As an NBA all-star in the 1960s and 1970s, Washington Wizards general manager Wes Unseld said he watched players smoke marijuana and, as a consequence, “act weird.” How weird? “It’s like the old joke that goes: A guy’s watching a football game with 60,000 people. He sees the team get into the huddle and he swears that they’re talking about him,” Unseld said. “You know, that kind of stuff.”
Marijuana was not a concern of the league’s back then. But a generation later, as the NBA has grown into a global, star-powered industry with an average annual player salary of $2.2 million and marketing offices from Melbourne to Mexico City, the issue of marijuana use has attracted the attention of league executives.
Four high-profile NBA players have been involved in marijuana-related criminal cases since last summer. The latest involves one of the most popular players on Unseld’s team: Forward Chris Webber, 24, who recently, after being stopped by police on suspicion of speeding, was charged with three misdemeanors, including possession of marijuana.
“I suspect it’s a problem in the league,” NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said in a recent interview, after Webber was arrested. But Granik said he has no evidence to support his suspicions of marijuana abuse in the 390-player league. “If I did I wouldn’t tell you,” he said from his office above New York’s Fifth Avenue. “But I don’t have any facts and figures.”
The NBA has formally proposed to the players’ union, the National Basketball Players Association, that marijuana be placed on the league’s list of banned substances along with cocaine and heroin and that players be tested for marijuana use. The NBA is the only one of the four major sports leagues that does not list marijuana as a prohibited substance.
Under the NBA’s drug agreement, jointly negotiated by the league and union, players can be disciplined for using or selling cocaine or heroin. Only rookies are subject to mandatory testing for illegal drug use, and sanctions range from mandatory treatment for first-time offenders to expulsion from the league. Marijuana users can be disciplined by the NBA commissioner, David Stern, but only if their use resulted in a criminal conviction.
Friday in New York, a day before the NBA All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, union representatives from the 29 teams are scheduled to discuss the league’s proposal for the first time as a group.
Billy Hunter, the union’s executive director, contends that few, if any, NBA players are using marijuana. “This is a problem only in the sense that it seems to get so much notoriety and media attention,” said Hunter a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California.
The notoriety comes largely from criminal cases over the past year involving the four players - Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson, Toronto’s Marcus Camby, Portland’s Isaiah Rider and Washington’s Webber - and from a New York Times story last October that asserted that 60 percent to 70 percent of all NBA players smoke marijuana and drink excessively.
The Times said its story was based on conversations with more than two dozen players, former players, agents and basketball executives. “If they tested for pot, there would be no league,” former Phoenix Suns guard Richard Dumas, who was banned from the league for drug and alcohol use, was quoted as saying. None of the six current NBA players quoted in the story said they used marijuana themselves or named players who did.
Iverson, the 1996-97 NBA rookie of the year, pleaded no contest last year to a concealed weapon charge, and a marijuana possession charge was dropped. Rider pleaded no contest to a marijuana possession charge, and Camby avoided prosecution on a possession charge by agreeing to do community service.
Webber was stopped recently while driving his sport utility vehicle in Maryland. He eventually was charged with second-degree assault, resisting arrest and marijuana possession.
The NBA’s drug policy is a subject some players don’t want to touch. Recently, before a Washington-Portland game, four Wizards players, including Webber, declined to discuss any aspect of the program. Portland’s Rider also declined comment.
But Golden State Warriors guard Muggsy Bogues said in a telephone interview last week, “Marijuana is a drug, and it doesn’t belong in the profession.”
Hunter said he has not responded to the proposal because it is largely punitive. He said it calls for a five-game suspension for first-time offenses involving marijuana, six months for a second offense and a lifetime ban for any player who distributes marijuana.
Hunter said he is confident there is limited marijuana use because players have denied using the drug in conversations with the union.
“Based on our efforts, I guess what we’ve come up with is: The guys that got apprehended (for) smoking marijuana is the extent of the numbers (of players who use marijuana). Everybody else is denying usage.”