What HGH tests mean for NBA drug cheats


Sources say the NBA is due to start testing players for human growth hormone (HGH), which represents several important firsts for the league's anti-doping policy, including:

  • The first time players will have their blood tested.

  • The first time the league's lab in Montreal will test NBA players for HGH.

  • An acknowledgement, of sorts, that the NBA's testing program needs to evolve.

This closes one of the NBA's testing "gaps" that has long bothered everyone from the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to the U.S. Congress.

Hats off to all involved for taking a step in the right direction. HGH testing is good for the NBA -- not because athletes getting busted is a thrill. Of course, most will always do everything they can to win. That's how you get to the top of such competitive professions.

What matters, instead, is that the league does a serious job of taking the most dangerous options off the table as players pursue the heights of athleticism. The league has an important role to play in ensuring the culture of the NBA is one where players can thrive without going to dangerous extremes.

HGH testing, however, is hardly that. This is not the end of the line for NBA drug cheats.

On Twitter, the most common reaction is that [insert name of player you most dislike] has it coming.

I'll be surprised if many players fail this test at all.

First, let's examine why this is happening now. The answer is because the lack of an HGH test has finally become embarrassing to the league and union.

HGH is a substance with undeniable potential to help NBA players. It's widely discussed and available from any number of doctors and clinics. And Olympians have been tested for it since 2004.

And yet the powers that be in the major North American leagues clung to the theory that the test was not reliable. That argument was always weak.

The chief science officer at the United States Anti-Doping Agency, Larry Bowers, testified before Congress recently that HGH tests are so good that “the chances of an athlete who has not used synthetic growth hormone testing positive are comparable to the chance of that same athlete being struck by lightning during his or her lifetime.” He added that those questioning the tests were “lawyers, not scientists.”

When Major League Baseball's powerful union agreed to implement HGH blood testing, those saying the test was no good lost an essential ally. That argument is dead.

So the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association have moved on from one of their weaker positions in anti-doping, and players will face some limited blood testing likely starting next season.

Meanwhile, pretend you're an NBA player using HGH right now. What does this mean for you?

Likely not all that much. For one thing, you'll have months if not a year or more to either get yourself clean, or -- more likely -- learn the workaround to this test.

That's the real lesson of the Lance Armstrong scandal: There is a cheat to almost every test. For EPO or testosterone it's as simple as taking tiny doses at night, knowing testers come only during the day. Hematocrit tests can be defeated by chugging water or infusing a bag of saline solution. Other drug tests can be defeated simply by pretending not to be home when the testers come knocking. Feign confusion for a day or two as the drugs clear the system, then pee clean and all is forgiven.

In the 1990s several cyclists took so much EPO it literally killed them -- made their blood so thick their hearts couldn't pump it -- without failing a test.

These cheating methods may sound overly simple, silly even. But they worked for top cyclists for a decade, and a lot of those same tricks would work for the NBA right now.

The word is that the best human growth hormone tests are getting better, and will soon be capable of detecting HGH use over a longer period of time. WADA has been making noise about a better test in the works, and one of its tricks is not to let athletes know when new tests are going into effect.

But the truth is only a tiny handful of athletes have ever failed HGH tests, and there's no reason to assume NBA players would be any different.

The assumption has to be that the most sophisticated athletes in all sports will quickly master this test as they have so many others. I'm very glad the NBA has instituted this test, just as I'll be shocked if a lot of NBA players fail it -- and that's not because I assume they aren't using HGH.

Meanwhile the league and union are still avoiding the testing program that experts, including Lance Armstrong, say works best: the biological passport, which is built on year-round blood testing, with no advance notice. The emphasis of the passport is on noting suspicious changes in blood values -- the effects of banned drugs -- rather than the drugs themselves, which can be elusive. This program has come to many sports including cycling, and track and field, and is due to be deployed at next year's World Cup. Experts suggest it's the direction of the entire industry. Hopefully it doesn't take the NBA too long to catch up.