Pain, weed and the NBA

League response to Zach Randolph indicates shift in attitude toward marijuana

Forward Zach Randolph, who was arrested in August for marijuana possession just weeks after signing with the Kings for his 17th NBA season, was sentenced to community service. “I’m not speaking a lot about it, but I felt that I was wrongfully arrested,” Randolph told the media.

On whether he expects a fine or suspension from the NBA, Randolph says, “No. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

One month after Randolph made those comments, it appears the NBA may agree, as it has yet to mete out any punishment. That silence speaks volumes about a dramatic shift in its attitude toward marijuana.

On ESPN’s NBA Countdown this past December, former Boston Celtics point guard Chauncey Billups said, “I honestly played with players—I’m not gonna name names—but I wanted them to actually smoke. They played better like that.”

Billups’ remarks came on the heels of a public admission from Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr: “I guess maybe I could even get in some trouble for this, but I’ve actually tried [marijuana] twice during the last year and a half when I’ve been going through this chronic pain that I’ve been dealing with,” Kerr told CSN. Kerr had recently undergone two back surgeries. “I think the league should look into medicinal marijuana for pain relief,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before medicinal marijuana is allowed in sports leagues because the education will overwhelm the perception.”

Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, who conceded he smoked marijuana after his own back surgery, agreed. “We have tried to stop [marijuana use] in the NBA,” Jackson told CBS.” I don’t think we have been able to stop it. I think it still goes on and is still a part of the culture in the NBA. It is something that we either have to accommodate or figure out another way to deal with it.”

The man tasked with figuring it out is NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Right now, NBA players are subjected to four random drug tests throughout the season. “It’s our strong preference that our players do not consume marijuana. We believe it will affect their performance on the court,” Silver told GQ magazine in 2014. “That said, marijuana testing is something that’s collectively bargained with the players’ association, and we adjust to the times.”

Those times may be nigh. In August, Silver retreated a bit from his earlier stance. “I would say it’s something we will look at. I’m very interested in the science when it comes to medical marijuana,” Silver told a reporter. “My personal view is that it should be regulated in the same way that other medications are if the plan is to use it for pain management. And it’s something that needs to be discussed with our Players Association, but to the extent that science demonstrates that there are effective uses for medical reasons, we’ll be open to it. Hopefully there’s not as much pain involved in our sport as some others, so there’s not as much need for it.”

Try telling Vince Carter, who signed with the Kings this offseason at age 40, how much pain there is. For Carter, though, any change would come too late to affect his day-to-day routine for pain management. “If it’s not [legal], guys have to figure out how to subside the pain without using it,” Carter told me in the locker room following Monday’s preseason opener against the Spurs. “At this point I’ve been playing for …” he laughed and stopped short of saying the number—Carter is entering his 20th NBA season. “I’ve been playing for all these years and it wasn’t there. So now you get to the end of your career, and I just know one way. It’s gonna be tough. They have a decision to make.”

Kings guard Garrett Temple may have a voice in that decision. This summer, Temple was elected to a three-year term as a vice president of the NBA Players Association. After the Spurs game Monday, Temple told me, “Honestly, I think it’s gonna be legal very soon. The NBA being one of the most progressive leagues in the country, I’m not surprised we’d be the first to actually legalize it.” (The NHL and MLB do not test for marijuana.) “Some people it does help with different ailments. It’s up to Adam, if he decides to do that or not.”

Players like Larry Sanders, whose promising career was cut short in part due to failing four drug tests in five years, have been ostracized for their marijuana use despite an outspoken belief in its medical benefits. “I will deal with the consequences from it. It’s a banned substance in my league,” Sanders told “But I believe in marijuana and the medical side of it.”

Now, only a few years removed from Sanders’ exodus, Randolph and other NBA players stand to benefit from the league’s newly progressive attitude.