Ex-Celtic Chris Herren using "Project Purple" to fight drug addiction

Chris Herren already knows how this is going to end when the Boston sky darkens Tuesday evening and one by one the downtown buildings – from the Prudential Tower to the state capitol to UMass-Boston – are bathed in a purple glow for his anti-drug project. He will feel the tears slide down his face. He will choke up. And he will wonder how so much has happened so fast.

"Let's face it, not even 4½ years ago I was on the side of the road, with a needle in my arm and dead for 30 seconds," he says.

Herren is never far from that day. The car accident in which he was high on heroin and a policeman found him unconscious, slipping into death, is the moment that saved him. And left with another chance after an adult life of addiction that destroyed his NBA career, he decided to work to save others. This is how he invented Project Purple, which tries to help addicts get off drugs and find proper care, and keeps teenagers from tumbling into the same drug-filled abyss as him.

His dream is to make the color purple for attacking addiction as popular in sports as pink is in fighting breast cancer.

He will start with his old team the Boston Celtics, who are honoring him as a "Hero Among Us," on Tuesday night. It will be a moment cloaked in irony, for it was on the Celtics – his favorite team from childhood – where his NBA career finally blew up. He forever remembers the nights his teammates prepared for the start of the game while he stood outside the arena in his Celtics warmups, waiting for a dealer to bring him heroin.

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Now the Celtics are honoring him?

But it shows how far Herren came in a life story that has been retold in the memoir "Basketball Junkie" and the documentary "Unguarded." A basketball star in the old Massachusetts mill town of Fall River, he went to nearby Boston College in the mid-1990s before transferring to Fresno State. His addiction festered as he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets and played there two years before being traded to the Celtics. Four years after leaving Fresno, he was out of the NBA, drugs having ruined everything. He drifted around European leagues for a few years before coming back to Massachusetts where his addiction raged out of control.

After hitting bottom with the car accident, he began talking to high schools, elementary schools and colleges. It was at a high school in Rhode Island a couple of years ago when he saw six students standing in the front of the room wearing purple T-shirts. They said they were the ones who chose to stay sober. And he was so taken by them and the fact the school was named Mt. Hope he decided that day to start a foundation that would, in part, support children like this. Because they wore purple shirts, he called it "Project Purple."

At first, finding money for Project Purple was hard. But then came the book and documentary and he talked to more and more classes. He was so powerful in telling the story of his fall that children approached him afterward and whispered, "I'm a purple shirt too." It saddened him that they were so ashamed to admit they didn't drink or use drugs they couldn't say it aloud. When emails started pouring in from kids he had met at assemblies saying they were taking drugs because of various problems in their lives and wanted to get off them, he realized he was often the first person they were confiding in.

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He hopes Project Purple can create resources to help them, to give them alternatives. He also wants the foundation to help people with addictions pay for treatment, to help them fill out insurance forms and spend a reasonable amount of time in the clinics to actually attack their addictions.

"I know it is taboo to talk about substance abuse but tough crap," Herren says. "It's not about one person, it's about millions who suffer from this and need a voice. This needs attention given to it the way cigarettes got attention."

The drugs are worse today, he says. They are stronger, more dangerous. He gets angry when people suggest marijuana is not a gateway to more dangerous things. "I know a lot of junkies," he says, "and none of us started on heroin." He thinks education is more important than ever.

He wishes people would understand this.

But Tuesday, Boston will light for him. And he will stand with the wife and three children he nearly lost as he tumbled out of control, and he will see all the purple and hear the roar of a Celtics crowd as his name is announced and realize that wrecking his car with a needle in his arm was the best thing that happened to him. It gave him another chance.

Just look what he has done with it.

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