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Among Mitch McGary's lessons learned from pot suspension: 'Don't get caught'

Mitch McGary is all smiles as Thunder GM Sam Presti introduces the rookie. (AP Photo)
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Mitch McGary is all smiles as Thunder GM Sam Presti introduces the rookie. (AP Photo)

The NBA probably won’t be using Thunder rookie Mitch McGary’s recent VICE Sports interview as a public service announcement for its marijuana policy.

Still recovering from midseason back surgery in March, McGary hadn’t played basketball in months when he suited up on the end of the Michigan bench solely as a Wolverines mascot during their Sweet 16 victory. But the NCAA tests for drugs at random during championship season, and on that night it was his turn.

McGary failed and faced a one-year suspension for what he later told Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel was a one-time pot-smoking experience, making a once tough decision between returning for his junior season and declaring for the NBA a whole lot easier. Projected as a lottery pick after leading Michigan to the 2013 national title game as a freshman — and believed to be one again in 2015 had he proven healthy again in college this year — McGary fell to Oklahoma City at No. 21.

The difference between the 21st pick this season and a lottery selection next year could have meant as much as $6.8 million between now and 2018. While McGary has every reason to be upset with the NCAA’s draconian marijuana policy, he took a different approach donning his new Thunder duds in the VICE Sports interview.

“I believe everything happens for a reason, and for me to stay this extra year — I ended up getting injured and having this little suspension that forced me to leave — I think that’s what was best for me. I guess that’s what God had in mind and forced me to get drafted 21 and get on a great team, great organization.

“Overall, I think it was good for me. It was a learning moment. The way I handled it was mature and responsible, so I think people actually took my side and went against the NCAA rather than being like, ‘Hey, you’re some druggie.’ I get people on Twitter and Instagram still commenting and stuff, saying, ‘Oh, you did drugs.’ Well, you know what? I did. Whatever. So what? I learned from it, and it was in college. They’ll understand when they’re in college or after that. Whatever.

“But it’s something I did, and I learned from it. It was the opposite of harming somebody, but I guess the NCAA is a little harsh on their penalties. I don’t think the penalty fit the crime, but that’s just the way it goes. … Like I said, it happens, and hopefully some kids can learn from it, but just don’t get caught.”

This isn’t the first time McGary has said, “I don’t think the penalty fits the crime,” and while his “just don’t get caught” suggestion isn’t the best advice for those following his footsteps, the overall point is one that represents a rising tide. 

The NCAA reduced its penalty for a positive marijuana test from a year to six months just a few days after denying McGary’s appeal for a more lenient suspension. That pales in comparison to the NBA’s more appropriate system of punishment: A first-time violation requires entry into the league’s marijuana program, a second results in a $25,000 fine, a third in a five-game suspension, a fourth in a 10-game suspension, a fifth in a 15-game suspension and so on.

In 1997, when the league did not include marijuana on its list of banned substances, a New York Times article estimated 60-70 percent of NBA players smoked pot. As exiled former Suns guard Richard Dumas told the paper, “If they tested for pot, there would be no league.” Two years later, the league collectively bargained a policy that now subjects players to four random tests between Oct. 1 and June 30, and Michael Beasley can probably tell you about how much that has curbed pot use in the NBA.

Last year, U.S. scales tipped in favor of legalizing marijuana for the first time, as 58 percent of Americans polled favored legalization. Pot possession is now legal in two NBA cities — Denver and Portland — and the majority of the league’s other towns feature medical and/or decriminalization laws. Only 13 NBA homes in 10 states outlaw it entirely: Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Indiana, Memphis, Miami, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Antonio and Utah.

Surely, pot can adversely affect an NBA athlete — resulting in impaired eye-hand coordination, short-term memory loss and respiratory problems — but as many proponents of marijuana legalization will explain, the effects of alcohol on the human body can be equally harmful, if not worse. As more and more states legalize marijuana, governing bodies in sports may be forced to rethink their testing policies, and either NBA owners or players could reopen labor negotiations in 2017. 

As McGary said, “I think they’ll be some changes within the next couple years.”

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