Kauf-ee Talk: NBA is Going Up in Smoke
In the wake of recent rumors of possible rule changes, NBA commissioner David Stern has been noticeably reticent about correcting one of the biggest problem facing the league-drugs.
Sure, enforcement of a three-second violation and the use of zone defenses are exciting prospects for revitalizing the plodding offenses in the Eastern Conference, but what about polishing the already tarnished image of the NBA?
While it is admittedly difficult to combat the irritating sense of entitlement and selfish play of the young talent entering the league each year, Stern's efforts to clamp down on the drug problem have been less than adequate despite the recent surge in drug violations.
Charles Oakley's comments recently about the drug policy and rampant violations around the league certainly raised a few eyebrows from fans and commentators. Ultimately, though, the news was rather un-newsworthy. But the veteran power forward has seen a lot in his career, and as one of the last of a dying breed of pure hustle, minimally talented players in the NBA, there may be some sage-like wisdom in his rather nonchalant assessment of recreational drug use among professional athletes.
Certainly, hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, have absolutely no place in the NBA, but Shawn Kemp's battle with cocaine and recent rehabilitation attempts are an entirely separate issue. The recreational marijuana use that goes on after games is troubling enough for the NBA.
As the season draws to a close, it is important to take a look at the NBA's drug policy. Certainly, there are legal issues involved. Until marijuana is legalized in the United States, use of the widely popular drug remains a criminal offense.
But it is an inevitable facet of the NBA. Eradicating the drug problem in the NBA is about as likely as watching a showdown between the L.A. Clippers and Chicago Bulls this June. It just isn't going to happen. (So, don't worry Lamar Odom, you'll have plenty of extra "recreational time" with your friends this summer).
There are more serious implications to the increase in drug use over the past few years. Whether they would like to admit it or not, these players are indeed role models for youngsters all over the world. Professional basketball has long surpassed baseball in popularity and has been nipping at the heels of the NFL, which has been looking for someone to fill the gaping holes left by larger-than-life stars like Elway and Marino. It's pretty difficult to get excited over journeymen like Elvis Grbac (once a third-string quarterback for the 49ers behind Montana and Young) and prima donnas like Ryan Leaf.
The NBA has had its share of problems in the post-Jordan era, but there is ample talent in the league to keep the stadiums filled. Besides, the constant drama of a possible return of MJ (mangled finger and all) and Charles Barkley (extra weight and all) keeps fans tuned in to the NBA.
Whether or not Michael and Charles return, the NBA seems to have regained its fan base after the protracted labor strike two years ago, and with a new stock of superstars, the future looks promising. Allen Iverson has stepped up his game, reached a workable relationship with Larry Brown, and has emerged as the preeminent superstar in the league. The result has been the dramatic ascent of the Sixers this year, primed and ready for a championship run with the finger-wagging Motumbo patrolling the middle and a cast of role players to complement their star.
The Spurs and Jazz have likewise reaped the benefits of a clean and sober team. While Stockton and Malone have perfected the pick-and-roll over the years, players like Odom seem to care more about the roll-and-smoke than such basketball fundamentals. Tim Duncan and David Robinson have likewise presented a huge challenge to opponents, playing high above the rim while much of the rest of the league is just playing high. Noticeably absent on these top teams are the drug violations that have plagued several other elite teams around the league.
Take the Lakers. Last year, Shaq and Kobe reached a peaceful coexistence and basically cruised to the championship. With the oft-criticized and surprisingly chaste A.C. Green starting at power forward, Phil Jackson saw room for improvement to keep pace with the rest of the league and defend the title.
Adding former Bull Horace Grant and Isaiah Rider to the team, Lakers fans were optimistic for another smooth run to the NBA Finals. Jackson had successfully tamed Dennis Rodman, transforming the former Detroit bad-boy into another cog in his well-oiled triangle offense that yielded six championships to the Bulls in the 1990s. Surely, he could handle Rider and tap the tremendous talent beneath his troubled past.
Unfortunately, the Zen master overestimated his abilities. Rodman, for all of his foibles and transgressions off the court, was a fierce competitor with an intense desire to win. But Rider is a spoiled wild child, unwilling to give up his ways for the good of the team. Needless to say, this distraction-along with the ongoing Shaq-Kobe feud-has proved costly, as the Lakers still seem to be searching for that chemistry of a year ago.
Portland and Sacramento have suffered similar fates. Jason Williams has apparently spent more time passing the bong than thrilling the crowd with his dizzying array of acrobatic assists. His behavior towards the fans has been less than stellar as well, as seen by his recent tirade of racial epithets at a Golden State fan.
Luckily the Kings have mounted the backs of Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic and have secured a strong spot for the upcoming playoffs. The Blazers, however, have not been so lucky. Though stacked with enough talent to fill up two rosters, the team has struggled with their chemistry all season. Too many egos battling for 48 minutes of playing time has left Mike Dunleavy as the scapegoat for his severely underachieving team.
The addition of Rod Strickland, a player with ample baggage including a history of substance-abuse violations, has certainly not helped matters. Whatever it takes though, Portland must keep a watchful eye on Shawn Kemp. The last thing this guy needs is a case of the munchies.
The league has serious problems and something needs to be done. With an already damaged image from the recent strike and the ever-present possibility of future disputes between players and owners, the last thing the league needs is an increasing amount of drug problems.
While the league could opt to look the other way with regard to small drug violations, this may lead to more troubling effects. The declining maturity level of players entering the draft has definitely contributed to the problem, but there is something more deeply troubling about these players' general attitudes.
Considering the circumstances, their behavior is not surprising. These days, many professional players are scouted when they are just kids imitating Jordan on asphalt courts, coddled by agents and tempting offers when they are still just pimple-faced teens, and treated like hot commodities by the time they graduate high school. It's enough to give any kid a big head. While the drug policy has its flaws, the prospect of no policy seems like a recipe for disaster.
One thing is clear-it is going to take a concerted and coordinated effort by players and personnel to recognize the problem and address it. If changes are not made soon, Elvis Grbac might become the most compelling sports figure of the new millennium. Hopefully, this is a terrifying and sobering enough thought for everyone involved.