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In the wake of both Steve Kerr and Phil Jackson’s recent admission that they’d taken marijuana following significant, life-altering back surgeries, the NBA has been forced to discuss something it had ably kept at arm’s length for decades.
The league doesn’t really have a pot problem, in spite of its strong use. To some, pot acts as a solution, so much so that the league will be faced with staring down the idea of lifting restrictions on its use for players and coaches as society in general warms to both medicinal and recreational legalization of cannabis. For now, the league’s penalties following positive drug tests are relatively tame – a five-game suspension for a third positive test, following a $25,000 fine on the second offense.
Speaking on ESPN on Friday night, former Finals MVP and NBA All-Star Chauncey Billups discussed the fact that more than one of his former teammates (on the Celtics, Raptors, Nuggets, Magic, Timberwolves, Pistons, Nuggets again, Knicks, Clippers and Pistons again) actually played better basketball after ingesting pot.
“I honestly played with players – I’m not going to name names, of course I’m not – I wanted them to smoke. They played better like that. Big time anxiety, a lot of things can be affected – [marijuana] brought ‘em down a bit, it helped them focus in a little bit on the game plan. I needed them to do that. I would rather them do that than, sometimes, drink.”
Given that this is a bit of a low bar – preferring one recreational substance over another prior to being paid thousands upon thousands of dollars to play a lone game of professional basketball – we can agree with Dr. Billups. Yes, if given the choice, kindly do toke up before starting at shooting guard for the Denver Nuggets, as opposed to downing a few Moscow Mules before the contest.
(And quit it with the Moscow Mules, OK? It tastes fine, sure, but this isn’t some high-end cocktail worth showing off. You’re not positioning yourself as an old-timey Speakeasy denizen when you order it. Those things are best served as one of the mystery ingredients in “Chopped,” and you don’t suddenly turn into Zelda Fitzgerald after drinking one.)
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You don’t have to toke up to steady your focus in order to have the memory in place to recall that Chauncey Billups played for the Denver Nuggets from 2007 through 2011. Colorado legalized medicinal marijuana in 2000 while legalizing recreational use in 2012.
That legalization came a year after J.R. Smith and Billups played their last games with the Denver Nuggets. We’re merely tossing Smith’s name into the mix to give you a timeline sense. Do not read anything further into it.
Marijuana can be used to quell anxiety, which is a common and deserved complaint for many that choose to partake in medicinal use of the drug in states that allow for such things. The drug’s role in successfully helping so many find relief from their anxiety is not to be dismissed.
We shouldn’t need to remind people, however, that anyone working under the influence of the drug is still, well, “under the influence.” And while it might make sense to some to rationalize use before athletic performance in the same way the guy you work with likes to “get a couple of Modelos in me” before offering his finest rips in the batting cage, there’s a reason why cannabis should never be allowed in locker rooms even if made universally legal in terms that influence the NBA to take the ban off of the drug.
Players have played buzzed, drunk, hungover, or still drunk the night before from alcohol, and have for decades. Nobody is trying to ignore as much, whether the impetus comes from a legitimate problem or someone like the former Ron Artest chasing away tank job ennui as a young member of the Chicago Bulls by downing cognac at halftime of games.
It’s a long season, there are hundreds of players, and there are giant flashing signs for something called “Crown Royal Caramel Apple” on the sideline of NBA games, right next to where players sit down to wait to return to the contest. Misuse isn’t sanctioned by the NBA, but the presence of libations as part of the NBA’s holiday party is.
This isn’t to get into some college freshman term paper, haughtily arguing the merits of pot over alcohol. What we all can recognize, as things move faster and faster in the months between election dates, is that the NBA will at some point be forced to make some tough choices, and its players will be forced into even tougher ones.
When the drug becomes legal, and/or NBA-legal, teams, players and coaches are going to have to lord over some teammates in more active, obvious ways. No player or exec will go on record to chide a co-worker’s alcohol abuse, but enough off-record euphemisms are tossed out there for the check to represent.
The same will have to be in place for pot, in spite of the potential for strong evidence – think, “J.R. Smith plays terribly after going out on Saturday night”–sized evidence, that certain players do better after taking in some THC.
The apple cart might be tipped to the point of annoyance, for regular smokers. And publicly. In ways that might have them growing fond of a time when the drug wasn’t illegal for all involved, pushed to the fringes of the car park to surreptitiously take in before games.
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