Bio: Rough Justice guarantees he would pass a doping control urine test, but only because they haven't invented a drug that could give him Andrei Kirilenko's hairdo yet. Check out his other work over at his blog There Are No Fours.
Doping suffuses professional sports. Ask almost any fan, athlete or talking head how they feel about performance-enhancing drugs and you’ll get an earful of righteous judgment, but drugs are part of the sports landscape for good because they work and because the money at stake overwhelms the various reasons why players might abstain.
Dopers aren’t acting out a set of beliefs contrary to the masses; they’re acting out their desire to win the fame and money that success will bring, or simply trying to win. The margins between pro and failure, between starter and backup are often slim enough that the extra boost chemistry can provide will bridge the gap for someone who can’t quite make it. Authorities can try to stop use with penalties, but testing doesn’t eradicate illicit PED use; it creates an arms race between the chemists creating new, subtler drugs and the chemists inventing new tests to sniff out those new drugs.
The NBA has so far avoided a large dustup about drug use, with a few isolated incidents that were explained away easily enough, but in light of OJ Mayo’s suspension it’s worth taking a look at what PED use in the NBA might look like.
There is no sport immune to chemistry, but individual sports are affected differently and to different degrees by doping. At the far end of the spectrum, any sort of racing is completely vulnerable to drugs. Cycling is the sport with the biggest drug problem precisely because a bike racer engaging in oxygen-vector doping will beat a similarly talented non-doper every single time. The NFL, where speed and strength are the main currencies for position not named quarterback, showcases defensive ends faster than the defensive backs your father watched, but skill position players need to be able to read defenses and run routes as much as they need to have a good time in the 40 yard dash. Still, in a sport where brute strength is a key asset for 80% of the players on the field, steroid use will always be a huge advantage.
The breaks built into the game also provide enough rest that the stamina problems bulking up might cause don’t undermine effectiveness. Shawne Merriman’s suspension and subsequent accolades and blowback strongly suggest the sport isn’t clean, but also that the NFL views this primarily as a PR problem. No one needs the baseball doping conversation to be rehashed. Basketball, hockey and soccer have remained largely incident-free; that doesn’t mean that they aren’t being affected by PEDs, but their structure and play limit the effect drugs can have more than other sports.
Simply put, the precision of the NBA game means that doping isn't a direct path to success. Being bigger and stronger helps, but good players marry that to the finesse to finish plays or the jumpshot they've honed since childhood. If physical ability alone determined success on the court, Gerald Green would be thinking up the next cupcake dunk, not plying his trade in Russia.
The NBA is a second-order sport for PEDs, one where doping can aid ability but not generate it. As a fan of both baseball and professional cycling, I’m cynical enough about the issue to assume that some non-zero percent of NBA players are doping. Older guys trying to eke out a last season or two, injury-prone players trying to get/stay healthy, skilled but underathletic players trying to make it, second-tier guys trying to break through into stardom, there are plenty of reasons why a professional basketball player would turn to chemical assistance.
But the best players aren’t the biggest or fastest, they’re the guys who are best at getting the ball in the hoop and stopping their man from doing the same. Physical shortcomings matter, but skills that are forged by time in the gym do too, and there’s no chemical shortcut to Ray Allen’s jumpshot or Kobe Bryant’s footwork. LeBron is the best player in the NBA not just because he’s 6’8”, jacked and quick, but also because he can shoot, pass, defend and position himself at an elite level. There are only a handful of players who can succeed in professional basketball without possessing an NBA body, but there are also countless players who couldn’t succeed despite having that body.
At the end of his response to O.J. Mayo’s suspension, Henry Abbott said “Players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever. Many of the world's finest enhancers are impossible to test for…Is it really smart to stick with the theory that performance enhancing drugs are just not a problem in the NBA?” It’s true players are bigger and faster than ever, but that’s not any evidence of drug use specifically. It ignores the fact that NBA players strength train and condition in a way that was unheard of a few decades ago, and the current generation is the first to have such methods available throughout their youth careers. NBA players used to smoke!
Players are taller than ever before, but the NBA draws players from a larger genetic pool, both because the sport is global and because the US population has continued its steady climb. Medical advancements mean MRIs and new surgeries can let players continue playing after what would have been career-ending ten years ago. PEDs may well have a part in the physical talents on NBA rosters, but it’s not like the physiological changes we’ve seen can’t be explained without them.
The NBA has a testing policy for a reason. It’s not there purely as a PR ploy; if there were no reason for basketball players to use PEDs there would also be no need for testing. But if you paid much attention to how baseball players explained their steroid use you learned that most users got started by following the “here, try this” plan offered by a teammate. Professional athletes operate in a bubble and don’t by and large have sophisticated knowledge about biochemistry, so they would have to rely on others to introduce them to drugs.
I don’t doubt that some players have followed this route, but unless players are doing a fantastic job of conspiring to keep a league-wide habit secret, the users are likely individuals injecting or ingesting at home, clinging to the edge they’re giving themselves over their compatriots. Morality isn’t the only impediment to PED use; acquisition isn’t necessarily an easy task. I’m sure there are players in the NBA who would take a drug if it were put in front of them but don’t have the first clue where they would go to get it.
Not only that, but there’s no one drug that would benefit every player in the league. Part of the reason for steroid ubiquity in baseball and football and EPO ubiquity in cycling is that those PEDs help every athlete. Baseball and football are all fast-twitch actions that are over within ten seconds. Steroids make everyone faster and stronger. Everyone can benefit from hitting a ball farther, throwing it harder or running faster.
Similarly, every cyclist will be better at his job if his circulatory system does a better job of delivering oxygen to his muscles. But the different roles and skills of a basketball team make it unlikely that any drug, other than HGH, would benefit everyone. An shooter who makes his living running his defender all game and curling around screens would gain from taking a drug that aided his stamina. A post player would do well to bulk up so he could push people around. A slasher could exploit a few more inches of vertical leap. But if different players on a team would benefit from different drugs, they’d all have to find them via their own routes unless a drug culture was truly pervasive or a team was actively helping its players dope.
Players might take the risk of exposure inherent in sharing drugs with a teammate for team gain, but given the variety of body types and skill sets you find in any given locker room, NBA doping would have to be more diffuse than the doping is in any of the sports that have established problems.
O.J. Mayo claims the DHEA in his system is from a supplement he vetted poorly. That’s an eminently plausible claim. As far as I can tell, DHEA isn’t a masking agent or precursor for anything else, and it’s currently legal to sell it over the counter. It’s possible he was using it as a steroid, but unless he had very high levels of it in his system, it’s much more likely he did a terrible job reading labels at GNC. It’s possible he’s a cheater, but it’s more likely he’s a knucklehead. This isn’t Mark McGwire with Androstenedione in his locker.
If I had to guess, I would say NBA doping is a low-level phenomenon. I would be shocked if use were higher than one out of every ten players precisely because the returns for doping are more limited in the sport than in others. I would be even more shocked if no one in the NBA were using PEDs. But in today’s media environment, where baseball dopers have been excoriated in the press for their “crimes”, a basketball player who is regularly drug tested would have to be careful about what he was doing and to whom he mentioned it. The tacit approval that aided steroids in baseball does not and has never existed in the NBA.
A player who was doping would use HGH, EPO or some other drug that is undetectable in a urine sample. If OJ Mayo were a serious doper, you can be sure he wouldn’t risk exposure by having something as easily detectable as DHEA in his system. If we’re going to have a serious conversation about performance-enhancing drugs in the NBA, I’m all for it. But OJ Mayo almost certainly has nothing to do with it.