If we as sports fans succeed at any one feat in particular, it is that of myth making. We form narratives that call for super-powered heroes to save the game, to save the day, to save the city of suffering fans. Our compulsion with creating larger-than-life figures owes a great deal to another habit exhibited by fans of all sports: self-delusion.
We mislead ourselves all the time. We tell ourselves that changing the channel will impact the outcome of a game thousands of miles away. We swear that owners care about the fans that pay for season tickets. On and on, such half-truths and contrived dishonesty continue.
Nowhere is this more obvious than on the subject of performance enhancing drugs and their (unquestionable) place in the games we love. For years, baseball fans acted oblivious toward the mounting validity of claims that the game was wrought with cheating. Fans closed their eyes and covered their ears when confronted with the truth, in a feeble attempt to protect themselves from the reality that players are not righteous demigods who are pure of heart and without fault. They are not immaculate. They are not incorruptible.
Baseball fans have tried to protect themselves from this truth. NFL fans continue to ignore the mounds of evidence pointing towards steroid abuse. The only question left to ask now is: are NBA fans doing the same thing?
It would seem to me that NBA fans everywhere have a highly developed capacity for self-delusion. Players may be deceiving them, but in reality they are only deceiving themselves if they truly believe that no one in the league is using performance enhancers. The probability that at least some players have used PEDs (specifically HGH) is too overwhelming to tune it out forever.
Certainly, I have nothing but observation and a distrusting nature that leads me to this conclusion. I have no smoking gun, no inside sources, no informant that has lead me down the rabbit hole towards this odious viewpoint.
Investigations must happen before anything can be said with any real certainty. Once the facts are had, we can distort them however we choose to. We can play them up, or set them on an angle, or misrepresent them altogether. Sourced, hard information must come before anyone is accused in earnest.
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.
Again, I am not accusing these specific players of anything. I merely use them as examples to prove my point that the public is reliving the lie it lead in 1998, when we were all so enchanted with the Chase for 62 that we never stopped to ask questions. The NBA now features the biggest, strongest athletes it has ever had, yet no one questions this.
What’s more, these athletes are recovering from injury and age in ways no one has ever seen. Procedures that once put a career in jeopardy are now relatively safe. Recovery times are accelerated ten-fold, and players that seemed on their last legs suddenly seem to be as spire, nimble, and healthy as ever. If Dwyane Wade were a baseball player and experienced the sort of career rebirth and physical rejuvenation he has this season after his shoulder and knee looked completely spent 12 short months ago, we would be suspicious. Not so with basketball.
HGH is banned by the NBA, but there is no reliable urine test to detect its presence. Billy Hunter, the NBA player’s union executive director, has said he will let never players be blood tested for HGH.
“My guys are tested enough…We don’t participate in a sport where there’s a need for human growth hormone.”
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). While HGH is produced naturally in the pituitary gland inside the brain, using artificially high levels of the hormone will rejuvenate the body in astonishing ways, aiding healing and slowing the signs of aging.
PEDs may not help a three-point shooter with his accuracy. They may not improve his court vision. Yet it might allow him to recover more quickly from knee surgery. Or to fight off recurring back issues. Or to improve mobility and speed at an advanced age…
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.
Mark Woods of Great Britain’s Guardian has written at length about how open the NBA’s testing system is to abuse. He has cited that David Stern does not want to conduct a “witch hunt” for players using PEDs, and that the league lags behind other operations in terms of testing and enforcement.
Stern is among those that wrongfully point out that steroids would not improve a player’s game, as the sport is more about coordination and motor skills than sheer power or force. Yet as a certain point-power forward/linebacker in Cleveland can attest, muscle and strength equals power. To highlight what a serious advantage this is would be redundant.
It has been said that no one can wear a mask for long. Eventually, everything comes into the light, and we see things for what they truly are. If this is the case for the NBA, what is it exactly that we might see? Could it be that, in fact, we are baring witness to the greatest collection of physical specimens this or any other profession sporting league has every seen, athletes so rarely blessed with a combination of speed and brute power that they define traditional positions?
Or is something else happening here? Something darker, something that, deep down in places we don’t like to talk about, we already know if we are honest with ourselves and put aside the great myth of sport that all athletes are saints, that they are all honest, and that they are all noble.
Let it not be that our love blinds us. Let us seek the truth, whatever that may be. Perhaps there is no concealment, and all players are clean. But we must make sure. We cannot let our love for the game continue to manufacture a sense of self-delusion that everything is virtuous and reputable only to justify the trouble we take to follow basketball.
That is not fair, that is not enough. We need just the facts, not adjusted facts.