Performance enhancing drugs in the NBA

The party line has always been that there are not a lot of performance enhancing drugs in the NBA, because they wouldn't help much in the NBA.

When people say "the kind of bulk people get from steroids isn't handy in the NBA" it's not enough. Did you notice that in baseball, a lot of the drug cheats turned out to be those skinny little pitchers?

Not to mention, there are far more PEDs these days than anabolic steroids. Human growth hormone, genetic therapies ...

I don't know if there are a lot of PEDs in the NBA or not, but I do know what I have never been inclined to follow the argument that it's safe to assume there are not. I'm also not sold that players would get caught (cheating techniques are ever evolving, and exceedingly tough to test for in every sport), or the argument that players are too scared to mess with their bodies in that way.

NBA players have tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. There are drugs, these days, that help people recover between contests. Think about how great that would be? There are gene therapies that help mice gain the exact kind of muscle people are working hard for in NBA weight rooms. Not to mention -- what about stimulants? Wouldn't a little extra energy be handy on those nights when you just don't have it?

All that leaves me open to the idea that it's not a pervasive problem, but hungry to understand how that could be so.

And that's hard to come by.

But this past weekend, on a panel about performance enhancements at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Steve Kerr did more than anyone ever has to make me feel like there's some real reason to believe PED use is not pervasive.


  • Kerr admitted that late in his career, he used Vioxx, and found it to be a performance enhancer. They cycled the doses, so he was on it sometimes, and off other times. He found that when he was on it, he was a better player. Admitting that gives him some credibility. This was not going to be a whitewash.

  • Kerr is the president of the Suns. In that role, his most precious assets are the players he knows well and cares about. He has a real interest in keeping them healthy, long-term.

  • Kerr was notably terrified when Tom Gugliotta nearly died after some amateurish supplementing with combinations of things he bought for himself at GNC. Gugliotta collapsed, and the proper treatment was only discovered once his wife had been consulted, and was able to supply a precise list of the things that he had been taking, which informed the doctors in how to treat the collapse.

  • From that moment on, Kerr says he has been convinced that, for safety reasons, he is adamant that the team's medical staff needs to know everything every player is taking. He's convincing on this point, I think he really believes that.

OK, so, you take all of those points, each of which is intuitive and believable out of Kerr's mouth.

And then let me add one more element, which is circumstantial and potentially meaningless. But consider that the bunch of players Kerr manages were also the stars of the last book to really dig deep and first-hand into an NBA team -- Jack McCallum's "Seven Seconds or Less." Kerr wasn't running the Suns then, but he was involved. Most teams won't give anyone that kind of access, no matter what. But the Suns did. McCallum was all over that team for the better part of a season. If Kerr is right, that in a post-Gugliotta collapse world, teams want to know who's taking what, would anyone in their right mind have invited a writer to crawl all over the team and potentially discover a secret that more than a few people might know about?

It's weak as proof the NBA is clean. But it's meaningful as a glimpse into the kind of thinking that could keep NBA players clean, despite omnipresent pressure to seek out each and every competitive advantage.

I come away from the PEDs panel genuinely convinced that Steve Kerr does not think he's running a team of drug cheats, and that he believes being cavalier about such things is potentially a matter of life and death.

That's no proof the league is clean, but it's something.