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Reefer Madness strikes NBA
Published on Thursday, March 15, 2001
Reefer Madness strikes NBA
by Dennis Hans
 
Has anyone noticed that the player most exercised about marijuana smoking by NBA players is the one who would most benefit from a pre-game joint?

Charles Oakley, a power forward with the Toronto Raptors, has made a career out of being a bully. He's a mean-spirited, trash-talking, flagrant-foul-committing thug. You might say he plays basketball like an angry drunk.

Now I'm not accusing him of being a drunk. First, unlike Oakley, I don't shoot from the hip on subjects about which I know next to nothing. Second, Oakley has many qualities as a player that suggest he is a non- or light drinker: He's in terrific shape, hustles every minute he's on the court and is always focused on the business at hand. In his 16th season and still going strong, he obviously takes pride in taking care of his body. He'd be the ideal role model if he weren't a thug.

If it had been legal in 1985, medicinal marijuana should have been prescribed for Oakley in rookie camp, when he first displayed belligerent tendencies. Marijuana has mellowing qualities. Unlike, alcohol, a recreational drug used far more widely in the NBA and society at large, marijuana is not intimately linked with violence. The guy at the party who's had too much to drink might give you a dirty look and snarl, "You talkin' to me?" The guy who's blissfully stoned will smile and say, "Easy, dude. Everything's cool." Potheads defuse tense situations. Drunks create and stoke them.

Of course, we don't want to transform Oakley into a pothead anymore than we want light social drinkers to become alcoholics. Moderation is the better path, abstinence most always the best. But for an on-court ruffian, a low dose of mild marijuana two hours before tipoff might temper his competiveness with compassion and make him less prone to hoop assault.

The latest round of NBA Reefer Madness was sparked when Oakley told the New York Post (February 22), "You got guys out there playing high every night.... You got 60 percent of your league on marijuana. What can you do?"

NBA commissioner David Stern responded, "If Charles has any facts to back up these very serious allegations, he should turn them over to the league as well as to Billy Hunter and the executive council of the union."

To put Oakley's charges in historical perspective, let us review the first round of NBA Reefer Madness, sparked by the October 26, 1997 New York Times story "NBA's Uncontrolled Substance." This caused a much greater uproar than this latest round, in part because the misguided public considers the Times a credible source.

Though the "uncontrolled substance" in the headline refers to pot, buried in the fine print of the article is proof that the real uncontrolled substance is alcohol, the official drug of the NBA. (To be precise and to give credit where it's due, Budweiser is the league's "official beer sponsor.")

What the Times alleged in its tendentious 1997 report was that 60 to 70 percent of players "smoke marijuana and drink excessively." The Times did not write that 60 to 70 percent "smoke marijuana excessively and drink." So despite the story's misleading headline and emphasis, the Times was in fact saying that alcohol accounts for the bulk of NBA drug use and abuse.

In the story's fine print, Buck Williams, who at the time was a teammate of Oakley's on the New York Knicks and is now retired, stated the obvious truth: "Alcohol is a much larger problem [in the league] than marijuana." Vagabond forward Dennis Scott, who has since overcome his own drinking problem, added anecdotal evidence: "After a game, especially if a guy has had a bad night, I've seen players drink until they pass out in their chair. If they're lucky, someone is watching their back, ready to haul them back to their hotel room."

Commissioner Stern disputed the figures in the Times report, and rightly so. The estimates of pot smoking and excessive drinking were ridiculously high, even for the "young male" demographic to which the players belong, which has the highest rates of substance use and abuse. (That demographic's most prevalent form of drug abuse is frequent, heavy binging on the official drug of the NBA.)

A year later, Clinton's drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, used the Times report as the basis for a Washington Post column. In an essay ironically titled "A Clean and Sober NBA" (Sept. 30, 1998), McCaffrey never once allows the word "alcohol" to parse his lips. He ignored the Times' allegations of rampant abuse of the drug alcohol and chose instead to focus on allegations of widespread use of the drug marijuana -- allegations which he then exaggerated and distorted to reach this baseless conclusion: It is "routine for players to build an addiction [to marijuana] bad enough to run afoul of the law before their problem receives attention."

In fact, none of the players in question had ever acknowledged a problem with pot, let alone an "addiction." McCaffrey knew he could smear black professional athletes as drug addicts -- based on no evidence whatsoever -- and not be challenged by any Post editor. Now that's power.

Here's another fact that escaped McCaffrey and the Post: Many experts say that excessive use of marijuana may lead to "psychological dependence," but it is not physically addictive in the manner of heroin or alcohol, the official drug of the Washington party scene. Take pot away from a long-term heavy toker and he'll get irritable. Take booze away from an alcoholic and he'll suffer delirium tremens.

Getting back to Oakley, it's safe to assume his psycho approach to basketball was influenced by his long association with General Pat Riley, the dysfunctional coach of the Miami Heat who commanded Oakley when both were with the New York Knicks. Riley transformed a once-proud team into a vicious street gang. Along with Marine Sergeant Chuck Daly of the late-1980s "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons, he turned the wonderful, free-flowing NBA game into brutal, dirty, hand-to-hand combat.

Just as pot may be the answer for NBA bullies like Oakley, it could do wonders for the control-freak coaches who have ruined the game. If these guys were a little less uptight, they might turn their players loose and let them play a more natural, reactive style. Maybe even let them run a fastbreak or two.

What do you say, Oak? For the good of the game, would you share that doobie with your former coach?

Dennis Hans is a drug-free freelance writer whose essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post (Canada) and elsewhere. He has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida. Among his areas of interest are the mixed messages about mind-altering drugs delivered by the government, pro sports and the media. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.

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