Stern on steroids: 'It's not a problem we think we have'

Updated: April 12, 2005, 5:41 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Tony Massenburg has played with countless teammates in four countries on a professional basketball odyssey that has taken him to 15 different teams, 12 in the NBA.

Yet he doesn't need much of a pause when you ask him to rewind through his mental travel journal and estimate how many times he has heard a fellow member of the Spurs, Hornets, Celtics, Warriors, Clippers, Raptors, 76ers, Nets, Grizzlies, Rockets, Jazz or Kings say he wanted to give steroids a try.

Never is the estimate.

"It's hard enough to get guys in this league to lift weights," said Massenburg, who is back in San Antonio with the team that drafted him out of Maryland in 1990.

Tracy McGrady
Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady are prototypical basketball players -- long and lean.

The NBA, like any other professional sports league, has faced substance-abuse scandals before, be it a growing cocaine habit that nearly ruined the league's reputation in the 1970s or a famed New York Times story in 1997 that alleged rampant marijuana and alcohol use among NBA players.

But steroids?

You really don't hear the word in NBA locker rooms unless reporters start asking questions about it, or until a congressional hearing on steroid use in baseball flickers onto a locker-room TV. Tuesday will mark another new and rare exception when detailed information about the NBA's steroid policy is formally presented to Congress, as requested by the same congressional committee that conducted baseball's steroid hearings.

The overwhelming belief among those interviewed on the topic in recent days and months is that NBA players do not see steroids as desirable or performance-enhancing for basketball.

"I can't remember even hearing anybody talk about it," said Orlando's Grant Hill. "You don't want to be naive, but we have our own issues, and steroids is not one of them."

Said one veteran NBA athletic trainer who wished not to be identified: "In the basketball culture, players want to be long and athletic. They want to be lean, and they would be fearful that added bulk would affect their lateral quickness. The baseball player, the power lifter, the sprinter – they're looking for power in short bursts. Those sports are built around short bursts of activity with long periods of rest and recovery. Basketball is continuous activity with short periods of rest and recovery."

Adds Dallas Mavericks team physician Dr. Tarek Souryal: "Steroids is really a factor in power sports. Football. Baseball if you're a power hitter. You're not going to see it in hockey, in soccer, in basketball. When you're playing every other night for 82 games, endurance is really what you're after, and steroids actually hurt that."

Commissioner David Stern agreed with all of those sentiments during his semiannual state-of-the-league address at All-Star Weekend in February. Yet Stern has to know attitudes could always change, and also that the odds say that there has undoubtedly been some level of experimentation in a league with more than 400 players. So he's determined to toughen the NBA's current anti-steroid policy – by mandating more frequent testing – just to "eliminate that even as a question," hoping to shield the NBA from even a tiny fraction of the increasing fan skepticism toward baseball's record-breaking feats of strength in recent seasons.

It's telling to note that the NBA Players Association has offered no known resistance to Stern's intentions in ongoing labor negotiations with the owners. The policy in place since 1998 calls for a five-game suspension for the first positive steroid finding, a 10-game suspension for the second offense and 25 games for subsequent positive tests.

"Watching what's swirling around [in other sports], it just seems to be prudent to say, 'Let's just get that issue out of any possibility,'" Stern said. "It's not a problem at the present time that we think we have. But it's a potent issue as it relates to baseball and the media around it, and we think it would be smart of us to deal with it."

There actually have been three steroid-related suspensions meted out by Stern's office since 1998, when the NBA introduced steroid testing. Yet all three of the suspended players – Don MacLean, Matt Geiger and Soumaila Samake – insisted at the time that they had merely taken supplements that included banned substances while recovering from injuries.

Most guys' bodies are so lean that I think people underestimate how strong NBA guys really are. Because of the nature of our sport and the total body movement and the 82-game schedule, it's hard for most guys to carry a lot of muscle mass.
Spurs F Tony Massenburg
The fact that the NBA makes its steroid suspensions public – a policy baseball has only just adopted – is a strong deterrent for any NBA player thinking about sampling steroids. There is also serious debate among experts in the field whether steroids really serve as a recovery boost during injury rehabilitation.

"I think it's the other way around," Souryal said.

The aforementioned athletic trainer adds: "Our guys are much more interested in learning about the negative effects of anti-inflammatories as opposed to asking about steroids."

Memphis' Shane Battier echoed Massenburg's assertion that steroids are unlikely to appeal to NBA players, now or in the future, when weight training appeals to so few.

"Something you've got to understand is that basketball players just don't like to lift weights," Battier said. "Most of us would rather be out playing ball. We all grew up either on the playground or in the gym. If we're going to spend time working on our game, we're going to be on the court."

Hill remembers hearing similar views from a certain Michael Jordan when MJ returned from his dalliance with baseball in the spring of 1995.

"During that offseason, we did the 'Space Jam' movie and I played with him a couple days on the Warner Brothers lot," Hill said. "I remember one of the things he said was that he got too big from weight training in baseball. He needed to lift to get stronger to hit and trained his muscles differently for baseball.

"He got stronger, maybe a little heavier, and that may have helped him with his hitting. But I think it hurt him on the basketball court when he first came back. After 'Space Jam' he came back [the following season] not quite as big, not quite as heavy, and he was great again. Muscles and extra weight and extra size are not conducive to what basketball is all about."

So if there's resistance to visiting the weight room, a serious anti-steroids sentiment among NBA players shouldn't be too surprising.

"Steroids are not going to make you put the ball in the basket," Massenburg said. "And if you get real big and pumped up, you're not going to be able to move very well. And if you can't move, no matter how big and strong you are, in this league people are just going to be able to go right around you.

"Guys in the league are strong without being really, really big. Most guys' bodies are so lean that I think people underestimate how strong NBA guys really are. Because of the nature of our sport and the total body movement and the 82-game schedule, it's hard for most guys to carry a lot of muscle mass."

With a nickname like T-Mass, and all the different people and environments he has encountered in his basketball life, Massenburg should know.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics