High in the NBA 3/2/01

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National Basketball Association (NBA) veteran Charles Oakley of the Toronto Raptors re-ignited the league's smoldering controversy over drug use among players last week when he told the New York Post that the league's drug testing policy was "a joke" and that more than half of league players are regular marijuana smokers.

"You got guys out there playing high every night," Oakley claimed. "You got 60% of your league on marijuana. What can you do?"

The 17-year league veteran also told the Post that marijuana-smoking had increased dramatically during his career. When he first broke into the league, Oakley said, "there might have been one out of six" players using marijuana. "Now it's six out of 12," he claimed.

When queried about the accuracy of his figures, Oakley said, "It's over 50%, and once you get over 50 you've got to go to the next number, 60."

While Oakley was immediately criticized for his remarks by NBA officials and some players and coaches, others defended the accuracy of his comments.

NBA Commissioner David Stern called Oakley "reckless" for making such statements without providing specifics and challenged him to turn any evidence he had over to the league. And Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders soon joined the chorus.

"I'll tell you, for someone to make a blanket statement like that, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Saunders told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "He might have proof. I don't know. I haven't heard those types of things."

"It's not fair to the players in the league when someone comes out and says something like that," Saunders added, "unless there's documentation that they know."

Oakley produced no studies to back up his assertion, but Timberwolves assistant coach Greg Ballard seemed to side more with the veteran player than with his own boss. Ballard told the Star-Tribune that during his playing days in the early 1980s, stories circulated that 75% of NBA players were pot-smokers. After retiring, said Ballard, he came to find out that the numbers were accurate for at least one of the teams for which he played.

Oakley also gained support from fellow Raptor point-guard Mark Jackson, who told Canada's National Post that Oakley was blunt, but truthful.

"I respect him. The man doesn't bite his tongue and he speaks his mind," Jackson said of Oakley. "If he is a liar, prove that he's a liar. If not, do something about it."

There is not much the NBA can do about it. The league only began testing for marijuana last year after several prominent players ran into legal problems over the weed. The list of NBA players who have been charged with marijuana possession in recent years includes Philadelphia's Allen Iverson, Sacramento's Chris Webber and Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But even so, the National Basketball Players' Association (NBPA) -- the players' union -- fought vigorously to restrict testing and to protect the rights and privacy of players.

It continues to do so. Late last month, Los Angeles Lakers player Isiah Rider refused to submit to drug tests required by the league's drug after-care program, saying he should not have been assigned to it because a drug incident at an Orlando hotel was not conclusively linked to him. After a game against the Atlanta Hawks, for whom Rider played at the time, an Orlando hotel security officer notified Rider's general manager that "evidence of marijuana use" had been found in his room.

Rider, who had been arrested for marijuana possession four years ago, was then ordered into the league's drug program, which would require him to undergo testing and counseling. Rider accused teammates Dikembe Mutombo and LaPhonso Ellis of snitching on him, but now claims that his alleged drug use was not established as fact, the Los Angeles Times reported.

NBPA executive director Billy Hunter stood by Rider, refusing to discuss the case for reporters. "Under the terms of our collective bargaining agreement, all parties are prohibited from disclosing any information relating to the anti-drug program," he said in a prepared statement.

If the case is not resolved amicably, it could result in another confrontation between the league and the players.

For players not accused of drug use or drug law violations, the league's testing policy is relatively lax -- precisely because the NBPA advocated so forcefully for its members. Veterans are tested once a year and rookies three times.

That irritates Oakley, although probably not a significant number of other NBA players.

"You test a guy, he gets high the next day," he told the New York Post. "There's no respect for the game no more."

Neither the league nor the NBPA returned calls from DRCNet seeking clarification.

Oakley's teammate Mark Jackson put the whole brouhaha in perspective when he talked to reporters last week.

"[Drug use] is not just a problem in sports, it's a problem in the world today. Matter of fact, some of you guys behind the microphones and the cameras, maybe 60% of you guys..."

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