April 3, 2008 — Perhaps only rabid University of Virginia basketball fans remember much about the brief career of Gus Gerard. Certainly, few current students have heard of him, since he played his last game in a Cavalier uniform in 1974.
Gerard hopes to leave an impression on the current generation of students, though, on Monday, April 7. That's when he'll come to the University to talk about the cocaine and alcohol addictions that cost him his basketball career, his family and nearly his life, and his subsequent path back to sobriety.
Gerard's talk, "The Long Way Home: Former U.Va. and NBA Player Gus Gerard's Path to Recovery," will begin at 7 p.m. in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom. It is being presented by Hoos in Recovery, an organization of students, alumni, faculty and staff recovering from addictions, with assistance from the U.Va. Department of Athletics, the Office of the Dean of Students, the Center for Alcohol and Substance Abuse Education, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, and the Intra-Fraternity and Intra-Sorority councils.
"I used to play in front of thousands of screaming fans, and I was always able to block things out," said Gerard, now the chief executive officer of Extended Aftercare Inc., a Houston-based residential treatment program for men with addictions. "But when I give these little talks, I'm more nervous than ever."
Susan Bruce, director of U.Va.'s Center for Alcohol and Substance Education, said that this is the first major event to be sponsored by Hoos in Recovery. She expects a large turnout, as Gerard's talk fulfills a requirement that student-athletes and fraternity and sorority members have to attend an alcohol- and substance-abuse prevention program each year.
Gerard, who will be visiting Charlottesville for the first time since 1986, played two varsity seasons at U.Va. before leaving for the professional ranks. A high-flying, 6-foot-8 center, he averaged 9.3 rebounds per game for his Virginia career, and in 1973-74 was named to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference second team after averaging 20.8 points per game. However, the Cavaliers posted 4-8 ACC records both seasons.
At the time, there was a bidding war for talented underclassmen between two professional leagues, the American Basketball Association and the National Basketball Association. Having grown up poor in Uniontown, Pa., "The lure of a million-dollar contract was too much to pass up," he said, explaining his decision to bypass his final year of eligibility.
It was early in his pro career when Gerard was first introduced to cocaine. Playing with the ABA's Spirits of St. Louis, he was on a road trip to New York when a college buddy urged him to give it a try.
"So I tried it, and I immediately fell in love with cocaine," Gerard told the Houston Chronicle. "It became a big part of my life after that."
Gerard played professionally for seven years, mostly as a reserve player, bouncing around between seven teams in both the ABA and NBA. He averaged 8.4 points and 4.1 rebounds.
His retirement in 1981 only made his addictions worse, as he struggled to fill the void that basketball left. He had managed to hide the extent of his addiction from his family for quite awhile, but after blowing through the $2 million he earned playing basketball and then selling off most of his assets, they abandoned him. He eventually moved back in with his mother, and stole money from her purse to support his habit.
Finally, after an unsuccessful suicide attempt — he pulled his car into his garage and left the car running, with the idea of dying quietly by carbon monoxide poisoning, only to awaken hours later and discover that the car had run out of gas — he sought treatment at a Houston program run by another former NBA player, John Lucas.
Today, he can proudly declare that he has been clean since May 26, 1993. Remarried, he has repaired his relationship with the children he had with his first wife.
He's looking forward to his return to Charlottesville. He plans to meet with family and some of his former U.Va. teammates, and visit with some of the University's current coaches and athletic trainers, as well as students in recovery.