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.
Since last summer four high-profile NBA players have been involved in marijuana-related criminal cases. 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.
"I'm sure the fan would like to know that players on the court are not playing under the influence of any drugs," Granik said. As for testing players, "We've made it plain to the union . . . we would be perfectly willing to have the league office and club (employees) tested on a similar basis as long as it didn't violate state laws," Granik said.
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.
This weekend in New York during the NBA All-Star break, union representatives from the 29 teams are scheduled to discuss the league's proposal for the first time as a group.
"It's an issue that we intend to spend a great deal of time on at our meeting," said Billy Hunter, the union's executive director. "What I hope to do is get a consensus from the players as to what they think our policy should be with regard to marijuana usage."
Hunter contends, however, 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% to 70% 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. "Weed is something guys grow up doing, and there's no reason for them to stop."
None of the six current NBA players quoted in the story said they used marijuana themselves or named players who did.
"When you say, 'What's the percentage (of players who use marijuana)?' all I know is that four people have been apprehended," Hunter said last week. "There's a tendency to want to (lump) guys together and say: "Well, if two or three are smoking then more of them must be.' "
Hunter added, "I think there's a tendency to say that because a lot of these guys dress in the idiom or style that young kids, at least minority kids, dress that we've now got a . . . gang-related association."
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.