Every two weeks, the gents at Free Darko will be taking a look at the deranged ecosystem that is the National Basketball Association in their own indelible fashion. Here's this week's entry, from Bethlehem Shoals.
Last week, Chris Andersen, the high-flying, kooky Birdman, returned to the Hornets after a two-year exile from the league. All we know is that his suspension came for something other than weed or PEDs, results that the NBA is, for some reason, all too happy to make public.
The Birdman was a cult figure even before the weirdest dunk contest performance ever in 2004. This was possibly the most athletic white man in the game, an energy guy who made bursts of defense and rebounding decidedly unnerving, and a true innovator of NBA hairstyles. Now, this episode has made him even more colorful. Andersen wandering through Oklahoma City in a drugged-out haze is about the most Lynchian thing sports has ever concocted, and totally belonged in Skeets's Bedlam tournament.
That's because, with all due respect to anyone dead from an overdose or stuck going to weekly meetings, drugs are really cool. That's not my personal opinion—it's an integral fact of post-1960's American culture.
If I blew your mind with that one, let me walk you through it: From the hippies, to disco and the fashion world, and up through Wall Street, grunge, and hip-hop, they've lent an element of danger and hedonism while enhancing their own darkly glam reputation. You could even make the argument that pot, as much as that damn saxophone, helped elect Bill Clinton in 1992.
The one place this isn't true is sports. Say "drugs" around a major league, and the conversation will automatically turn to PEDs, which are about as sexy as dropping a grand on a new clutch. After you calm down the guy yelling about Bonds' skull size, and move things over to the so-called "recreational" family of substances, you'll find nothing but a mixed bag of lamentation, novelty and disdain.
In no particular order, you'll hear about Dwight Gooden, Daryl Strawberry, Len Bias, Brett Favre, Roy Tarpley, Dock Ellis, George Gervin, Michael Irvin, Tim Raines, Michael Ray Richardson, Robert Parish, The Jailblazers, Lamar Odom, the entire ABA, and the entire NBA. These stories range from gut-wrenching tragedy (Bias) to farce (Ellis), but for the most part, they carry with them some kind of negative connotation: Players who do drugs compromise their careers and will most likely fuck us over as fans. We'll turn them into running jokes as much as good taste permits, since they've turned their back on the all-important totem of victory.
This is perfectly understandable, since mostly we watch sports to see who wins. Even if we only discover after the fact that an athlete was partying too hard, it tramples their on-field integrity because, we assume, they could've played harder. Except for Favre, of course, who did it all for the love of the game.
Drug-abusing players are viewed much like those injury-prone pussies but worse, because, supposedly, this is shit that people can control (says the serious fan, who has like a one in 15 chance of becoming a beer-logged alcoholic). The worse the problem is, the more it irks us, and the more ruthless we are, always asymptotically approaching Bias. These athletes owe us performance, damn it.
But here's where I stop and ask: Is coolness absolutely irrelevant in sports? Unless a player is conclusively felled or wasted by drug use, why doesn't it give them a certain edgy charisma?
Pot doesn't register; it's just too mundane, especially in the NBA. At this point, I find it more deviant if an athlete—or ordinary person—has never touched the stuff. Here's Josh Howard, talking to Henry Abbott:
Henry: One theory I heard about why you went as low as 29th is that some teams were concerned that you might have a problem with marijuana.
Howard: I think a lot of people have that problem. How that could stop me from getting drafted, though? How many guys in the lottery smoke pot? The weed thing, just about everybody smokes.
No one would ever accuse Howard of slacking, having a bad attitude, or helping bring down the league. If a player's getting suspended (I see you, David Harrison!) or otherwise obnoxious (Zach Randolph), I guess it works as a punchline. But it's certainly not adding to anyone's mystique, as it did Parish's, or making them stand out from their peers.
It's when you get to harder stuff that things get tricky. Maybe it's tacky to say that the 1987 Mets are much more interesting if they celebrated with one big clubhouse kilo. Or to suggest that the ABA without cocaine is like Blue Cheer without acid, which is why this Undrcrwn tee exists:
But ultimately, I think this comes down to what it is we want to get out of fandom. If we see athletes only as warriors who might run for office one day, drugs are evil. If they're fodder for often hypocritical gossip, they're a goldmine for satire.
But if we see them as cultural icons, and acknowledge that they've got some of the same properties as non-lame rock stars and actors, then the answer's a little more complex. And even if no one admits this in public much, I suspect none of us are wholly immune to it — just as pretty much everyone's first cigarette had at least a little to do with teenage rebellion.