The first in a TrueHoop series, inspired by recent Lance Armstrong news, examining PEDs and the NBA.
It was a stunning Florida afternoon, a few years back. Somewhere a few courts over, under the warm sun, Maria Sharapova hit with a coach. On the courts in between, would-be Sharapovas -- tiny, teenaged, long-limbed, tan and svelte -- hit the living hell out of one ball after another.
The door was open to the sprawling weight room, where NFL and college football players pushed massive weights.
On the deck of the outdoor therapy pool at the IMG Academy, a motley crew of hoops-loving journalists was deep into the only relaxing hour of three-and-a-half days of training as if we were professional athletes. After days of running, jumping, sprinting, lifting and dunking (not all of us, ahem, on 10-foot rims) our way into a fabulous assortment of muscle cramps, we were taking turns lolling around in the warm water of the therapy pool, milling about on the deck or -- in the name of recovery -- almost literally freezing in one of two icy tubs.
TrueHoop: Anti-Doping and the NBA
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Lawmakers have long called the NBA's anti-doping program soft, and the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency says the program has "gaps." Now that testimony from the investigation into Lance Armstrong has made clear precisely how sophisticated cheaters beat tests, we wonder if the NBA's program can keep up.
TrueHoop on performance enhancers
- Doping doesn't help in hoops, right?
- WADA: NBA program has "gaps"
- The state of NBA testing
- The list of banned substances
The cold tub is as alarming as hell, but it has magical restorative properties, which we needed. We had been training so hard we could hardly dribble or lift our arms above our heads.
Leading the recovery session was Corey Stenstrup, a former MLB strength coach with education in nutritional science and exercise biochemistry who seemed to know everything about the workings of the human body. He ran precisely orchestrated workout sessions: only weights but those that served basketball purposes; not just agility, but the kind we'd use in plays we were learning on the court; balance that makes for better jumping, running and pivoting; learning to be strong even while fully extended, for instance when rebounding or blocking a shot. And on and on. It was no wonder his facility was busy with the finest football, tennis and basketball players in the world.
That day on the pool deck, with an evening scrimmage approaching and shot bodies, all minds were attuned to the idea of exercise recovery.
And performance enhancing drugs came up.
One after another, we threw out theories about how of course those didn’t work in basketball. Anabolics would make you too bulky, right? Human growth hormone isn't really all that, is it? Would testosterone make a difference?
We had been told, for years, that steroids wouldn't help in basketball. We covered the sport, knew and liked players, and believed the sport generally to be clean. What's more, to suggest that basketball was dirty, or that there were drug cheats in the sport, was to come pretty close to accusing Stenstrup, a guy NBA players turn to for high-end workout advice, of knowing about it, or worse.
The simple thing would have been for Stenstrup to go along with our theories. We wanted him to reassure us. Our beloved sport, his beloved clientele, all clean and determined to stay that way.
Bless him, though, that Corey Stenstrup. He's a straight shooter.
His words, with just a hint of annoyance at our ignorance, cut the air -- and the B.S.
"Guys," he announced, "all that stuff helps."
Instantly, I felt like an idiot for having ever thought otherwise.
The warm, snuggly conviction that basketball was a magical part of sports that would be forever above that mess, that was all over. We were plunging into a cold reality.
Literally. Here we were in line, desperate to freeze ourselves in a tub, just to inspire a tiny amount of cellular movement that would make us a little fresher for that night's session.
Meanwhile, that cellular activity, that recovery, could be coerced much more forcefully with pharmaceuticals. Similarly, the weights we'd been lifting -- we could lift more. The running could be done faster. PEDs are known to help in running, jumping, lifting and recovering. Some say human growth hormone can even help your eyesight. It's hard to find elements of basketball training where they wouldn't have the potential to make better players.
Looking back on the conversation years later, Stenstrup sees the irony. He is for rigorous testing and not only advises his clients against all PEDs but also about all medicines, artificial sweeteners, colors, preservatives and even nonorganic or cooked food.
But that day, even Stenstrup was surprised at our naivete. How had we been fooled? And if Stenstrup knew all that stuff worked, who else knew? Why wouldn’t players know?
Stenstrup did not tell us that the NBA was full of dopers, or anything like it. But he sure dumped cold water on the whole "wouldn't help in the NBA" theory.