He hadn’t received this much applause from a UVA crowd in 34 years, and hadn’t had this much attention “since the police in the Bahamas weren’t real thrilled about me trying to bring marijuana into their country.” In those 34 years, he went from being a basketball star to being practically homeless, from being a millionaire to stealing money from his mother’s purse. Standing on a makeshift stage in the ballroom of Newcomb Hall, 6’8" with size 15 feet, he looked out at the couple hundred people sitting awkwardly close together in front of him and said, “My name is Gus Gerard and I’m a drug addict and alcoholic.”
Former UVA basketball player—and former cocaine addict—Gus Gerard found a way to entertain an audience as he told the story of his descent from NBA riches into drug-induced poverty.
When Gerard arrived at UVA in the early ’70s, he was a poor white boy from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, who played “way above the rim.” When he left UVA his junior year to go pro, he was a 21-year-old paid $900,000 to play basketball. But when he hit the NBA, he found cocaine, and from then on he was basically just a cokehead: He played and got high, or went to Vegas and got high, or lied to his wife and got high, and soon the money was gone, and he was watching his wife get arrested for the bad checks he’d written on her account so he could get high.
Gerard’s April 7 talk, presented by Hoos in Recovery, a support group for UVA faculty, students and alums, was as much a mass 12-step meeting as it was a typical lecture. Although many in the crowd were probably there to fulfill the alcohol/substance abuse program requirement that all student athletes and fraternity/sorority members have, there were clearly former addicts in the house, and friends of addicts, and maybe current addicts as well. Gerard was a very likeable host, his face behind his bushy mustache and under his UVA cap turning red when he laughed. It turned darker when he teared up as he described the suicide attempt that finally set him on the road to his 15 years of sobriety.
But mostly Gerard laughed, and we laughed, and he appeared to end his talk by saying, “Don’t give up on anyone…I love you.” But then, as the crowd applauded, he said, “One more thing…there’s this old drunk guy sitting in a diner—” and Gerard told a joke, and then another one, and it became abundantly clear that after 34 hard years, with a new job as CEO of the Houston-based treatment program Extended Aftercare Inc., Gus Gerard is finally a happy man.
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