|Sports on Earth|
Maybe you missed it. Probably you missed it. Earlier this week, Orlando Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu was suspended 20 games by the NBA after testing positive for steroids.
Here's what didn't happen next.
Demands for more stringent drug testing. Calls for Congressional hearings. Comparisons to Lance Armstrong. I-told-you-so tweets from Jose Canseco. Wailing over Turkoglu's career statistics. Gnashing of teeth over his place in basketball history. Concern that this sets a bad example for the children. Concern that this sets a bad example for other dopers. (Seriously: Turkoglu took a left on Anabolic Avenue, and all he has to show for it 2.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game? Did his methenolone get mixed up with a bag of oregano?)
Turkoglu's swift mea culpa and dubious-sounding excuse -- he took mystery medication from a trainer in Turkey last summer to recover from a shoulder injury, and whaddya know, he forgot to check it against the league's list of banned substances -- was not met with the pronounced public snickering that greeted Roger Clemens' totally scientific Third Ear and the short, tragic non-life of Tyler Hamilton's unborn twin. Federal agents did not pick through Turkoglu's trash. Anti-doping officials did not appear on "60 Minutes" to press for a detailed confession. No one connected the potential dots between Turkoglu and former Magic teammate Rashard Lewis, who also flunked a steroid screen in 2009; no one, not even on the Internet, took the next conspiracy-minded step and wondered how, exactly, former Magic frontcourt mate Dwight Howard's bulbous shoulders became bigger than Barry Bonds' head.
To the contrary, nobody cared. Not really. Nobody cared because the NBA got the same pass it always gets, because everybody knows that professional basketball -- a ferociously competitive, highly lucrative sport that puts a premium on running, jumping, strength and endurance, not to mention rapid recovery during a long, physically taxing season -- does not have a performance-enhancing drug problem.
David Stern seems to think so. In 2005, the league commissioner said that PED use wasn't "a problem at the present time that we think we have." Charles Barkley seems to think so, too: four years ago, he expressed surprise at Lewis' steroid suspension, arguing that tall, lithe NBA players simply don't have physiques that suggest widespread doping. Around the same time Stern made his comment, a longtime NBA athletic trainer told ESPN.com's Marc Stein that "in the basketball culture, players want to be long and athletic. They want to be lean, and they would be fearful that added bulk would affect their lateral quickness;" a team physician said that "when you're playing every other night for 82 games, endurance is really what you're after, and steroids actually hurt that;" and 15-year league veteran Tony Massenburg added that NBA players don't even like to lift weights.
Of course, all of this makes perfect sense. Provided you have no idea how PEDs can actually enhance, you know, performance.
"That makes no sense," says former Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) mastermind Victor Conte. "Look at the biceps of Tour de France riders. They're 9-10 inches [in circumference]. We know they use anabolic steroids, specifically testosterone. For the most part, these drugs -- meaning the whole category of anabolic steroids -- are recovery drugs. They are very powerful. Would they be a benefit to an NBA player? Absolutely."
Charles Yesalis, a Penn State emeritus professor and sports doping expert, concurs.
"Distance runners have been using anabolics and growth hormones in very small doses for years," he says. "Not to build muscle. But to help recuperate. The myth of [PEDs] making you muscle-bound is so over."
I believe NBA players are using steroids. Human growth hormone. Stimulants like Adderall. The blood-boosting drug erythropoietin (EPO). Anything and everything to get an edge. I believe players are doping in the summer and doping in season and doping during All-Star Weekend, stacking and micro-dosing, injecting and rubbing in cream. Do I have smoking-gun proof? Nothing beyond the occasional failed drug test, like the one that earned then-Memphis Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo a 10-game suspension in 2011. Is use widespread, like Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose reportedly once suggested and then denied? I have no idea.
Still, I'm convinced it's happening. So is Yesalis, who after Lewis' suspension told me there was "no doubt in his mind." To think otherwise is to have both admirable faith in the better angels of human nature and a willful disregard for basic logic. "The money involved is substantial," Yesalis says. "The drugs are available. The tests are fraught with loopholes. I don't know how complicated it is. It's the same as all other sports. Why would anybody think the NBA is any cleaner than baseball?" To think otherwise is to sound like Stern, who in 2005 delivered the following prepared statement to a Congressional committee, and only walked away a free man because declaring one's studious belief in the existence of Bigfoot before a group of skeptical lawmakers is not, in fact, a federal crime:
"The sport of basketball emphasizes a specialized set of physical abilities -- particularly quickness, agility and basketball skill -- that are distinct from those required in a number of other sports. Accordingly, 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."
Ahem. Conte tells a story. Back when he was helping athletes dope, he gave EPO to one of his female sprinters. (Conte declines to provide her name, but it's easy to infer he's talking about retired sprinter Kelli White.) White won two gold medals at the 2003 world championships. When she subsequently confessed to PED use during the height of the BALCO scandal, anti-doping scientists such as Don Catlin found one part of her drug cocktail baffling: why was a sprinter taking EPO, a drug that boosts endurance by increasing the blood's oxygen-carrying capacity?
"What they failed to ask was this: how long do you think these athletes train each day?" Conte says. "Hours and hours. And in the offseason, training for months and months, do you think that a deeper training load wouldn't help you? These are training drugs!"
When Conte first began studying the physiology of athletic performance, he says, he was particularly intrigued by Defense Department research on Navy SEALs, whose bodies and minds are subjected to extreme levels of strain and stress during intense training exercises. "They go through hand-to-hand combat, verbal abuse, sleep deprivation, underwater demolition," he says. "It depletes the body of nutrients and builds up metabolic waste products. I saw parallels with elite athletes."
Growth hormone, Conte says, could help NBA players maintain muscle mass over the course of a long, punishing season. Anabolic steroids accelerate muscle tissue repair and healing, which could help with recovery from both hard training and hard-luck injury. EPO boosts endurance not only by bringing more oxygen to muscles, but also by speeding up removal of metabolic waste, delaying the onset of fatigue.
"I have heard a lot of athletes in the NFL and track and field describe the effect of EPO with one word," he says. "It makes you like a machine. You just don't get tired. In basketball, you might not see the effect as much in the first and second quarter, but by the fourth quarter there's a huge edge. One guy has a body full of toxins that have built up. The other guy has a body that has accelerated the removal of those toxins. He's the one who will be able to make that quick move and get past his defender."
In baseball, widespread use of PEDs inverted the usual relationship between advancing age and declining production: 30-something players were suddenly becoming better as they got older. (See Clemens, Roger. Er, allegedly.) In the NBA, a group of aging stars including Los Angeles Lakers guards Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash spent much of the last half-decade managing to pull off a similar trick; was it, as Grantland's Bill Simmons has argued, the result of "better doctors, surgical procedures, dieting, drug testing, trainers, computers, video equipment, workout equipment, workout regiments, airplanes" and even "hotel pillows?" Or was something else afoot?
Remember: during MLB's 1990s size-and-power surge, before BALCO and the Mitchell Report, people were writing straight-faced articles about Ken Caminiti's "goody bag" -- full of all-natural vitamins and nutritional supplements -- and how creatine and weight training alone were changing the sport.
"The level of these hormones like growth hormone and testosterone begin to decline in the body on average at age 30," Conte says. "At least a one percent drop per year. So guys getting up in their 30s are not going to recover like they would be in their mid 20s. That's another way [PEDs] can help."
If NBA players have ample incentives to use PEDs -- millions of guaranteed dollars at stake; the not-insubstantial fact that the drugs work -- they also have few disincentives. After all, federal lawmakers labeled the league's drug testing policy "inadequate," "pathetic" and "a joke" in 2005, and again blasted the NBA three years later. Last October, World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman said the league had "gaps" in its program -- gaps that ESPN.com's Henry Abbott identified as:
• A lack of blood testing, which means the league cannot detect HGH use;
• A lack of "biological passports," a year-round assessment of an athlete's blood profile that looks for chemical oddities and has been credited with reducing doping in cycling;
• A vulnerability to micro-dosing, a practice in which athletes take small doses of PEDs that clear the body in a matter of hours, giving testers a tiny window of opportunity;
• Advance notice to players of drug tests, particularly in the off-season, which gives players time to prepare and/or make themselves scarce.
Abbott also points out that the NBA only subjects players to four random tests per season and just two random tests in the offseason. Both numbers make Conte incredulous. "Testing you only a couple of times a year isn't much, especially when you know how quickly some of these drugs clear," he says. "EPO, synthetic testosterone, you can clear them in a day. And the offseason is when the fish are really biting. If you don't put your hook and line in the pond when you know they're biting, you're not going to catch any fish. I believe that there are really all sorts of loopholes in the testing of the NBA."
Yesalis trusts his eyes. Are NBA players as muscular as their NFL counterparts? No. But they're bigger, faster and stronger than their predecessors. More defined, too. "Just get a bunch of pictures of pro basketball players in the 1960s and 1970s," he says. "Look at how they've changed." In the early 1980s, Yesalis was a college strength coach. He remembers women's basketball players at major conference programs lifting weights. "Basketball players have been lifting for more than 30 years," he says. "The notion that they're bigger and stronger just because they started lifting weights is a bunch of crap. That can't explain it. You can't use that as an excuse."
Maybe Yesalis is wrong. Conte, too. Maybe I'm wrong. I'd like to be. I'd like to believe Turkoglu is a sad, bizarre outlier, that the reason only eight NBA players since 2000 have been caught and suspended for PED use is that NBA players don't use PEDs. Thing is, history suggests otherwise. Americans once scoffed at East Germany's no-good, very-bad, lyin' and cheatin' glow-in-the-dark Olympic athletes -- that is, until we learned that the United States Olympic Committee may have covered up more than 100 positive drugs tests for U.S. athletes who won 19 Olympics medals from 1988-2000. Mark McGwire wasn't here to talk about the past. In her 2004 autobiography, Marion Jones covered an entire page in large red letters reading: I AM AGAINST PERFORMANCE ENHANCING DRUGS. I HAVE NEVER TAKEN THEM AND I NEVER WILL TAKE THEM. Armstrong told his doubters that he was "sorry you don't believe in miracles." When the Carolina Panthers were caught up in a Super Bowl steroids scandal, not even their punter was immune. Years after his good boy sweater-wearing doping confession, Alex Rodriguez is allegedly still hanging out with Cousin Yuri. So it goes. Sports are awash in drugs. Why would professional basketball be any different? "It's the same story with all of these sports," Conte says. "If you have the financial incentive and the inept testing, and you are part of a culture where you believe your opponents are using drugs, you do what you have to do in order to be competitive. I'm not as familiar with NBA culture, but I know that all the same elements are there."
In 2004, Conte appeared on ABC's "20/20," giving an interview in which he fingered Jones and insisted that the Olympics were rife with PEDs, corruption and cover-ups. Many scoffed. Almost a decade later, he's gone from pariah to prophet, and his disquieting message -- the one that very well may apply to the same NBA that has built an entire unironic marketing campaign around the word big -- hasn't changed.
"There is no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy," he says. "Not at the elite level of sport."
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