “That kid had everything and he blew everything. Who cares?” Most of the time it’s adults saying this. But I say to them, “If your boss critiqued you every day, stood in your office, most would go home and drink, and that would be critiquing for a day, not for four years. What do 14-year-olds do?” And alcoholism was part of my family history. My parents were going through a divorce when I was 17, 18 years old. There were many components that put me on that path.
You grew up in Fall Rivers, Massachusetts, just south of Boston, and were covered extensively by the local media, the good, the bad, and the ugly. How has the city treated you amid your recovery?
It’s been great for me. I can honestly say I had huge support throughout it all. It’s nice coming back into the light. Because I put my addiction secrets out there in the ESPN film Unguarded and in my memoir, Basketball Junkie. People appreciated that more than my being a three-time Massachusetts high school Player of the Year, going to Boston College, playing for the Celtics. More people can relate to struggle than to success.
How many years were you a hardcore user?
I’d say eight years.
What role has fitness played in your initial recovery?
Honestly, it didn’t. It took so long for my body to recover that the only role fitness played was passing it onto others and teaching kids how to do it. It really took a few years before my body was good enough to go. I was sober and healthy, but it wasn’t until this past December that I was able to start making a push. I was always used to that fake energy. I went out for eight years using heroin and opiates as my source of energy. When that was taken away from me and my body didn’t have it anymore, I always felt like I had none. I had to adjust to just saying, “This is about getting on my two feet and doing something to achieve, to reach your goal.”
Does running allow you to tap into a new energy reservoir?
What’s funny is when I’m done running, I feel like I want to go again. And I say to myself, “Did I not run enough? Maybe I should have done more.” Sticking to the plan and going out there with a goal and finishing that goal and doing my long runs on weekends, that’s very beneficial to me. For me, the beauty of it is I can’t look back when I run, literally or symbolically. When I try and turn and look behind me, it’s almost impossible when you’re running. It’s that perpetual motion of continuing to move forward.
Your motivational speeches in the Unguarded ESPN doc are powerful. You have a true knack for connecting with people.
You know, it happened by accident. It wasn’t my intention to do it. When ESPN filmed it, they primarily filmed me with my family and in the basketball gym working with kids. Then I received a couple phone calls to go and speak at a couple of places and they came with. Then when it was released, next thing you know, my schedule has been wall-to-wall since.
Are there comparisons between the theme of your talks and how you trained for your first marathon? Both deal with tapping into that internal spark.
Honestly, for me, it’s what I see on the road, and when I speak. I feed off the emotion in my visual, whether it’s kids crying with their heads down or taking a corner on a run and seeing a guy drinking out of a paper bag. That’s the extra kick for me.
What would you say to a runner who came up to you and said they were worried they might have a drug or drinking problem?
I’d give them my phone number and then we’d go to a meeting. You have to give back, you know, that which was so freely given to you. I didn’t pay for this. I’ve been given the greatest gift that I’ve ever been given, and that’s a second chance at being a dad, at being a husband.
What’s the best piece of running advice you’ve received?
Find the right pair of shoes.
How would you say professional basketball and running are different?
Basketball and running are completely different. Runners are tougher. No time-outs. Nobody to bail you out.
What about running and addiction?
I would say recovery and running are similar. The pursuit, the perpetual motion, the going forward and not looking back; but having a shadow, the shadow’s always with you. I notice that every day when I’m running and that is symbolic to my past. Just the pursuit of overcoming and achieving and finishing. There is no finish. You’re onto the next day, and you’re in training, you just kind of win the day.
You sound like a “real runner.” Do you feel like one?
I feel everything right about it. Do I look the part? No. It’s hard to explain. For me, it’s the emotion and feeling I get from it and that’s why I want to keep it. Every time I run, it gives me a sense of accomplishment. It’s you-versus-you on the road and every day that I run, I’ve won over my bad side, the side that says, “Skip it. Take two days off.” That’s what I get out of it.
Sounds like you’re hooked.
I am. I’m hooked in many ways: mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually. I think it all ties in.
Some people think you can become addicted to running.
I think you can become addicted to the feeling of running, and why not feel good? Why not continue this journey?