Marijuana and the NBA: Erasing the stigma and healing the league

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NBC Sports

Marijuana and the NBA: Erasing the stigma and healing the league

The ground rules for the private affair were nonnegotiable. All tickets, priced at $200, must be purchased online. Each buyer would be screened in advance. There would be no cell phones or personal vehicles. Invitees were directed to arrive at a central location in the Oakland hills, where they would be met by Mercedes-Benz vans and then shuttled a short distance to a residence identified only 48 hours earlier.

The guest of honor was cannabis.

The party’s host was Brian Shaw, the former NBA player and coach who uses various forms of the plant and insists it makes his life more comfortable.

The purpose of the sponsored event was to educate attendees – mostly retired professional athletes, musicians and other cultural influencers – about its various medicinal uses. Details could be found on the 12-page invitation featuring photos of, among others, former NBA commissioner David Stern and Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, quoting their belief in the health benefits of cannabis.

Celebrity chef Nikki Steward, with residence hostess Nikki Shaw serving as co-chef, would prepare an eight-course meal, with a partial menu including braised lamb shanks, lobster mac-and-cheese, chicken pot pies, wings and veggie rolls. And, naturally, there would be desserts, some of which could be plucked from a supine, semi-nude female server.

More: See Brian Shaw's full Pre-Game Party presentation

Though the invitation described the evening as “A Culinary Experience that Stretches Your Perspective & Your Palate,” the actual affair went well beyond edibles. There was live music and a DJ, along with a full bar, with infused cocktails, wine and beer. Massage tables were set up around the swimming pool. There were roll-your-own blunt stations and a dab bar, offering cannabis in a concentrated form. There was instruction on the use of terpenes.

The evening was equal parts Q&A and revelry, with a full smorgasbord of cannabis-related products available under the watchful eye of federal agents, whose attendance in the presence of large quantities is required for regulatory reasons.

Though select retired players were in attendance, no current NBA players were invited. Training camps were opening in a few days, which meant the resumption of drug tests. Cannabis, according to experts, can remain in the system for up to four weeks.

“It would have been irresponsible of me to have active NBA players there,” said Brian Shaw, who has a full understanding of the league’s policies.

Shaw and his wife, Chef Nikki, opened their hilltop home for more than 250 guests to partake in substances that, as of January 2020, are legal in some form in 46 of the 50 states, excluding Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.

Medicinal cana has been legal in California since 1996 and cannabis has been entirely legal in the state since Jan. 1, 2018.

Weed remains, however, on the list of substances banned by the NBA.

* * *

"I'm now at the point where, personally, I think [cannabis] probably should be removed from the ban list. I think there is universal agreement that marijuana for medical purposes should be completely legal."
-- former NBA commissioner David Stern in Uninterrupted interview

Al Harrington used cannabis to start a conversation.

It was October 2017 and Harrington had never been as nervous as he was in that moment. No NBA game, no matter how big the stage, could prepare the 16-year NBA veteran for what would become a pivotal interview with former NBA commissioner David Stern that, in many eyes, changed the cannabis landscape. 
 
“That was my first interview of my life,” Harrington says now. “For my first interview, to be David Stern, on a topic like that? I was extremely nervous.”
 
In some ways, Harrington spent years preparing for the sit-down in Stern’s Manhattan offices. As a Denver Nuggets forward in 2012, Harrington suffered a nasty staph infection resulting from what he calls a “botched” knee surgery. He was prescribed opioids to deal with the pain resulting from surgery and the PICC line that sent antibiotics directly into his heart cavity. The pain pills, he says, made him feel like a different person and put him in a perpetual fog. A nurse at The Steadman Clinic in Vail, where Harrington was doing knee rehab, suggested Harrington instead look into CBD, an anti-inflammatory strand of cannabis.
 
Harrington had such a positive experience that he dug into the world of cannabis and emerged seeing a business opportunity to provide an opioid alternative. Harrington discovered that 11-year NBA veteran Cuttino Mobley operated medical marijuana dispensaries in Rhode Island and Maine in 2011. Harrington decided to start his own company, Viola, which markets and produces cannabis products designed for both medicinal and recreational use. The name, Viola, pays tribute to his grandmother, who found success using CBD to treat her debilitating glaucoma and diabetes.

“Cuttino Mobley was the first,” Harrington said. “And after him was myself. At the end of the day, we think of it as medicine. It’s true medicine, not a drug.”

At the tail end of his NBA career, Harrington used CBD oils and creams to help him with pain management and inflammation, choosing THC-less products that would not trigger a positive test. Harrington, who hasn’t touched opioids even after several knee surgeries since 2012, sought the meeting with Stern to see if he would be open to have a conversation about separating marijuana from harder drugs.

In a salmon blazer and a white collared shirt, Harrington sat on a couch with an unexpectedly jovial Stern. Before him was a sheet of paper with 20 prepared questions that Harrington and his producer meticulously arranged and rearranged in a very specific order. In an ideal world, if Harrington did his job just right, he could reach the big crescendo – get the former commissioner to say marijuana should be lifted off the banned substance list.
 
It didn’t take nearly that long.
 
“He says it after my third question,” Harrington said laughing. “I had no idea that he would even get to that point. I had 17 questions more to get there. I literally looked up at my producer. We both had our eyes wide-open looking at each other like, we didn’t know where to go next.”
 
Harrington says his New Jersey upbringing taught him marijuana was a gateway drug, which he now views as “propaganda.” He stayed away from it until late in his career, afraid for so long he’d end up a junkie. In the interview, Stern said he harbored that same perception, but a CNN special series by Dr. Sanjay Gupta piqued Stern’s interest and he began to reconsider his notion about the benefits of marijuana.
 
The same month that Stern’s words went public, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) removed CBD from its prohibited substance list. In June 2018, the BIG3, the three-on-three basketball league led by Ice Cube that features Harrington and other former NBA players, became the first American pro sports league to do the same.

Roughly 18 months later, in January, Stern passed away after a brain hemorrhage. On the phone, Harrington’s voice trembled talking about it.

“For the last two years, I kept saying, ‘I gotta go back to New York to run stuff by (Stern),’” Harrington said. “Unfortunately, there is no next time. Which sucks.”

Harrington, who believes 80 percent of NBA players consume cannabis in some form, is hopeful that the NBA will stop punishing players for using marijuana. He hangs on a line that Stern told him that day: “I think it’s up to the sports leagues to anticipate where this is going and maybe lead the way.”

* * *

Stephen Jackson walked into the All-Star media session dressed like he didn’t want to be recognized. Wearing black sunglasses and a red hoodie pulled up over his head, Jackson camped out amongst credentialed media members. A few feet away, one of the most famous athletes in the world, LeBron James, held court among a throng of American and international journalists. 

“King!” Jackson yells.

As his media session ends, James is being hustled away from the press swarm by security personnel.

“King!” Jackson shouts again above the crowd.

The four-time MVP hears his name being called and peers towards Jackson. James immediately detours away from the tunnel and hits Jackson with a two-armed hug that lasts for several beats. They share words in each others’ ear. James pats him on the chest before leaving the scene.

The crowd roars as James makes his exit, but moments later, WinTrust Arena lights up again. The fans in attendance notice Jackson and his “All The Smoke” podcast co-host and former teammate Matt Barnes lurking below. A chant begins to swell in the arena.
 
“All! The! Smoke! All! The Smoke!” they scream. 

Jackson points back at them and grins widely. After bouncing around the NBA for over a decade with over 150 games of playoff experience, Jackson and Barnes are more famous than they’ve ever been and it’s in no small part tied to the rise of cannabis in sports.

Jackson smokes weed. Lots of it. He’s not apologetic about it, either. He and Barnes consider themselves spokesmen for the cannabis movement in sports and use their cannabis-inspired podcast to preach its gospel. On a recent episode, Kevin Durant said the NBA should treat marijuana like coffee or alcohol: “I just think it should be taken off the banned substance list.”

Barnes and Jackson’s friendship was first forged when Jackson was traded to the “We Believe” Warriors in 2007. Barnes was on that Golden State team; so was Harrington, who tried smoking weed for the first time with Barnes and Jackson in 2008 after the Warriors were eliminated from playoff contention in Phoenix. The coach was Hall of Famer Don Nelson, the NBA’s all-time wins leader and an open advocate and grower of cannabis on his farm on Maui. 

“When I came to the team. I was already smoking,” Jackson said. “I had hooked up with Matt and he was the one who was already smoking over there. Me and Matt had hooked up instantly. (Marijuana) just went through the team.”

Jackson tells the story of a time in Utah when, after Warriors guard Baron Davis took the final drug test of the season, coach Nelson began high-fiving him along with his teammates, “like, yeah, y’all can smoke freely now! (Nelson) accepted it.”
 
“Me and Don Nelson stayed in the same building,” Jackson said. “I stayed on the 11th floor. He stayed on the roof. I had the whole building smelling like weed. He definitely knew. As long as we were playing well, he didn’t give a f*** what we were doing.”

Barnes says he smoked or “self-medicated” as part of his gameday routine. He’d go to shootaround, smoke a joint, nap for a couple hours and then go to the game. He did this same routine throughout his entire 14-year career.
 
And Jackson? He didn’t like playing the least bit high. He’d smoke after games to balance out the adrenaline rush that pulsed through his veins. Some players drank alcohol to come down. He’d consume cannabis. In fact, he’d make sure a blunt was lit by the time he stepped into his car.

Though still illegal at the federal level, the recreational use of cannabis is now legal in 11 states, the District of Columbia and, nationally, in Canada. Players on 11 NBA teams (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, Washington, Denver, Golden State, both Los Angeles teams, Portland and Sacramento) can legally consume marijuana in their home city, except for one catch: It is still a banned substance in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, subjecting players to fines and suspensions for repeated positive tests results.
 
Jackson feels it’s a racially-driven policy to protect the NBA’s image in the same vein as the NBA’s dress code in the early 2000’s that seemed to target African-American style.
 
“One reason is because it’s mostly used by young Black American men. It comes from our culture, of course,” Jackson said. “Second, they don’t understand it. They don’t understand the benefits of it. A lot of people have never used it, they never ask questions.”
 
The psychoactive compound that gets you high (THC) is just one strand of cannabis. With growing scientific literature pointing to benefits of pain management, lowering inflammation and reducing anxiety, cannabis’ non-intoxicating compound, cannabidiol (CBD), has been widely used as an alternative to opioids. Leagues are loosening up their policies accordingly.

MLB removed marijuana from its list of banned substances in December 2019 and now treats its use by players in the same manner as alcohol. MLB testing focuses on performance enhancers and opioids, the latter of which came under greater scrutiny once an autopsy revealed the July 2019 death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs was related to oxycodone and fentanyl.

The NHL still tests for cannabis, but there is no punishment for a positive. A player with “dangerously high levels” of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, is treated as a matter of health care, as would someone dealing with alcoholism. Canada, which hosts seven NHL teams and one NBA team, legalized recreational cannabis in October 2018.

The NFL is considering raising the threshold for a positive test from 35 nanograms to 150, indicating pro football is falling in line behind pro hockey and baseball.

In the NBA, 15 nanograms per milliliter is considered a positive test.

Players are subject to as many as four random tests in the regular season, with punishment escalating from entering a drug program to a $25,000 fine to a five-game suspension. The suspension rises to 10 games after a fourth positive test.

In a world where stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant were lauded for a glass of postgame vino, Harrington believes too much of the dialogue about legalizing marijuana focuses on the recreational side and not the medicinal side.

“This is what bothers me about this conversation,” Harrington said. “People think that players come to the game high. If that were the case, and they were that irresponsible, why don’t players play drunk? We all know there’s a time and place for everything. We go out and compete at the highest level in the world.

“If I’m going to play against Kevin Durant tonight, why would I get as high as I can and come to the game and play Kevin Durant high? It’s so stupid to me. It’s like, you’re policing us like we’re kids. We have access to liquor, it’s the same effect. That’s one of the things that really bothers me about the whole perception that players have access to it, they’re going to come to the games high. We have access to liquor but players don’t show up drunk to games.”

There has been significant conversation on the subject, but that’s where it’s stopped. Before his death in January, Stern acknowledged that he had come to understand the health benefits. His successor, Adam Silver, seems open to changing the policy and has discussed it with National Basketball Players Association chief Michele Roberts but seems in no hurry to take action.
It is, Silver says, a complicated issue.

“There’s a reason why,” veteran Heat forward Andre Iguodala said. “There’s a stigma that comes with that and with (black athletes). They don’t let stigmas fade with us. They want to keep it where it is.”

NBA players often hint about racial double standards in professional sports. In MLB, which is roughly 60 percent white, it is common and accepted that players stream out of dugouts and bullpens at the first sign of conflict. In the NHL, with white athletes making up more than 90 percent of the league, bloody fights are frequent and accepted, rationalized as self-policing.

By contrast, the NFL, with African-Americans accounting for nearly 70 percent of the total, is quick to punish players for anything remotely resembling a fight. And the NBA, which is 80 percent black and has a reputation for being cutting edge, has instituted punitive rules related to dress codes and players leaving the bench during an on-court scuffle.

There is an undercurrent of skepticism regarding the NBA’s reluctance on the subject of cannabis. Iguodala believes it’s a matter of the league protecting its brand. With NBA teams typically staying at five-star hotels, the fear, he adds, is that a group of black players strolling through these lavish lobbies might give off the unmistakable odor of marijuana.

“It might be one guy on the team,” he said. “But it’s all about the image. That’s the bottom line. That’s why they had the dress code. That’s probably why they haven’t made the shift.”

Meanwhile, Warriors coach Steve Kerr has acknowledged turning to cannabis in hopes of managing pain after two back surgeries left debilitating side effects. 

Even as it crawls toward relaxing its stance, the NBA still is uncomfortable making the leap.

“There’s definitely a stigma, still, around weed,” Shaw conceded. “And I don’t want to believe the leadership of the NBA is afraid to allow it. I don’t think Adam Silver is (afraid), but maybe there’s pressure from some of the owners.”

* * *

Jackson smokes to kill the pain. 

It started as emotional pain as a kid. 

“When I was a youngster in middle school, I was just trying it, just dealing with all the stuff that you see growing up,” Jackson said. “Mom and I waking up with no lights; you see people getting killed; losing family members to people killing them over nothing.”

Jackson was 14 years old when his half-brother Donald Buckner was murdered at just 25.

“Seeing that stuff is real traumatic when you’re a youngster,” Jackson said. “I got into smoking a lot because I saw kids had stuff that I didn’t have and it brought me to a place where I didn’t feel like I was missing something.”

And then there’s the physical pain. Despite a 14-year NBA career in which he played nearly 1,000 games, the 6-foot-8 former NBA champion refused to take the endless pain pills offered to him by doctors and trainers.

“After each season, or at the end of my tenure with on a team, I had a drawer full of pills,” Jackson said. “Or I threw them away. Either way, I hated taking them.”

The last time he did, it was the “Whapp! Whapp! Whapp!” of a belt that woke him from an opioid-induced slumber.

This was back in Port Arthur, Texas, just outside of Houston. Jackson was 16 years old and he had just stolen his mother’s car. Alongside one of his best friends, Thomas Mouton (“we called him Gangster T”), Jackson went on a bender fueled by liquid codeine (“sizzurp”) and Percocet pills. 

After two days, the duo arrived at a Popeye's. By that time, Jackson says, he and Mouton were on their 10th or 11th Percocet each.

“We were so far gone off the pills, we fell asleep at the Popeye’s,” Jackson said. “They were closing. They waited until they cleaned up and everything before they woke us up.”
 
They hopped in the car and decided that it was time to drive home. Jackson needed to get that feeling back so he took out one last Percocet, broke it in half, took one half for himself and gave the other half to Mouton. After dropping Mouton off, Jackson took a left toward 15th Street and everything went dark, literally. There were no lamps on the side street.
 
“I’m already fighting to keep my eyes open,” Jackson said. “As soon as I turn into my street, I instantly doze off. And all I hear is boom.”
 
Jackson hit a curb, launching the car toward an abandoned Sears building that had long since shut down.
 
“As I wake up, I’m headed straight toward the building in the air,” Jackson said. “I turn the wheel of the car. I hit the brick steps. I’m so out of my mind from being inebriated from pills, I don’t even pay attention to what just happened. I get the car going straight and I just keep driving. I know I’m in shock. I’m so f***ed up.
 
“So I get to my house, and this is how I know I’m out of my mind, I get to my house, park my mom’s car and walk into my room and go to sleep like nothing happened.

“Remember, I stole my mom’s car and had been gone for two days.”

Jackson’s mom was mad. Missed-two-days-of-work mad. He awoke to the feeling of the belt and the screams of his irate mom. The problem was Jackson didn’t remember any of it. He denied the whole thing. That is, until he saw the car.

“I haven’t taken a pill since,” Jackson said. “Every time an NBA team gave me pills because I was in pain, I’d take it, but I wouldn’t actually take it. I’d go home and smoke. I never took them pills because I was always scared that once I was able to shake it after that near-death experience, I never wanted to feel that addiction again.”

Every time Jackson goes home, he drives by to see where his mom’s car hit the building. It’s a reminder.
 
“That mark,” Jackson said. “The mark in the ground, the big indentation in the ground, the dirt and all that. It’s still there. From when my car hit it when I was 16 years old. I’m 42 now. The mark is still there.”

* * *

NBA players are in a constant state of unrest. They play 82 games in 29 cities, split between two countries, over the span of seven months, longer if you include the playoffs and training camps. As recently as a few years ago, playing three games in four nights or four in five was commonplace. The league has since relaxed its schedule to alleviate schedule congestion and the players’ travel concerns, but the problem of how to get a quality night of sleep remains a major issue.

Antonio Davis lived this life for 13 NBA seasons, the last of which (2005-06) he also served as president of the NBPA. He worked beside Roberts in 2017 as the initial director of the NBPA’s Off the Court program, which is designed to aid active players as they transition into the post-career world.

Davis has studied cannabis, measured its pros and cons. He has had dialogue with one of his former Indiana teammates, Harrington, who joined the Pacers as a teenager and now operates his Viola cannabis company in six states.

There is a measure of frustration in Davis’ voice when discussing cannabis, though not because he believes it is a panacea.

“Let’s just be honest: All the stuff that we used – and I can’t speak to what guys are doing now – but whether it was alcohol or anything else, it wasn’t good for us,” Davis said. “And they keep telling you alcohol stays in your system for two or three days. That it messes up performance. It does this, it does that. Well, what alternatives are you giving me? I fly across two time zones, and then I’m expected to play the next day and I can’t get to sleep. You’re telling me not to go out, not to drink alcohol, not to smoke weed. What can I do? You can’t keep shoving a pill down my throat, telling me to take it. I know that doesn’t make me feel good, either.

“So, I don’t even understand,” he continued. “If they’re not going to provide alternatives, and guys have gone out and found alternatives that now are being seen as legal, passed across a bunch of states, there’s this education behind it. There’s THC. There’s CBD. They’ve been split. Have some of the people from those companies that have done the research come in and talk about it.”

Silver is open to the idea of more research, but nothing is advanced to the point of acceptance. The policy doesn’t entirely preclude usage. There is nothing to suggest usage of cannabis and its by-products will diminish anytime soon.

Six different NBA players, who did not want to be identified, estimated that the percentage of active players using marijuana in some form – buds, edibles, concentrates, CBD oils, lotions, patches – was at least 50 percent and as high as 85 percent.

And that doesn’t consider players who, like Shaw, don’t feel the full physical toll of a long career until years after retirement.

“I played 15 years and never had surgery,” he said. “I’m 53 years old. In the past few years, I’ve had a knee scoped, one hip replacement and the other hip is about to be replaced.”

If the idea is to move away from opioids and anti-inflammatories while treating pain, marijuana is widely seen as a less harmful alternative.

“You have to keep saying we’re keeping drugs out of our game,” Davis said. “But the world is changing. It’s time for us to say that some of this other stuff is just as bad, or worse.”

* * *

After Summer League in 1999 with the Spurs, Jackson felt pretty good about his chances of signing a contract with the team. Jackson says he was second in the league in scoring behind a guy named Dirk Nowitzki. Coach Gregg Popovich took notice, Jackson says.
 
“‘Jack, you had a great Summer League.’” Jackson recalled Popovich telling him. “I want you on my team …”
 
And then a pause.
 
“… but you cannot smoke weed.”
 
It took Jackson by surprise.
 
“I’m thinking to myself, how in the hell did he know this?” Jackson remembers. “How Pop came to me was so gangster. It was some mafia s***. I had no clue how he knew. I was like, alright. But I smoked the same day I told him I wouldn’t (smoke). As soon as I signed that Spurs contract, I smoked. I never stopped smoking when I was in San Antonio. Ever.”
 
And what did Popovich think about that?
 
“I mean,” Jackson said, “I won a championship for him.”

Jackson was fined or suspended for a lot of things in the NBA. He was once fined $10,000 for wearing his shorts too long. He was suspended for 30 games for his role in the Malice at the Palace. In 2012, he was fined $25,000 for threatening Serge Ibaka on Twitter.
 
But Jackson was never fined or suspended for cannabis use, despite his affinity for the drug. A positive test for cannabis entered the player in the league’s Anti-Drug Program, where Jackson says he stayed for most of his NBA career. According to Jackson, he wouldn’t be fined or suspended as long as he didn’t fail three tests in a row.
 
“I did it like this: I failed my first and passed my second,” Jackson said. “So now, if I fail the next one, I still got three [failed tests before suspension or fine]. You had to fail [the test] three in a row. I kept finding ways to beat it so I wouldn’t get suspended or fined. Once I figured that out, I was like, ‘Cool, I’ll stay in the program.’”

However, league sources with knowledge of the program strongly deny such a rule regarding consecutive failed tests exists. Even still, details of the program are under wraps for a reason. In Article XXXIII of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, a confidentiality clause specifies that all parties involved “are prohibited from publicly disclosing information about the diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, test results, compliance or the fact of participation of a player in the program.”

To Jackson, there was humanity in the program. Program officials interviewed Jackson and he regularly talked to a counselor about his cannabis use. Today, as cannabis is being legalized across the country on a state-by-state basis, Jackson feels like the program has mostly done right by its players.
 
“I have to give some credit to whoever’s running the drug program in the NBA,” Jackson said. “We can’t be punishing these kids and taking money from them. Every time we sit here and talk to them and question them about it, they talk about how it’s helping them.”

Jackson thinks about that Stern quote from time to time and how the conversation around cannabis has changed.
 
“It was great to hear it, but it kind of sucked, too,” Jackson said of Stern’s pro-cannabis turn. “Look at how many people (Stern) fined and suspended for it. (The league office) never took the time to be educated.”

Both the league and the NBPA have continued to work hand-in-hand to study the scientific literature on marijuana, which is remarkably thin for a drug with worldwide appeal. NBA executive vice president of communications Mike Bass told NBC Sports, “We have regular discussions with the Players’ Association about a variety of matters, including marijuana and CBD.  Those conversations are ongoing.”

In December, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts told the Washington Post that the union doesn’t want to put players in jeopardy as marijuana is still not legal at the federal level. In January 2018, the Justice Department terminated a federal leniency policy that fully protected states’ rights to legalize marijuana.

“We can say stop testing for it, so that’s an area where we can eventually make some progress in, but we haven’t got there yet,” Roberts told the Washington Post. “And it’s a source of frustration for me because (the federal law)’s ridiculous. It’s just ridiculous.”

In October, Phoenix Suns center DeAndre Ayton was suspended for 25 games for taking a diuretic, which can be used as a masking technique, a strict violation of the NBA/NBPA’s anti-drug policy. In November, Dion Waiters was suspended for 10 games by the Miami Heat for an incident on the team plane after taking a cannabis edible. Though, notably, that wasn’t a league suspension. 

Few people around the team side and the players’ side believe that marijuana will remain on the banned list for the long-term. The current collective bargaining agreement runs through 2023-24, but both sides can opt-out after 2022-23. By then, the United States map might be fully green.

* * *

Brian Shaw smoked to find balance.

After 14 years in the league as a player and another nine on NBA sidelines as a coach, Shaw was having difficulty leaving the game at the gym. So, in 2014, as the coach of the Denver Nuggets, he turned to marijuana. 

“When I became a head coach, I could never shut off my brain,” Shaw recalled. “I was constantly wondering if I prepared the guys well enough. Did I do this? Did I do that? When you leave the practice facility, or a game, and come home, you’re watching film and you have all these thoughts going through your mind.”

During what should have been family time, Shaw would remain distant or preoccupied or terse. His wife, Nikki, suggested he give it a try. After some initial resistance, her husband consented to a meeting with a physician.

“I consulted with the doctor for about an hour, told him I wasn’t one those people trying to get a medical card just so I can smoke weed,” he said, recalling the doctor outlined the various strains – “You need Indica, not Sativa” – and left the decision up to him.

“When I started to, I guess you could say, medicate myself, I was able to take a step back and slow and shut down my brain.”

Harrington estimates over 70 percent of athletes in all major sports smoke marijuana, but they’re not alone. 

“I think it’s that big,” Harrington said. “Not only the players, the coaches consume. The owners consume.”

Five years later, the Shaws were hosting a party catered largely by Nikki Steward, who has a pharmaceutical background and has curated dinners for comedian Dave Chappelle, as well as rappers Snoop Dogg and Quavo, a member of Migos.  Steward hosted such a party during All-Star Weekend (Feb. 14-17) in Chicago and has, in conjunction with Hall of Fame guard Isiah Thomas, a black-tie affair scheduled for March 14 at the Berry Gordy mansion in Detroit.

Studies have shown that as cannabis becomes more mainstream in America, the fastest- growing demographic for its usage is people above age 40. And seniors.

Jackson hopes that teams will soon offer CBD or cannabis-derived products after games just as they do with Tylenol, other anti-inflammatory pills and other vitamins. The NBA, in his view, has lightened up recently even without officially doing so.
 
“I guarantee it, you won’t see no more suspensions or fines in the NBA for cannabis, none,” Jackson said. “I have a strong feeling with the direction that everything is going. Even with the statement that, may he rest in peace, the great David Stern, the statements that he said to my brother Al Harrington. We all know: he raised the commissioner we have now. I think all that is coming into play and with cannabis being legal in a lot of states where you have NBA teams.
 
“We have the best commissioner in sports and the most transparent commissioner in sports. Adam Silver understands.”

The NBA is a sport of fit young men who sometimes feel the need to self-medicate. Some drink. Some smoke. Some sneak in a CBD-oil massage every so often. In the minds of those that indulge, the reward is worth the risk.

And as long as it is on the list of banned substances, there will be a risk. But as Iguodala notes, there always is a need to seek relief.

“At the end of the day, it’s easy,” Iguodala said of the options being weighed by the NBA. “Just treat it like alcohol. You don’t come to the workplace drunk, right? If you do, you get reprimanded for it. You won’t play, and you could be suspended. And then you’d have to seek help for it. It’s the same thing with this, if you’re doing it recreationally.

“Now, if you’re doing it for health reasons – whether it’s weed or oils or whatever – that’s totally different. You’re not using it to get high. You’re using it to heal.”

Monte Poole is the Golden State Warriors Insiders for NBC Sports Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter (@MontePooleNBCS). Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Why now? It’s one of the great underlying questions around the Michael Jordan-centric “The Last Dance” documentary.

The behind-the-scenes footage that provided the bedrock of the amazing 10-hour ESPN series had been locked away in Secaucus, N.J., for about two decades. For any of that film to see the light of day, as agreed upon by then-head of NBA entertainment and current NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Jordan himself would need to sign off on any sort of project using it.

For years, it sat there locked away without Jordan’s key to unlock it. We waited and waited and waited, until the morning of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship parade in 2016, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. That day, after an in-person meeting with Mandalay Sports Media executive Mike Tollin, Jordan finally decided to greenlight the documentary.

The timing is undeniably fascinating. LeBron James had just beat a Golden State Warriors team that not only featured NBA history’s first unanimous MVP in Stephen Curry, but one that broke the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record for most wins in a regular season. James also delivered a championship to Cleveland, ending the city’s 52-year professional sports title drought.

The triumph was enough for James to declare himself the GOAT in 2018 during ESPN’s “More Than An Athlete:” “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That’s what I felt. Everybody was just talking about how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all-time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. For us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was, like, ‘You did something special.’”

Did that backdrop make Jordan nervous about his place in the history of the game? Did Jordan feel that a generation of young fans needed a reminder of his greatness?

We may never know the answer to that, but we do know that the documentary has, in some circles, become something of a Jordan haymaker in the GOAT debate. In many eyes, this wasn’t just a documentary; it was a verdict.

In a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson on Monday, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, unsolicited, made his stance in the debate extremely clear.

“‘The Last Dance’ obviously should establish in the mind of any person with normal eyesight that Michael was beyond a doubt the greatest of all-time,” Reinsdorf said. “In my mind, anytime anybody wants to talk to me about comparing Michael to LeBron (James), I’m going to tell them to please don’t waste my time.”

He continued.

“I’m truly tired of people trying to compare LeBron to Michael when it’s not even close. They should try to compare LeBron with Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson. Michael was so head and shoulders over everybody, and that really came out in this documentary.”

It’s interesting that Reinsdorf didn’t mention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain or Larry Bird in those quotes to NBC Sports Chicago. He mentioned LeBron James, perpetuating the notion that the Jordan documentary was, at some level, a James counterstrike. 

But is Jordan actually head and shoulders over everybody? Not even close with James?

At the risk of wasting Reinsdorf’s time, it’s definitely a topic worth exploring, especially since the overall numbers don’t agree with Reinsdorf’s assessment.

* * * 

“The Last Dance” might as well be named “Six” for the lasting image of Jordan flashing his digits after the 1998 Finals, symbolizing his championship total. Yes, the documentary used the 1997-98 season as a storytelling anchor, but it felt more like a celebration of Jordan’s glorious career than a blow-by-blow examination of the 1997-98 season. Jordan last faced the Bad Boy Pistons on the playoff stage in 1991, but they received far more play in the docuseries than the Bulls’ actual 1998 Finals opponent, the Utah Jazz.

Jordan’s 6-0 record is spotless and beautiful and irretrievable for James, who has instead gone 3-6 in the Finals. For Jordan's strongest supporters, this is the nail in the coffin. However, reducing the GOAT debate purely to one’s Finals record would mean that John Havlicek (8-0), K.C. Jones (8-0, Tom Sanders (8-0) and Robert Horry (7-0) all have better cases than Jordan. And that’s before mentioning Bill Russell’s baffling 11-1 Finals record.

The James-vs.-Jordan debate needs a little bit more nuance than that. Jordan may have 6-0, but James has longevity in his corner. James has simply lasted longer than Jordan, both in career seasons and in deep postseason runs. 

James is in the midst of his 17th season and still playing at an MVP level. Jordan played 15 seasons, electing to retire twice during his prime years. Part of that gap in career length can be explained by James skipping college and entering league as an 18-year-old, which Jordan did not. 

What gets lost in the discussion is the fact that both Jordan and James have made 13 postseason appearances, but Jordan fell short of the Finals seven times. Whereas Jordan failed to reach the Finals more often than he made them, James has only fallen short four out of his 13 appearances. So not only has James been in the league longer, but he has had much longer playoff runs than Jordan, even if they didn’t always end in a Larry O’Brien trophy.

That has to matter in the larger conversation. Playing at a high level for that long begins to tip the scales in James’ favor, and that’s before we get into the individual barometers. 

The advanced metrics agree that this is a much closer affair than Reinsdorf would assume. Using win shares, which is an established all-in-one value metric that estimates a player’s contributions to overall team success, James has Jordan beat in cumulative value, according to Basketball Reference data. 

In fact, James eclipsed Jordan in that department years ago. At the moment the NBA halted play on March 12, James had 287.1 career win shares compared to Jordan's 253.8 figure.

Case closed, James is the GOAT, right? 

Not so fast. It turns out neither James nor Jordan possess the most win shares in NBA history. That distinction belongs to eternally-great Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20 seasons, with all but one of those being All-Star campaigns. 

If James plays two more full seasons at a high level, he will undoubtedly unseat Abdul-Jabbar in career win shares. Trailing Abdul-Jabbar by just 21.9 win shares at the career level, James averages 16.9 win shares per season in his career (this suspended season included) and appears to have several years left in the tank. If win shares aren’t your thing, James has already surpassed Jordan in other cumulative measuring sticks like career VORP and the championships added metric from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. 

Individual all-in-one metrics aren’t meant to be judge, jury and executioner in these debates, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that James has distanced himself from Jordan in measures outside of title count. And it’s here where the GOAT discussion becomes more art than science. Do you prefer Finals records or overall playoff records? Do you prefer longevity or peak seasons? 

If you prefer looking at peak seasons, Jordan has the upper-hand on James. If you rank Jordan’s best seasons by win shares and compare it to James’ best, it’s clear that Jordan’s peak years are superior to those of James.

The chart above is my favorite way to distill the Jordan and James debate. As you can see, Jordan’s best seasons are superior to James’ best, with Jordan’s red line resting comfortably above James’ purple line until their respective 10th-best season of their careers. After that, James far outpaces Jordan’s best. If we include his MVP-caliber ‘19-20 campaign, James has 15 high-level seasons while Jordan only had 11, due to his foot injury and his two retirements. (Jordan’s final two seasons with the Washington Wizards at the ages of 38 and 39, after three years away from the game, don’t move the needle in the GOAT discussion, but appear here near the back end of his red line.)

The fact that Jordan’s heights are taller than James was hammered home in Pelton’s recent ranking of the best individual seasons in NBA history. In that study, Jordan made five appearances in the top 25 at Nos. 1, 5, 12, 17 and 31, while James sat slightly lower at Nos. 3, 8, 9 and 23.

Jordan has higher ceilings and James has higher floors. That’s the crux of the debate.

The former will always resonate far more with the masses on an emotional level than the latter. And with good reason. Though James has already registered considerably more career value than Jordan by advanced metrics, Jordan’s six championship seasons continue to stand out -- not just in the minds of basketball fans, but also in the numbers.

Looking at the conventional GOAT standards, James’ biggest flaw may be that he took his teams too far. Take the 2006-07 season. James was just 22 years old, with Larry Hughes serving as the Robin to his Batman, when James led the Cavs to the Finals only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs. 

If James had just lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals like most expected, James’ NBA Finals record would be shinier. Instead, by getting to the Finals and losing, it’s a strike against him. Same goes for the 2014-15 Finals run when James’ Cavs swept the 60-win Atlanta Hawks while Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were sidelined (Irving played two games of that Eastern Conference finals). If James simply lost earlier, again, his Finals record would be cleaner.

Because of his lopsided 3-6 record in the Finals, most fans may view James as an underachiever but, according to Vegas, the opposite is true. James’ teams were favored in just two of his nine Finals appearances (2011 and 2013) and overall, he actually surpassed expectations, ending up with three titles. Meanwhile, Jordan’s Bulls were favored in all six Finals and won all six. Jordan took care of business.

But, for the sake of argument, what if the Bulls didn’t lose to the Orlando Magic in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals? The Bulls entered the series as minus-165 favorites, according to Vegas, but the Magic went on to face (and get swept by) the Houston Rockets in the Finals. What if the Bulls didn’t blow that series and instead, like the Magic did, beat the Indiana Pacers and faced Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets for the title?

I recently caught up with former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich about that hypothetical (full podcast next week!) and he pointed to a conversation he remembers having with Michael Jordan at Charles Barkley’s house in Phoenix in 1996. Barkley had invited his new coach, Tomjanovich, and the team’s trainer to hang out at his abode, along with Jordan and Tiger Woods (!). That night, Tomjanovich and Jordan discussed the Finals match that never happened. 

“[Jordan] said we were the team they feared the most because they didn’t have an answer for Hakeem,” Tomjanovich said. “It would have been a great series.”

We will never know how the Bulls would have fared against a Rockets team that won back-to-back titles, but Jordan ensured his clean Finals record by retiring in 1993 and losing in the 1994-95 East semifinals. In a strange way, James reaching eight straight Finals doesn’t resonate nearly as much as the “five” in “three-and-five.” 

Fair or not, there’s only so much James can do to erase his Finals losses in the basketball world’s collective psyche.

* * * 

The hook to all of this is the fact that James is still playing -- at an MVP level, no less. Declaring Jordan the GOAT before James retires is like awarding an Oscar to a film after refusing to watch the last 30 minutes of its top competitor. 

James has a legitimate shot to change the conversation, but the pandemic shutdown hurts those chances. With regular-season games threatened, the league’s hiatus has all but ruined James’ chance to overtake Giannis Antetokounmpo and win his fifth MVP award. James was also on track to surpass 2,000 points for his 11th season as he chases down Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record. In the past 14 months, James has passed Kobe Bryant and Jordan on the all-time scoring list and trails Abdul-Jabbar by 4,300 points. 

Depending on what route the NBA goes with a potential season restart, James could lose all or most of the Lakers’ remaining 19 regular-season games. Based on James’ 2019-20 scoring average of 25.7 points, that could cost James as much as 500 points. At current levels and without those 500 points, James would probably need three more seasons to catch Abdul-Jabbar. 

If he did pull it off and pass Abdul-Jabbar, there’s a world in which James’ supporters could use the trump card of James being the top scorer of all-time despite that not being his best basketball skill (that would be passing). Outside of that, James could also win a title or two alongside Anthony Davis to nudge closer to Jordan. But given the six losses on James’ ledger and Jordan’s “perfect” tally, it might be best to leave Jordan with that and change the conversation all together. 

James has a strong track record of doing that. Following “The Decision” fallout in 2010 and his 2011 Finals meltdown, even James’ strongest supporters would’ve had a hard time imagining a world in which James was largely beloved in northeast Ohio. Yet, after winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers and opening the “I, Promise” elementary school in Akron for at-risk children, his reputation with local fans is fully restored. After James left Cleveland and joined a barren Lakers franchise, he helped lure Anthony Davis and returned the Lakers to title favorites. Equipped with his own production company, James is chasing Jordan on the silver-screen, starring in a Space Jam sequel with an on-the-nose title, “A New Legacy.” James has created an empire by patiently waiting to get the final word.

Ultimately, the verdict remains out on the greatest argument in basketball circles, although it is a lot closer than many, including Reinsdorf, would like to believe. “The Last Dance” may have ended with the enduring image of Jordan cackling at his vanquished foes, but James still has a chance to have the last laugh.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan dominated every Hall of Famer he faced, including the 20 fellow members he eliminated from the playoffs throughout his career. However, some superstars fared worse in their career matchups than others.

Charles Barkley finds himself at the bottom of the list as Jordan averaged 35.8 points against him in their 55 career matchups. Jordan logged his points per game record versus Hall of Famers against Chuck with 41 points in the 1993 NBA Finals.

While Sir Charles struggled against Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal held Jordan to an average of 28.7 points per game in their 21 career matchups, the lowest of those 20 Hall of Famers Jordan eliminated.

This ought to stir up some competition on the next episode of "Inside the NBA."

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