Chris Herren had a story that they wanted to hear, and Herren wanted to hear theirs.
"I don't come into schools to scare kids," Herren told the crowd of about 1,200. "I do it to inspire them to share their stories."
The former NBA player from Massachusetts, who played for the Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics and several teams overseas, came to Downers Grove on Oct. 10 to talk of the substance abuse that derailed his basketball career, jeopardized his family and nearly cost him his life.
By now Herren's story is known to many. The failed drug tests, stints in rehabilitation and overdoses were chronicled regularly by media outlets then raised to a higher profile in a 2011 ESPN documentary, "Unguarded." The film shows a sober Herren telling his story to audiences of recovering addicts, prisoners and high school students.
Herren said his 14 years of substance abuse started with cocaine when he was a teenager, progressed to a $25,000-a-month addiction to OxyContin, then to heroin, which he tried for the first time while playing in Italy.
Herren's visit was particularly timely in the wake of heightened concerns about a growing number of heroin deaths in DuPage County. However, Herren used his own experience to stress that the issue starts long before someone is abusing heroin.
"The problem is being created by pills," Herren said. "We still have medicine cabinets. Kids seek out medicine. Those pill poppers turn into heroin addicts. That's the progression."
Herren added that combating addiction requires kids and adults to understand the dangers of what seems commonplace and even accepted among teens and young adults: experimentation.
"I've never met a drug addict who said they've started with crack and heroin," Herren said. "We all start with that red Solo cup and the blunt. Our children think of drug addicts on their last day. They need to know that we always have a Day 1."
Emil and Joanne Pikul said they came at the urging of their daughter, Emily, who had heard Herren speak at her school earlier in the day. Both called Herren's speech eye-opening.
"We're never thinking it's something that's going to affect you," Emil Pikul said. "You just can't help but absorb some of the advice. You never know. The best-case scenarios can turn bad."
Emily and her friend, Haley Holz, both seniors at South High, both said that Herren's presentation resonated deeply among their classmates.
"I was in the top row of the top balcony. I felt his powerful words," Emily Pikul said. "I could see the effect it had. Him coming down and humbling himself, he automatically gained students' respect."
"You could hear a pin drop," Holz added. "Twitter blew up immediately after. It was one of the first times I felt that a presentation was really making a difference. It was nothing like any other experience I've had."
It seemed to have some immediate effects. A handful of students and adults revealed their own addictions to the crowd. People responded with boisterous applause.
Diana Benoist, student assistance coordinator at South, said several students came forward after Herren's morning presentation to seek out counseling.
"Dozens of kids wanted to tell Chris their story and wanted to access help right away," Benoist said. "I have kids in my office who deny use, deny use, deny use. It is a big deal for them to step forward and say, 'I have a problem with this.'"
Still, Benoist emphasized that helping students fight addiction is an ongoing battle for authorities and parents.
"Chris is incredibly inspirational, but three weeks from now, I'll have a student come into my office high," Benoist said. "It's something that we definitely need to be following up on."