The Toy Department of Life (Christmas 2002)

Damon Stoudamire and Rasheed Wallace of the Portland Trailblazers were busted for possession as they drove home from Seattle after a recent game. The Giants’ catcher Benito Santiago was humiliated in the media this week after a Puerto Rican customs official detected marijuana (2 oz) in a package addressed to him.  Hardly a week goes by without a story linking some superb athlete to the supposedly debilitating weed.

The professional basketball players —some of whom have enduring loyalties to their brothers back on the streets— missed an opportunity to take a stand in support of their drug of  choice when the collective bargaining agreement was renegotiated in 1999. Under the old contract, NBA rookies could be tested randomly for cocaine and heroin; veterans could be tested only if there was reasonable suspicion they were using. There was no provision forbidding marijuana use, and at the time, according to Selena Roberts of the New York Times, about two-thirds of the players smoked pot as a post-game analgesic and relaxant.

Among the players accused of transgression: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the leading scorer in NBA history (caught with six grams while trying to clear customs at the Toronto airport); Robert Parrish, then the oldest player in the league (and one of the best over the course of his career); Allan Iverson; Marcus Canby; Isaiah Rider… In August ’98  Chris Webber was caught with less than half an ounce in his luggage while passing through the airport in San Juan (costing him his deal with Fila).

When contract negotiations began in the Spring of ’99, Players Association President Billy Hunter was surprised by the force with which league officials pushed for marijuana testing. Instead of insisting that frequent marijuana use need not be debilitating —Jabbar and Parrish are living proof, and that the players had rights to health, happiness, privacy, etc.— Hunter and player rep Patrick Ewing yielded to Commissioner David Stern’s lawyers. They agreed that all players —and coaches and courtside personnel— would submit to peeing in the cup.  Hunter told TV reporter Armen Keteyian “We traded it off for something more important.  Right now, I don’t quite remember what… We did what we had to do to help enhance the image of our players. The appearance was that many of them engaged in the use of marijuana.  The  NBA had  been  pleading  or  crying  for an expanded drug program for  years, so  we took  the high  road and acquiesced.”

According to the agreement, rookies could be tested for mj at any time, but no more than once during training camp and three times  during  the  season. Veterans faced random testing once during the season. First time offenders would have to undergo counseling. Second-time offenders would be fined $15,000. Subsequent violations would result in five-game suspensions.

NBA spokesman Brian MacIntyre crowed at the time,  “Kids look up to us. This is the right thing to do.” Poor Patrick Ewing said,  “The press asked for it, the commissioner asked for it, we used it during the bargaining session to get something we wanted. We gave it up, that’s it. No sense crying about it.”

But there’s an ongoing cost to the players —in addition to the periodic humiliations— in that their individual bargaining power is eroded by marijuana “offenses.” Take, for example, the L.A. Clippers great small forward Lamar Odom, who has tested positive twice now, and had to serve a five-game suspension. When next he negotiates a contract, the owners will say they’re doing him a favor allowing him to remain in the league, given his terrible tendency to sin, and will save themselves millions.

And the pressure to test more often and more rigorously will increase if word ever gets out that marijuana is a performance enhancer.  Recall that Canadian Ross Rebagliati won the Olympic snowboarding championship in Nagano, Japan, then had his medal revoked, then was reinstated as champion when the IOCC concluded that, given its adverse effects on motor coordination, marijuana couldn’t possibly have helped Rebagliati.  The truth is, marijuana can make you looser, which is why many snowboarders (and hoopsters) don’t consider it a no-no.  Maybe it costs you your edge, but that’s not always a bad thing.

The Humiliation of Clifford Robinson (May 2006)

The facts, as stated by the Associated Press May 12: “New Jersey forward Clifford Robinson was suspended five games without pay by the NBA on Friday after violating terms of the league’s drug policy for the second time in two seasons. Robinson will miss at least the rest of the Eastern Conference semifinals. His suspension begins Friday night with Game 3 of the Nets’ series against the Miami Heat, and leaves New Jersey without one of its possible options for defending Shaquille O’Neal.

“Robinson was also suspended five games in February 2005 while playing for Golden State. Under terms of last year’s collective bargaining agreement, a player would be suspended five games for a third positive test for marijuana. The 39-year-old Robinson is a valuable reserve for the Nets. He averaged 6.9 points in 80 games this season, his 17th in the NBA.”

Among active NBA players, Cliff Robinson is second only to Dikembe Mutombo in age. What does that say about his marijuana use? The league, i.e. the owners, set him up by insisting that he only use corporate drugs to deal with the pounding his body took. Clifford Robinson was obviously unimpaired as an athlete. By all accounts he was friendly, intelligent, even-tempered un-egotistical —a great teammate. He didn’t like being screamed at by PJ Carlesimo, but he handled the situation more diplomatically than Latrell Sprewell would a few years later. Lot of good it did him…

Ball Don’t Lie (April 2013)

The great Rasheed Wallace announced his retirement this week at age 38 after realizing that his surgically repaired foot could not take more pounding from his six-foot, ten-inch frame. He was honest and funny and a three-time all-star for the Detroit Pistons. He could play the post and shoot the three —a tall Sativa who provided laughs and insights. He gave the refs honest feedback and for this they slapped him with technical fouls and kicked him out of games. If Rasheed was falsely accused of committing a foul, and the alleged victim then missed his free throw, Rasheed would say “Ball don’t lie,” a brilliant psychological insight that pointed to the guilty conscience of the foul-shot misser and the incompetence of the ref.

Early in his career Wallace was hounded unmericfully by the Portland media after he and Damon Stoudamire got busted for marijuana possession driving home from Seattle after a Trailblazers’ game. Discarding Wallace, Zack Randoph and other lads deemed to lack character by the media has resulted in many long, losing years for the Rose Garden faithful.

Randolph moved on to become a star for many years with the Memphis Grizzlies. Prejudice hounded him again towards the end of his career:

The Obvious Frame-up of Zach Randolph