Michael Beasley was fresh off being traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The versatile forward missed out on the high that playing with newly signed Miami Heat superstar LeBron James would have provided. But in July, just as he was adjusting to the change in scenery, Timberwolves team president David Kahn inexplicably revealed a private conversation that he’d had with Beasley, telling the local Twin Cities ESPN Radio affiliate: “He’s a very young and immature kid who smoked too much marijuana and has told me that he’s not smoking anymore, and I told him that I would trust him as long as that was the case.”
The NBA wasted little time fining the T-Wolves organization $50,000; Kahn was personally hit with an additional $50K fine. The association is always quick to distance itself from the sticky-icky, at least in the public eye, since it doesn’t mesh with the family-friendly corporate image that the NBA seeks to project to the mainstream. Yet the reality is that marijuana has long been as much a part of the NBA as the nothing-but-net three-pointer.
As it happens, this wasn’t the first awkward run-in that Beasley’s had with pot. In September 2008, at the NBA’s Rookie Transition Program, the cops showed up at the hotel room of two of his fellow rookies, Mario Chalmers and Darrel Arthur, following a fire alarm. The cops claimed that the room smelled like marijuana, but no pot was found and no charges were filed. Curiously, Chalmers and Arthur were both excused from attending rookie camp and then paradoxically fined $20,000 for “missing” camp. However, they weren’t fined or suspended for any drug-related violations, and both later denied any involvement with marijuana.
Even more curiously, ESPN had originally reported that Beasley was also present in the room, but wasn’t asked to leave the camp. Then the story was “updated” and all mentions of Beasley were removed from the article. All of these actions are suggestive of a cover-up. The NBA—and its primary media partner, ESPN—seem willing to go to great lengths to disassociate a group of high-profile rookies from marijuana.
But the story doesn’t end there. Beasley was later fined $50,000 by the NBA for his involvement in the incident after Heat team president (and legendary coach) Pat Riley forced him to confess to league officials that he had, in fact, snuck out the door when police arrived at the Chalmers/Arthur hotel room.
Less than a year later, in August 2009, Beasley reportedly checked into a Houston rehab center, just days after he posted a picture of himself on Twitter with two plastic baggies that might have contained pot in the background. There has also been speculation that all of the publicity surrounding Beasley and marijuana was actually intended to cover up his use of harder drugs, and that this was the real reason he went to rehab. (After all, “kicking” pot doesn’t generally require professional rehabilitation services.)
The Beasley saga is just the latest story linking pot to NBA players, but it wasn’t always so. In the 1970s and ’80s, the NBA was regarded as a cocaine-fueled league, the nadir of which came with the death of 22-year-old Len Bias in 1986. Bias had just been drafted two days earlier by the world-champion Boston Celtics, and died after a night of cocaine indulgence.
Coincidentally, one of the NBA’s most prominent earlier pot scandals also involved the Celtics (fittingly known as the “Green Machine”). The team’s solid, stoic center, Robert “the Chief” Parish, was busted in 1993 after a drug-sniffing pooch detected pot in a FedEx package in San Francisco that was addressed to Parish’s Massachusetts residence. When the package arrived in Beantown, drug dogs there also smelled pot, and Parish was charged with possession.
That Parish was the NBA’s oldest player at the time (39) may have been a telling indicator that the Chief was using the herb in a medicinal capacity—the better to cope with the stresses and strains of playing the rigorous sport at such a relatively advanced age. In fact, Parish played until he was 43, making him the third-oldest player in NBA history—and he played far and away the most games in league history as well, which should drive a stake through that tired old “marijuana kills motivation” argument.
By 1997, some were calling pot smoking in the NBA an “epidemic,” as epitomized by a New York Times “special report” headlined “Marijuana and Pro Basketball: N.B.A.’s Uncontrolled Substance,” which declared that 60 to 70 percent of NBA players “smoke pot and drink excessively.”
That “drink excessively” part seemed to get lost in the uproar touched off by the article. And though NBA Commissioner David Stern (the man largely credited with rescuing pro basketball from those coke-filled dark days of the late 1970s) and players’ union president Billy Hunter both denounced the report, there were several major repercussions from the Times piece. First, in 1998, then–US Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey used the article as the inspiration for a self-serving essay that appeared in the Washington Post, ironically titled “A Clean and Sober NBA.” Not surprisingly, McCaffrey’s piece was consistent with US drug policy in general: It completely ignored the debilitating influences of the legal (and corporately sanctioned) substance known as alcohol and focused solely on the NBA’s allegedly “uncontrolled” pot use, which McCaffrey then went on to embellish, to embarrassing effect. The Drug Czar stated that it was “routine for players to build an addiction [to marijuana] bad enough to run afoul of the law before their problem receives attention.”
A year later, urine testing for marijuana was added to the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, after having been absent from previous agreements (which made the NBA the only league at the time to ostensibly “permit” cannabis use among its players). So when it came to the hypocrisy of legal booze and illegal weed, the NBA proved equal to any other professional or college sports league. All those lucrative sponsorships with major beer companies have clearly impaired the NBA’s judgment when it comes to distinguishing between pot and alcohol use among its players.
But despite the NBA’s official disapproval, the use of pot hasn’t seemed to decrease. In 2001, one of the toughest players in hoops history, power forward Charles Oakley, claimed that 50 to 60 percent of players smoked weed. A Rocky Mountain News survey released in 2005 reported that NBA players estimated on average that one out of three of their colleagues—roughly 30 percent—smoked pot. In 2008, Josh Howard of the Dallas Mavericks caused a stir when he admitted on ESPN Radio that he smokes marijuana during the off-season and that “everybody in the media world and in the sports world knows that NBA players do smoke marijuana.” Asked how many, Howard offered the rather high figure of 70 percent, while his Mavericks teammate, Jason Terry, thought that only 5 percent of players got high—a wildly unrealistic claim.
As for the argument that only fringe players use pot and not the superstars, what about the aforementioned LeBron James, who has acknowledged that he smoked pot during his high-school years? Aside from Kobe Bryant, you don’t get much bigger than King James.
Then again, some may argue that players like James and Howard are part of a pot-smoking younger generation—but not so fast. You don’t get more old-school than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, six-time MVP, six-time NBA champion, pro basketball’s all-time leading scorer, and one of the league’s most iconic figures ever with his unstoppable hook shot and trademark goggles. Jabbar freely admitted smoking and enjoying pot in his 1984 biography Giant Steps.
Still, in 2000, Abdul-Jabbar was arrested in Los Angeles for driving under the influence after a cop pulled him over for speeding and smelled pot in the car. Kareem failed a field sobriety test and got popped, but at least he had a medical-marijuana defense: He was using pot to cope with the migraine headaches that afflict him.
So the question remains: Is the use of pot confined to the off-season, as Josh Howard asserted, or is it clandestinely approved by coaches and general managers during the arduous season—because they’d rather see their prized players getting stoned in their hotel rooms rather than out at a bar or strip club, where danger always lurks? (Since it’s usually not quite as dangerous to be stoned and asleep in a hotel bed.)
Whether it’s half the league or just a third smoking pot, the simple fact is that marijuana’s here to stay, even in the NBA. The day will finally come when a player challenges the league’s pot policy—especially if he has a legitimate medical reason or lives in a state that has legalized it, as California may do in November. And when that day comes, professional sports may finally recognize that, far from hurting players, pot actually helps them remain on the field.
This article is featured in the DECEMBER 2010 Issue of HIGH TIMES Magazine: