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This former NBA player rebounded from drug addiction. Now he's helping others fight it, too

Addiction is a familial disease for Chris Herren.

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Lauren Lee (CNN)
(CNN) — Addiction is a familial disease for Chris Herren.

"I grew up in a family that suffered from alcoholism," he said.

Herren was a basketball legend around his hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts. The McDonald's All-American was courted by several top colleges and received numerous honors. No one knew his big secret.

"I did my first line of cocaine at 18, and it took 14 years to stop," Herren told CNN. "Hiding this addiction was a full-time job."

Herren upped his game, from college hoops to the NBA's Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets. But his addiction grew, too -- from cocaine and Vicodin to heroin.

By 2006, Herren was out of basketball and in deep trouble. His downward spiral finally ended when he was found slumped over in his car. Paramedics said the former point guard was clinically dead for 30 seconds.

He knew it was time to get clean. But one thing stood in the way: The exorbitant cost of rehab.

A fellow NBA alumnus, Chris Mullin, and his wife stepped in to help.

"Liz and Chris Mullin reached out to me and gave me the greatest gift any family could give someone, a chance to get well," said Herren. After 14 years of addiction, he finally got clean in 2008.

To play that goodwill forward, he founded The Herren Project.

What The Herren Project does

Since 2011, The Herren Project has increased awareness and treatment of substance abuse.

Guided by his own struggles, Herren pinpointed what he feels are critical components of long-term recovery: treatment, education and mentoring.

His program recruits social workers to match addicts with the support they need. There is coaching and help covering the costs of rehab.

Susan Duffy came to The Herron Project in 2015 seeking help for one son and not knowing that just a few months later she'd have another son who was also struggling with addiction.

"It was really scary to see my other son going down the same road," she said.

"Luckily I had had experience being in our support group through the project. So, I knew what I was seeing was real," Duffy added. "I knew how to get my other son the help that he needed."

Now with both sons sober, Duffy credits The Herron Project's full-circle approach, which also focuses on the addict's family.

"It really does increase the possibility of your loved ones surviving," she said.

How it's helped families

"When you first kind of get sober you know there's a tremendous amount of baggage that goes with that," said Kevin Mikolazyk, The Herren Project's executive director.

"Often the individual recovers faster than the family," he added.

"We all get sick in this process. Family members have broken hearts, and people who are suffering have broken souls," said Herren. "That person suffering is going to walk out into the arms of family members, and we need them to be as healthy as possible to support them."

Each family is assigned a licensed clinical social worker who supports them as long as necessary.

Also, the organization offers virtual family support groups that loved ones can access on computers or mobile devices.

James Franchek lost his 24-year-old daughter Emma to a heroin overdose in 2016. The family support that Franchek continues to receive is instrumental in helping him cope with her death.

"You don't realize that at the time it's kind of a cumulative effect, that it keeps taking and taking and taking," Franchek said. "That's why it was so valuable to find the Herren Project."

Franchek is now using his daughter's story to raise awareness and advocate for better treatment services.

"I think support is kind of the cornerstone to a family being able to navigate through," he said.

How Herren is spreading his message

Herren, now 42, is now looking to the younger generation to continue his work.

"There's not enough support for those students who want to make the right choice," he said. "The scariest thing about kids, the scariest thing about addiction, is nobody knows who has it."

That's why in 2015, The Herren Project launched "Project Purple" which encourages students to embrace the message of education and awareness of substance abuse.

"It's all about creating awareness, support, and community."

So far the program has reached 885,000 young people.

"This crisis doesn't discriminate. It's in every community. It's in every neighborhood," said Herren. "My whole purpose in this is to break that stigma ... and eliminate the rock bottoms."

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