White Worm, White Whale, White Elephants

Over the past week, there was some non-link-worthy speculation as the presence of PEDs in the NBA. The logic: Players got bigger and faster in baseball and football, and look what was just beneath the surface . . . so why not us? To their credit, the authors aren't pointing fingers—nor do they have the slightest bit of credible evidence to back it up—but believe that, as an analogy, the similarities are simply too juicy to ignore.

These arguments have already been refuted using the most obvious ammo. The league tests like crazy for them, reporting any semblance of a positive result with glee, since all are diet pill-related; unlike baseball or football, there hasn't been a wholesale shift in the numbers or physique of the league as a whole. Is it really plausible that only Dwight Howard and LeBron James have discovered HGH, and the rest of the NBA is in the dark? Plus, while stronger and faster is of immediate benefit in baseball and football, in basketball, skill is at more of a premium. There's a reason why terms like "skills" and "game" are so important to fans and players alike, and while the NBA combine is at best misleading, at worst, a version of that year's scouting drunk and tied to a burning sailboat.

But for yours truly, what makes these insinuations so absurd is the very nature of the pro baller. Not to get all quasi-essentialist on you, but what propels most players to to the top is some version of indvidiual arrogance or confidence, stemming from the fact that when they take the court, no one can fuck with them. From that age where everything becomes to jump off for them, who they are—a seamless combination of mind, body, learned tricks, and attitude—allows them to absolutely steamroll everyone they come into contact with. Except for sometimes in AAU, or if they play at Oak Hill, or are fortunate enough to train with Tim Grover. Compare that with football, where most players are trained as good soldiers meant to excel at a particular task, to fit into a role, or baseball, in which skills are so atomized as to become impersonal. Of course those two sports would welcome a third-party that could up the numbers, heighten the measurements, bring one closer to the unspoken—yet certainly formal—ideal that informs their training. These players are learning function, and to that end, to dispense with some of themselves. That's a lethal combination just begging for a chemical substance to play a key consulting role.

Now consider basketball and the ego. Admittedly, if one were to construct the perfect player in a vat, in the most mechanistic way possible, there might be a way to bio-chemically optimize the process. I guess that would make sense psychologically, if not technologically—as of yet, no one's suggested that PEDs improve court vision or shooting form. In this country, though, that's not how players are made. They start to play, they are, and they pick up stuff along the way (or not). In short, if there's a way forward, it's clearly defined by both their strengths and limitations. Otherwise, why wouldn't everyone take drugs to turn into Durant or LeBron?

LeBron is one of names most frequently whispered. At which point, really, would PEDs have intervented in LeBron's development? When he was 16? When, as a rookie, he was merely one of the best players in the league? Forget the whole "they want to be fast" line of argument—why exactly would a player as at home on the court, as joyous in his identity as an athlete, suddenly decide he needed to conform to a non-existent standard? Who the fuck thinks "I'm the most unholy combination of speed and size the league has ever seen, but everyone knows I could be a little more that?" Becoming LeBron James is a tremendous accomplishment; deciding to become more LeBron would run counter to the entire project of perfecting self and style.

Addendum: Point raised in the comments section that stuff like HGH aids in recovery, and has nothing to do with what I've outlined above. Given how long it takes guys to come back from ankle and muscle and side problems, how back spasms have ruined careers, and that guys only ever rush back from wrist and finger problems (that's the scene of the crime?), I find this highly unlikely.

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At 3/07/2009 3:41 PM, Blogger Harris said...

Plus, there's the whole issue of what PEDs do to your joints. Without a doubt, the NBA features the most purely athletic population of any major sport. How could one possibly play above the rim, ala Lebron, when their knees are literally deteriorating on them. It just wouldn't make sense. If it were true and PEDs ran rampant in the League, we'd have a lot more Greg Odens then Dwights.

At 3/07/2009 4:18 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Something that most articles that talk about possible PED use in basketball mention is the fact that PED use isn't limited to players who want to be bigger or stronger, but also players who want to recover from injury quicker. For that purpose, why wouldn't NBA players use PEDs during injury recovery time to speed up their return to the court?

A similiar argument was made by baseball pruists when steroid allegations just started getting out. They claimed that only hitters took PEDs because pitchers couldn't possibly benefit from their effects, only to find out that Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens used it.

I'm not saying that it happens in the NBA, but it's terribly naive to suggest that PEDs provide no real benefit to NBA players.

At 3/07/2009 4:35 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Wait, you're saying it would be possible for NBA players to take longer to come back from injuries than they do already?

Come to think of it, the one kind they do rush back from are wrist/finger thing, the precision-type stuff that mostly just affects shooting form. Seems strange that, in theory, they'd load up on drugs for those, but not to get back from a knee problem.

At 3/07/2009 4:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So pitchers don't have to worry about joints like elbows and shoulders??I don't think there is a sport where you don't need good joints.

I don't know who is on the juice and who isn't in basketball, but I think it would be crazy to say no one. The best you can say, is that there are a lot of guys with crazy physical talent who are on a bench somewhere not playing in the league, so PEDs can't do everything.
You can't tell me Josh Smith without his insane athleticism is still an NBA player. Not to say he's on anything, just to say that being strong and explosive is important in the NBA.

At 3/07/2009 4:56 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Josh Smith is an NBA player because at a very young age, it was obvious he was ridiculously athletic. And thus began his path to the league. You see players get bigger and stronger, but I've yet to see a guy get MORE athletic. . . especially when they're tracked started in middle school. THis goes back to my original, more philosophical point about how NBA selves are constituted.

At 3/07/2009 5:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your argument reminds me a lot of the "steroids can't give a guy hand-eye coordination" argument that a lot of people tried to use when Jose Canseco's book came out.

Coupled with the fact that most pro athletes have been dominating since middle school. Even the guys who aren't all time greats.

I agree that in a league where swag counts for a lot, steroids can't create a player in basketball. The fact is that it probably can't create a player in any sport.

See Barry Bonds, A-Rod, Miguel Tejada. All great and highly touted players before steroids.

At 3/07/2009 5:59 PM, Blogger Rough Justice said...

The flip side of Jiggy Saw's point is worth mentioning too. You say that you've never seen a player get more athletic, but it's a matter of degrees. LeBron isn't going to wake up and think "Damn, if I could get two more inches of vert, I could really kill it," but do you really think the last man on the bench wouldn't kill to be that little bit faster, jump just a little higher? Or the guy in the D-League, who is putting up decent numbers there, but dying to crack a League roster? It's not just the stars, or even primarily the stars who dope in sports. The guys with the biggest incentive are those who are caught just on the cusp. Guys who would kill to be just better enough to get where they've dreamed of being.

At 3/07/2009 7:44 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 3/07/2009 7:45 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

I'm glad this was posted, and all the simmering doubts people have on the issue are now brought to the forefront.

Seems to me that most people who assume PEDs in basketball do it out of what they perceive to be an overtly cynical worldview (b/c everyone has been "jaded" by the corruption of baseball's hallowed records- oh my!) when in reality they are just literally drawing shit out of thin air.

You'd think if Dominican kids from the slums can get their hands on this stuff and bulk up for minor league scouts that all the rail-thin euro bigs who get knocked on every year for "being too soft" or "needing to pack on muscle" wouldn't have thought of trying out this stuff too, in Europe?!

At 3/07/2009 10:53 PM, Blogger Kaifa said...

I can see where you are coming from with your more philosophical approach, but I think you are underestimating the spread of PEDs in today's sports environment.

I have spoken with a few colleagues of mine who are doing the stories on doping in European sports. What they tell me is that there isn't a sport in the world where not at least a solid percentage of professional athletes are using illegal substances of some kind to either increase their performance or reduce recovery time. Really not one of the major sports is clean at the top level.

In Europe you obviously have cyclists, track and field athletes, weightlifters, boxers, some of the long distance skiing runners, soccer players, tennis players who have all been caught (not to mention a lot of jockeys who have doped their horses). And in some of these sports, the athletes are being subjected to in-competition testing and unanounced tests during the training months. It goes so far that athletes have to tell the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) or the respective National Anti Doping Agency (NADA) where they are or will be for every single hour for months in advance. The system is so strict, but still world class athletes dope and a percentage of those who do are getting caught.

The next problem is that athlets today - especially those in sports with a lot of money behind it - use those drugs that only tomorrow's test methods can detect. The ones who are caught are either the stupid ones or those who lack the money for the stuff that's not going to be detectable.

And sometimes it's also in the best interest of those who organize the sport that they don't find anything. The recent Olympic tests were terrible from a methodic standpoint, the IOC designed the tests in a way to make sure that they wouldn't find all the PED users by using urin tests where only blood tests could have brought results. They still haven't handed over some of the samples to the international (=independent, with no financial interest) testing agencies. So I'm wondering whether the NBA's tests are really that thorough, especially when the organisation doing the tests has a financial interest to keep the players on the court. Do you have any details on the NBA's methods? Because as long as the tests are not done by someone outside of the realm of influence of the sport, no test result can really be believed.

Granted, the more the sport involves skill and creativity than rather just endurance or strenght, the smaller the effects of PEDs will be. So LeBron James would be amazing even twenty pounds lighter.

But still, basketball just like football relies on speed, power and endurance, all of which can be improved immensely through PEDs. ESPN just ran a story where sprinter Michelle White said that after a few timess of using PEDs she didn't feel her formerly troublesome foot injury at all and that she felt like nothing could hurt her.

It would be interesting to hear from somebody with medical knowledge about the human body, because that is a solid foundation fromwhich to argue from. What can the human body do without illegal medical help? Of course "illegal" would have to be precisely defined, where that border lies between legal medical procedures and nutritional measures and those measures that go beyond the line of being acceptible from a medical or even moral standpoint.

From what I've heard, even getting to Karl Malone's low body fat of under 3 % is not possible without using drugs, even if you are genetically predisposed to being slender.

So with all the proven PED users in a variety of sports, I just can't believe that the NBA is the last bastion of righteousness. If the NBA is serious about this problem and has confidence in its athletes, they'd have an independent and respected agency like the WADA to the testing.

At 3/07/2009 11:18 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

ESPN just ran a story where sprinter Michelle White said that after a few timess of using PEDs she didn't feel her formerly troublesome foot injury at all and that she felt like nothing could hurt her.

I can think of at least a dozen NBA players who could really have used this fix.

Look, it's not that I have empirical evidence DISPROVING the presence of PEDs, or think there's no product of any kind being used to give NBA players an advantage. It's just blatantly obvious that drugs didn't make the NBA what it is today, and outside of a nebulous "someone might be taking something to improve them somehow," there's no way to pinpoint what might be happening, or even point to a suspicious case.

Is it out of the question that the NBA has a cultural barrier against the kind of abuse we see in other sports? That might have to do with what I outlined in the first place, or something else. . .

At 3/08/2009 4:40 AM, Blogger andrewscanlanfromloki said...

I understand and respect that the underlying praxis of Fredarko is some kind of free-form, non-empirical analysis of basketball; indeed, what I most value about your site is Fd's ability to make the somewhat literary side of being a sports fan relevant. Why, though, do these narratives need to be so strictly Homeric? I know it's more fun to talk about Gilbert Arenas or Durant or Anthony Randolph, but how can we pretend that these theories about "swag" can apply to the NBA's culture as a whole? How many Mikki Moores, Johan Petros, and Joey Dorseys are there in the association or (maybe more importantly) near it? And what is the difference between one strong 6 9 "body" and another? Isn't it conceivable that there are seedier narratives, too? Can't we imagine that another ten pounds of muscle might be the difference between playing in Greece and being the 12th guy on the bench in Sacramento? Don't you think it might be possible that it might take a little something extra to really hustle on the second night of a back to back in Toronto?

Oh, and I wouldn't have been compelled to write so much if this hadn't been the second time in the last few weeks that Fd has come off as hopelessly naive about PED's, etc. I believe in the comments board before, DLIC, had a comment about steroids "slowing players down."*

*[This statement ignoring the famous little fact that Ben Johnson, having beaten the shit out of Carl Lewis in the 100 meter dash (you know, the one they call you "the fastest man in the world" for winning) had his medal and his world record taken away from him for doping. Steroids using that is. This is wikipediable stuff, btw]

And one last question, why bother grasping for this kind of convenient philosophy? It smacks of trad baseballism to argue for your sport's purity like this.

At 3/08/2009 7:48 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Fine. Mikki Moore likes uppers. You're right, the model I offer doesn't preclude that.

But for all the "it's the guys on the margins who dope the most" realism, what's going to stick most in history's craw is baseball's asterisk. And some day, in a distant future, it will be remarked upon that the modern NFL is rife with failed drug tests and, on some level, is only possible with biochemical engineering. I'm repeating myself probably, but this isn't so with the NBA. If these things are present—and at this point, we have no evidence, no obvious suspicion, and I'd argue, a lot of counter-evidence—they're at the end of the bench, or are a very small part of stars' training regimens.

Also, I never made any claim as to why PEDs wouldn't be helpful to players. That was Dr. LIC. I tried to figure out why it might be that they don't appear to play such a key role in the sport. Big difference.

At 3/08/2009 10:15 AM, Blogger Kaifa said...

I think you are right that PEDs don't play as big a role in basketball, because they can only help lay the physical foundation for a great basketball player, the rest really is skill and talent. The isolated sequences of baseball and the contact and power in football do lend themselves better for increased results through drugs.

I again would point to Karl Malone as a very suspicious case because from what people who have studied sport science tell me, you can reach such a low level of body fat only if you eat like a kid from Africa living in hunger. You don't look like Karl Malone then.

The Michelle White quote really was more to show that these drugs are the kind of things that help you play through injuries, which is one of the traits several NBA players are lauded for. Michelle White is roughly half of Greg Oden's size, so I'd say there is a big difference in how they are affected by the same injury and how quickly they recover.

One other thought: a lot of times drug tests reveal substances that don't carry that heavy a punishment, e.g. the diet pills you mention. But those substances are often used as masking agents to dilute the detectability of the heavy stuff. Plus they are a nice cop-out for the NBA because they prove that they test, but the athletes only take the harmless stuff.

I don't want to heap to much criticism onto the NBA because I love the sport, and innnocent until proven guilty still is the right motto. But after all the discoveries in power/strength/endurance sports as well as finesse sports I don't think you can expect the NBA to be different because of supposed moral uprighteousness or the way players come into their own. At least not until the NBA improves on it's terrible testing.

Please skim thorugh this:


It says that players are tested once during training camp or once additionaly if there's reasonable suspicion, which the NBA and the NBAPA determine themselves. This is just worthless because the athletes know when the tests are coming, rendering them meaningless. Plus you have the whole regular season to do what you want without testing.

Also, both the NBA and NBAPA are prohibited in releasing information about positive test until they require a suspension. The list of substances and methods is laughably short and the levels have been set in 1999, which is like using a PC built in 1999 for today's programs or games.

Sorry for writing such a long comment again, but from my point of view the topic can't be approached carefully enough because doping has been proved systematic in so many sports and a media and public who doesn't aks questions about this is part of the whole problem.

At 3/08/2009 10:21 AM, Blogger Kaifa said...

Correction: the link I provided shows the standards until 2004. Since then the methods have slightly improved, as you can find in here:


At 3/08/2009 5:25 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

No one's presuming "moral uprightness."

At 3/08/2009 6:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What we're finding out now is that drug testing, if not done properly, is a complete joke. Even if it's done properly you can only find people who don't know what they're doing.

At 3/08/2009 6:15 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

Not to spoil the mood, but the Jack LaLanne infomerical is on, and lines like "I think juicing is a great idea. . . even for kids" are competing with this PED stuff for my attention. LOLOTF

At 3/09/2009 4:15 AM, Blogger breene said...

Normally, I don't comment much. But glossing over baseball as a sport that, in comparison to basketball, you need more physicality than skill is a faulty example.

That game, from a hitting standpoint, is mostly skill. If it were more about size and strength then you would see a guy like Shaq or, ahem, Michael Jordan making it. But they aren't there.

In baseball, most the guys are above average build, but not multiple standard deviations larger like in basketball. There is a premium on coordination over athleticism (one of the reasons I prefer basketball by the way: the perfect marriage of athleticism and coordination) which is why guys like David Eckstein, Dustin Pedroia, Tony Gwynn (played PG at SDSU, but he wasn't going pro, plus he was great even when fat) can play well in the league.

This would mean basketball would get more help from PEDs. Especially with the return from injury, which I don't think guys drag out. In comparison with the past, due to medical treatments and maybe peds stuff like Microfracture surgery isn't a death knell. Maybe HGH helped Amare, Kenyon, etc. return from that as much as the improved surgical methods?

From a philosophical standpoint, I would have pointed to baseball's historic problem with cheating and, strangely, it's the celebration of it. The immortal Bob Gibson once said "rules or no rules, pitchers are going to throw spitters. It's a matter of survival." There are 'cheating' pitchers are in the hall of fame. And with hitters there have been illegal substances used for a long time (greenies).

Plus, as said, in basketball there is not the same history and the arrogant mentality might stop some higher usage. But frankly, I'd be shocked if no one was taking PEDs. I mean, Josh Howard came out and said he smokes weed, he can't be the only one (Chris Anderson is the only guy that I can think of off the top of my head that has served a suspension and he seems crazy enough to just say "fuck it, I'll do some meth"). I'm led to believe that the testing isn't very rigorous. Or at least easy to manipulate. And if they only check urine samples, they can't test for HGH.

So while I don't think PEDs are as rampant as in baseball (which I see in the same light as cycling, no one testing positive would surprise me) I definitely think that it is a part of the sport. PEDs are a part of all sports.

At 3/09/2009 10:33 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

This all reminds me of something British philosophers I hate would say, or an argument I always have with A. about the cat. I reason that, because the cat is usually famished when she comes inside, she's not eating much outdoors. A. insists that because said cat is a cat, she must be, despite the lack of any evidence that would suggest this—cat also has short legs, which means she's bad at catching birds. I'm not saying she's totally wrong, but I've always found it strange that these things should be take on such (negative) faith.

I'm not a baseball-ist, or naive. I just think it's way too easy to sit there and snip away cynically, rather than consider that maybe, PEDs aren't rampant in basketball, or are there in subtle ways that any sane fan probably wouldn't give a fuck about. Hell, it would probably help race relations in this country if it turned out that some black players took pills to jump higher. Am I right? Huh? Well, maybe race relations circa 1988.


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