Is NBA Getting A Free Pass On Steroids And HGH?

Baseball players are vilified for using performance-enhancing drugs. Football players are at least lightly admonished. But the NBA has thus far escaped all scrutiny associated with PEDs. But why? Aren’t NBA players ballooning in size the way baseball and football players have over the last two decades?

Kevin McHale and Dwight Howard

(Portrait of a dominant power forward, taken 25 years apart)

Could you imagine teams from the ’70s and even the ’80s trying to compete athletically and physically with the players of today? Are we supposed to believe that this is just a natural progression of athletic ability and the result of nothing but hard work? We were fooled into thinking that was the case in baseball, when we chalked up the achievements of guys like McGwire and Sosa to dedication and time in the weight room. Some aren’t ready to give the NBA a free pass in all of this.

THE ON DECK CIRCLE raises some interesting points in a piece today about the NBA and HGH, which is technically illegal in the league but not tested for. While admitting that there’s no smoking gun (much like in baseball in 1998), there’s reason to believe that something is going on:

But with that said, please have a look for yourself at photographs of the body types of NBA players in the 1980s compared to those today. Hell, look at those as recently as 2000. There is a very clear trend: players are bigger, stronger, faster, and more athletic than ever before.

Look at Ben Wallace and compare him to power forwards of yesteryear: Kevin McHale, Kurt Rambis, Horace Grant. Gaze at LeBron James and appreciate that he is the size that Karl Malone was in 1998, when the Mailman was the most physically dominant power forward in the game. Examine Dwight Howard next to classic photos of Patrick Ewing and try to explain how improved weight-lifting techniques could account for such changes in growth.

TODC is quick to point out that they are not pointing the finger at anyone, but just using these names as examples of guys who athletically dwarf the dominant players of previous eras.

One thing in trying to compare eras that makes this tough is that there is unquestionably more attention now to off-season conditioning and workouts, as well as to things like nutrition. As players have gone on to earn more and more money, teams are expecting their players to bring a year-round commitment to their jobs, as well as take care of themselves during the season. It used to be that athletes would suck down beers in the locker room or clubhouse after the game (sometimes during), on plane rides, and at all times in between. Heck, Vlade Divac smoked for most (all?) of his NBA career. Nobody actually worked out in the offseason — that was vacation time, or in the days before high salaries, time to go back to your day job. So it does make sense that the players of today are bigger, stronger, and faster. But how much is reasonable to expect?

TODC says that NBA Players Union director Billy Hunter believes NBA players don’t have any need for something like HGH, but they disagree:

Really, Mr. Hunter? It might not be in a basketball player’s best interest to recover more quickly from injury, or to increase the density of fast-twitch muscle fiber in his legs?

HGH assists users in becoming bigger, stronger, faster while helping them recover quickly from weight preparation and the grind of continuous stress (like, perhaps, 82 games a year of profession-level basketball).

Meanwhile, teams like the Phoenix Suns have guys who are recovering from various injuries at an eye-opening rate:

Yes, I am not-so-subtly raising an eyebrow at the seemingly-magical healing powers possessed by the Phoenix Suns’ training staff. Lauded as the league’s best operation, they have allowed Amare Stoudemire to recover from multiple career-threatening surgeries quickly, have strengthened Steve Nash’s ailing back considerably, have allowed Grant Hill to achieve level of sustained health he had not experienced in decades, and rejuvenated Shaquille O’Neal to a mobility and fitness level he hasn’t shown since his time as a Laker. 

This is all conjecture, of course, but is certainly worth exploring. If Andy Pettite would use HGH to recover from an injury, do you really think a prominent NBA player wouldn’t do the same thing?

David Stern continues to keep his head buried in the sand, maintaining that the players in his league would not benefit from PEDs. So far, his approach has worked, as the media has basically ignored the NBA in its PED investigations. But the spotlight has to go there at some point, doesn’t it?