There are always going to be conspiracy theories from NBA fans. No matter what season, or what part of the season itself, It's inevitable. Ever since Commissioner David Stern mentioned, tongue in cheek, that his dream NBA Finals matchup would be "the Lakers versus the Lakers", the cynical hoophead has run with the assumption that the league is rigged, ranging from a simple errant foul call to a pre-determined NBA Draft lottery. Some of this is just a bitter fan trying to find some rationale in the irrational world of winning and losing, but some of it stems from real life history. The Commissioner's worst nightmare came to pass in 2007, as NBA referee Tim Donaghy was charged with making calls that unfairly affected the point spreads of various games...including the infamous 2002 Western Conference Finals Game 7 that the Los Angeles Lakers took on the road against the Sacramento Kings. Some would even use the word "stole".
This incident is as far as the NBA goes with regard to cheating scandals. In fact, Tim Donaghy is probably the biggest black eye on the pristine face of the league since the mid-eighties when cocaine was as ubiquitous as Gatorade. Other than this wayward referee and the Pistons-Pacers brawl in 2004 --which turned out to be more of an incident of poor arena staffing control and one insane small forward--NBA fans have enjoyed an unprecedented amount of stability and growth while the league they love so much prospers more and more by the day. Tickets have never been more expensive, the demand for even the most downtrodden of franchises are unfathomably high and the L has perhaps more marketable stars than ever before. It's a great time to be an NBA fan. I'd argue that there has never been a better a time to be an NBA fan.
(Unless you are a fan of the Lakers. That might make this season difficult for you)
And thus, it's no surprise that the league, and more importantly its followers, have not flinched when the other three North American sports leagues are all embroiled in controversy.
The NHL just barely survived their second lockout in a decade, which could have surely crippled the sport for good had the entire 2012-2013 campaign been wiped out. The NFL is neck-high in a much more critical issue of their own: a concussion epidemic that just seems to be getting more severe as the players become faster and stronger in the country's most physical league. And then there's baseball, the sport whose maladies are ten times the national story of all three other major sports combined.
Two days ago, Major League Baseball finally ended the worst kept secret in sports, announcing suspensions for 13 of their players, including All-Stars Alex Rodriguez, Jhonny Peralta, Everth Cabrera and Nelson Cruz, amongst others, for violating the league's Joint Drug Agreement. Peralta, Cabrera, Cruz and a few role players such as the Yankees' Francisco Cervelli and the Phillies' Antonio Bastardo, were put on the shelf for 50 games, equivalent to a first-time offense for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. The only one to be treated differently was A-Rod, as the Commissioner threw the book at him--more like a library--and levied a stunning 211 game suspension for charges such as lying to MLB officials and attempting to obstruct his own investigation. Rodriguez has appealed this ruling and will continue to play until an independent arbiter makes a decision on the case.
The most fascinating facet of this saga is that these suspensions were done without one single failed drug test. MLB, in unprecedented cooperation with the Player's Association, was able to mete out punishments with evidence from a company called Biogenesis, who supplied these players with performance-enhancing drugs and kept records upon records of the transactions.
Every part of these investigations and subsequent punishments were a shock to the system considering how the baseball world has changed their stance on PEDs. A decade ago, the players, their union and even the fanbase at large would have recoiled at suspensions given to players without a by-the-book breaking of the rules and due process. Today, everyone seems happy to have these cheaters out of the game. This, coupled with the fact that former MVPs and All-Stars have been tossed into the fire, makes the Commissioner's decision not only the biggest baseball story of the year, but also one of the most landmark cases in league history. The events of the past month have been unequivocally enormous. There's no baseball fan that would say otherwise.
Regardless of the scope, I simply cannot get my NBA fan friends to care about this. They could not be bothered to devote attention to anything related to this slow, deliberate, boring sport that isn't anything close to the break neck pace and excitement on the hardwood. In fact, I've seen the pendulum swing so far that there's a bit of a flippant attitude about baseball's latest crisis. Hoopsters are throwing up their hands at this fiasco, thankful that they're not fans of baseball.
Well, start caring, everyone. Because MLB's nightmarish decade-long scandal is about to come right down on us, the NBA community.
According to ESPN's T.J. Quinn, who has been breaking down this entire investigation, Biogenesis wasn't just servicing MLB players. From his article:
The man who turned the Biogenesis clinic from a quiet investigation in Miami into a national scandal says there are at least a dozen more athletes whose names haven't been exposed and that they come from across the sports world.
Porter Fischer, the former Biogenesis of Miami clinic employee who turned boxes of documents over to the Miami New Times last year, declined to name the athletes.
Fischer said he and associates have identified athletes from the NBA, NCAA, professional boxing, tennis and MMA, in addition to other professional baseball players who have not yet been identified.
Does this come as a surprise to anyone? As many have written before me, it is reckless to believe that performance enhancing drugs are just being utilized in baseball alone. The culture of systematic use might not be the the exact same, but is there an argument to be made that basketball players, boxers, tennis stars or mixed martial artists are any less competitive than baseball players? If given the chance to get an edge on the field, why would any of these men bypass that opportunity, no matter the sport?
There are several arguments to counter basketball players using PEDs (none of which should be "how would steroids help a basketball player?". Mr. Armstrong, how would these drugs help in an endurance and strength sport? Case. Closed), but if you doubt the validity of the existence of them in the NBA, check this out:
Two decades ago, Sammy Sosa averaged 34 home runs per season over a five-year stretch. For the next five, he shattered record after record and put up an average of 58 home runs per year. Stranger yet, he seemed to get better going into his early thirties, whereas most players peak in their late twenties.
Baseball fans, writers and MLB personnel put their heads in the sand. We--and I use "we" because I was one of them--ignored the fact that these physical feats weren't just improbable. They were, as history had shown, impossible for mortal men to accomplish. Records were made to be broken, of course. But not broken and then reassembled on another plane of existence.
Looking back on it, how stupid were we to ignore this? Players in their mid-thirties not just maintaining their excellence, but seemingly getting...better? By most metrics, Barry Bonds had his best seasons at age 37, 38 and 39. Roger Clemens had arguably never been better as a Houston Astro in 2005...as a 42-year-old. In hindsight, it was downright illogical to believe what we were seeing. To this day, I feel embarrassed that I didn't stop and think how absurd and unreal this all was, especially knowing the almost irrefutable evidence that both Bonds and Clemens were on performance-enhancing drugs.
At the time, no one said any of this out loud. After all, this is America, isn't it? Innocent until proven guilty. Even the veiled suggestion that someone was juicing when there was no concrete evidence or no charges had been filed was a journalistic taboo that no one would broach.
Are we taking this approach with our favorite NBA players? Are we ignoring that some of these athletes are performing feats that have never been done before on a basketball court? Are we turning a blind eye to players moving past their primes and playing later into their thirties than ever before? Are we watching as players defy what should be career ending injuries and playing just as effectively as 35, 36 and 37-year-olds as they were as 27-year-olds?
Maybe it's improved medical science, diet and training regimens. Maybe it's that teams have exponentially more money invested in these men, and are taking far more precautions in how their bodies are treated. Or maybe it's the work of science that we're all afraid to talk about in basketball.
But innocent until proven guilty, right?
I'm not going to throw accusations directly on current NBA players, because even as I look back on how I viewed baseball as a fan 15 years ago, it's irresponsible to speculate on such a well trafficked website, especially with just empirical evidence. However, that doesn't mean that I don't have my suspicions and I'm not abjectly terrified about the gigantic storm that's coming directly for the NBA. Every lesson I've learned over the past twenty years as a baseball fan has come to a head in the past two months. It's not over by a long shot, and won't be until the penalties are ratcheted up until the point where no one can risk cheating. But most importantly to the basketball fan, these examples from Major League Baseball as well as the reports about NBA players tied to Biogenesis make it clear to me that this story isn't something to be ignored by non-baseball fans. It's a dreadful forecast for the future. This is going to happen.
As a baseball fan, this investigation and how it's torn down some of the greatest players in the game has dampened my love for the game. Ryan Braun, a "San Fernando Valley boy done good", has disheartened this San Fernando Valley boy who has no particular love for the city of Milwaukee or its Brewers. Simply seeing a person from the same area I grew up, and whom I admired a great deal, has dimmed my optimism in the great game and the very idea of what a hero should be.The thought of waking up one morning and seeing my favorite NBA player accused of using PEDs is a nightmare I'm not sure I could ever shake.
If you are an NBA fan, it is your duty to pay careful attention to this MLB investigation. This is closer to the hardwood than you think. And closer than anyone cares to admit.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino
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