Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins filled my childhood with patriotism and wonder as the American cycling hero earned my utter fascination.
Some years later I watched the myth burn down. Little by little, former training partners gave interviews, testified and railed against him and his Machiavellian control of his teammates. His doping scheme was a tight, paranoid racket, and it was leaking. When Lance gave the final admission, when they stripped his Tours, I was a young teenager. My childhood hero admitted to Oprah that he was a traitor. As a sports fan, I had to grow up fast.
No fan wants to believe they’re rooting for a synthetic product. It’s not until they’re watching an evening news supercut of latex gloves, needles and their favorite player looking disjointed with an IV stuck up his arm that the bliss of their fandom is shattered. Before I knew it, Lance was begging Oprah for forgiveness.
Goddamnit. Sorry, I just need a second.
I no longer pay attention to professional cycling, save for a couple stages of the Tour each summer. I and everyone else watching shares the memory of Lance’s cover up. When I try to suspend my doubt and tune in, the thought still carousels through my mind: “I wonder who’s doped to the gills.”
To transition to the peg of the piece, I believe the NBA may keeping hush a performance-enhancing drug (PED) problem.
In a 2011 ESPN interview, former NBA MVP Derrick Rose (may his ankles rest in peace) rated the doping issue a “seven” out of 10 (SB Nation, “ESPN The Magazine Stands ‘Firmly’ Behind Derrick Rose PEDs Comment,” 05.23.2011).
Then, sounding like a pitiful Trump administration stooge, he reneged, saying, “I do not recall making the statement nor do I recall the question being asked … If that was my response to any question, I clearly misunderstood what was asked of me” (SB Nation). Sounds like Derrick got a visit from the corporate tooth fairy.
Since Rose’s comments, only seven NBA players have been suspended for failing PED tests.
I believe PEDs are widespread in the NBA. The question is, what (or who) is compelling players to dope: teammates, franchises or a larger structure of doping culture ingrained in the league?
The narrative on Wilson Chandler and Deandre Ayton, two of the most recent suspended players, has been something like this: Chandler, you’re an NBA vet. Don’t you know better than to take a banned substance? Ayton, you were the number one overall pick of the 2018 NBA draft. The league office probably phased out sleeved jerseys because they saw your shoulders in high school. Why would you wrongly use an agent that masks PEDs on urine tests?
Sounds naïve, right? But that’s how the NBA media has covered the three suspensions over banned substances this season. Players are to blame. Players are the selfish actors taking extracurricular measures to gain an edge. So it’s a few bad apples…yeah right.
Oh NBA, you’re so pure. Your game heralds craft and scheme, favors silky ball handling and pure shooting above brute strength. You’re so far above the PED crises that have incriminated other, lesser sports.
I used to think that, too. After all, Steph Curry, a recent two time MVP, is a shooter, and when he does attack the basket, it’s still a few thousand leagues below the rim. What utility does synthetically produced testosterone present for him?
Except doping can help you no matter what kind of athlete you are. An excellent piece by Patrick Hruby in the wake of the great Hedo Torkoglu doping scandal of 2013 revealed the misconceptions of doping involving both power and endurance athletes.
He highlights a few inconsistencies in the who-needs-to-and-doesn’t-need-to dope narrative. When the 2004 Panthers were implicated by a doping scandal, not even the punter was immune. So it goes for cyclists as well. Sure, they’re taking Erythropoietin (EPO), a drug that enhances blood-oxygen regeneration, but they’re also taking anabolic steroids, despite the fact that massive pecs don’t help you hustle up Mount Ventu any more efficiently (Sports On Earth, “Why Wouldn’t NBA Players Use PEDs?,” 02.15.2019).
Even in distance running, where thinner is fitter is a toxic (and misinformed) refrain, growth hormone is used to aid the recovery process. I believe that despite their arguments otherwise, the NBA culture or the league itself encourages doping. In that case, we have a league-wide integrity issue.
The NBA would face the most embarrassment from a PED scandal fallout. For years, league officials, players and trainers have utterly dismissed the idea, saying that not only is there no doping problem, but the sport doesn’t incentivize players to juice in the first place.
In 2005, Congress was investigating the Barry Bonds scandal and NBA commissioner David Stern said the following, “…basketball emphasizes…quickness, agility and basketball skill … illicit substances that could assist athletes in strength sports [such as weightlifting and football power sports [such as baseball]or endurance sports [such as cycling or marathon running] are not likely to be of benefit to NBA players,” (SB Nation).
According to this logic, NBA players can’t be bothered to take endurance or strength enhancers, although I’d argue their sport is the most beautiful marriage of the two. To say nothing of the fact that a professional athlete’s existence is spent on a razor thin margin of error. Each year over 25 percent of players are cycled out. But no one would dare look for the slightest of edges?
The NBA claiming its players have no use for PED’s is as believable as Eric Swalwell claiming he didn’t just fart on live television (New York Post, “Rep. Eric Swalwell appears to fart on live TV”, 11.19.2019) .
If the NBA is going to insist on its own purity, it had better be prepared for a nasty downfall. Basketball’s popularity has skyrocketed as other sports’ integrity and popularity crater around it. We already saw this year how the NBA handled being the hypocrite when league officials, players and coaches blithely defended Chinese autocrats, feigning ignorance and citing the potential consequences of free speech.
LeBron James has every bit the stature that Armstrong once held and more in the world’s fastest growing sport. Not that such a story already exists, but what if it came to light that LeBron ran a tight PED ring, á la Lance? Could it puncture the NBA like it did MLB and cycling?
During the 2007 playoffs the NBA ran promo videos with the slogan, “Where Amazing Happens” alongside some of the greatest moments in basketball. Amazing? Sure. Each a miracle in the minds of fans that witnessed them. But not me, I’m staying skeptical because, as Lance would have to say to me, “I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles,” (The Telegraph, “Top 20 sporting moments of the decade,” 12.08.2009).