Three NBA doping myths

Another day, another news story about human growth hormone, testosterone, steroids and the like. Worries about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) dog almost every sport. Science is advanced enough to offer potential advantages in everything from bodybuilding to chess. Even where cheating is not known to be a common part of the game, there's reason to worry it might be.

The head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, David Howman, says, "You’ve got to be very careful when you start saying performance-enhancing drugs are not beneficial in any sport, because you’re going to be proven wrong. And you’ll be proven wrong when you’re not expecting it."

TrueHoop has been digging into the issue of doping and the NBA, even though the league doesn’t have a rich history of such, because on this topic, it's always time to be vigilant.

The good news is that thanks to various criminal inquiries, legal testimony and tell-alls from cycling and other sports, we know more than ever about how drug cheats operate -- all of which comes with lessons, and huge opportunities, for all sports, including basketball.

The bad news is that people in and around basketball sometimes dismiss PEDs as a concern, because of outdated notions that this sport has little to worry about.

MYTH 1: PEDs wouldn't help basketball players.

This theory is at last fading among the sport's insiders, but it's not dead yet. And at times it has been embraced at the highest levels. For instance, David Stern testified about PEDs before Congress in 2005 and said:

Some have suggested that the sport of basketball -- which emphasizes quickness, agility, dexterity, and skill above all other physical attributes -- does not lend itself to the use of steroids and performance-enhancing substances, which are primarily used to build muscle mass, strength, and endurance.

Who would suggest that? Among them might have been the league's top doping enforcer at the time, Lloyd Baccus, M.D. (since deceased) who offered this view to lawmakers:

The physical traits that NBA players rely on -- particularly quickness, agility and dexterity -- do not appear to be assisted, and may even be hindered, by the use of these substances.

There's a certain logic: Say the prototype of a drug cheat is a bodybuilder with massive 30-inch biceps. It is tough to picture that guy slicing through the lane in the NBA. He would be too bulky.

But he is also a long-outdated image. As of 2013, we know that the list of available PEDs extends far beyond anabolic steroids, and they are doing so much more than building biceps. We have first-hand reports, backed by science, that cheating athletes are benefiting from things like faster recovery after hard exercise, the ability to work out longer and with greater intensity, faster healing and even a more aggressive mindset going into competition -- all things that would seem to help in basketball.

And we might have known much of this decades ago. Remember sprinter Ben Johnson, the most notorious drug cheat of his time? He was surprisingly big and muscular, but also quick -- the fastest man in world history as of the 1988 Summer Olympics.

Track and field is comparable in many ways to basketball. Both feature bursts of sprinting and jumping. Many NBA players could pass for sprinters, hurdlers or long jumpers: lightweight, long-limbed and covered in lean muscle.

Marion Jones won three gold medals as one of the best sprinters and long-jumpers in the world. After her scandal, she played in the WNBA.

By reputation, track and field, full of athletes with NBA-type physiques, has long been among the dirtiest sports when it comes to PEDs. Meanwhile, a huge number of NBA players excelled at sports like football and baseball before focusing on basketball.

In other words, some of the body types that work best in basketball also work in sports where PED concerns have been front and center for years.

Which, of course, is no reason to impugn basketball players. Innocent until proven guilty.

But when we hear people say that PEDs wouldn’t work in basketball, we have to wonder: If PEDs are useful in other sports that involve running, jumping, cutting and so on, why wouldn’t they be useful in the game that many consider the most athletic in the world?

MYTH 2: Performance-enhancing drugs always make people big and bulky.

We tend to think we can tell who's doping by looking at them. Specifically, if they are covered with bulging muscles.

In baseball, people point to the burly sluggers like Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire and say, "We should have known."

Most NBA players don’t look big like that, which has been taken as a sign they likely don’t dope.

But that ignores the facts about what confirmed dopers actually look like. On The New York Times website, Nate Silver recently brought up a baseball lesson:

If one were actually to look at the list of players who have been suspended for performance-enhancing drugs, it might call some of these assumptions into question. Among these players are the utility infielder Neifi Perez, who hit 64 home runs in a 12-year career, the slap-hitting outfielder Jorge Piedra, and a substantial number of pitchers. The incidence of performance-enhancing drug use seems to be fairly randomly distributed between stars and benchwarmers, players at different positions and those with different skills.

Similarly, cycling has long been one of the dirtiest sports out there, and almost every single cyclist is tiny by jock standards. If you can cheat and look like Lance Armstrong in his prime, on what basis would we expect NBA cheaters to be enormous?

That’s in part because anabolic steroids are only one offering on today’s buffet of performance enhancers. Human growth hormone, corticosteroids, testosterone, blood transfusions, stimulants … the list goes on and on. Many of those don’t do anything to make you bigger. (Some, indeed, are marketed as diet pills.) Instead they’re often focused on things like quicker recovery, higher energy levels, better capacity to process oxygen, increased ability to work out and the like -- all things that would certainly seem to help in hoops.

One of the skinniest players in NBA history, Chuck Nevitt, has confessed to having dabbled in steroids. In fact, if you used just the eye test, looking for rippling muscles, it’s unlikely you would have busted any of the seven NBA players who have failed PEDs tests; Rashard Lewis, Lindsey Hunter, Matt Geiger and company don’t exactly fit the profile.

Gaining huge amounts of muscle mass can, indisputably, be aided by performance-enhancing drugs. That is not to say, however, that PEDs always result in increased muscle mass. They can result in all kinds of different things, depending on which drugs are deployed and with what kind of workout regimen.

MYTH 3: Cheaters would get caught.

In his groundbreaking book “The Secret Race,” cyclist Tyler Hamilton explains that when he was a drug cheat, it took the doping experts a decade, and millions of dollars, to devise a test for the most effective drug they used, EPO. And once the test was created, it took his doctor “five minutes” to come up with a workaround: Instead of injecting a large dose under the skin, instead use tiny doses straight into the bloodstream. It works about as well, but clears the system much faster. Take the drugs at night, and you can pass a drug test the next day.

The NBA’s drug-testing program is far less invasive than cycling’s. In cycling, athletes make testers aware of their whereabouts year-round, and are subject to blood and urine testing at any surprise moment. All of that is compiled into a biological passport which Lance Armstrong and other former cheaters say has been very effective (and which is coming to baseball).

NBA players don't have their blood taken for PEDs exams, often have some advance notice of their limited number of urine tests, are never woken up for tests in the middle of the night and are not subjected to biological profiling.

The kind of microdosing Hamilton describes would be tough for the NBA's testing system to detect.

"EPO wasn't the only thing that could be microdosed," writes Hamilton. "Around 2001 we got away from the red eggs and started using testosterone patches, which were more convenient. They were like big Band-Aids with a clear gel in the center; you could leave one on for a couple hours, get a boost of testosterone, and by morning be clean as a newborn baby."

Then there's the matter of athletes avoiding the testers. The policy says skipped tests are equivalent to failed tests. According to my research, no NBA player has been punished for missing a drug test. That means either the entire NBA has had perfect attendance through the life of the drug testing program, or there's some leeway for players to delay testing -- the kind of opening that Armstrong and other cyclists exploited, as a last resort, to prevent failed tests.