Former NBA head coach George Karl thinks many players in the modern NBA have a drug problem but not the type you would initially think of with various recreational illegal substances. Instead, Karl is alluding to all the performance-enhancing drugs that are now more accessible, and players are abusing more than ever before.
Drug problems are treated differently in modern-day NBA
The NBA had its fair share of drug-related problems among players that dates back to the late 60s and early 70s when a surprisingly high number of players were addicted to alcohol or different drugs, predominantly cocaine and heroin. The late NBA commissioner David Stern is the one that actively tackled the issue and eradicated much of the drugs and alcohol abuse in the league. Even though it's impossible to eliminate it completely, Stern did a great job, and if you look at the NBA players today, you can definitely say most of them are true athletes dedicated to their craft.
However, former NBA head coach George Karl who's been in the NBA for over 4 decades as a player but primarily as a coach, is seeing a different trend in the league that he finds hugely concerning. In his book "Furious George," Karl describes what it's like from the head-coach position when a player is caught using drugs. Interestingly enough, most of the time, coaches don't even know if a player tests positive because the management is in charge of handling the issue.
"Drug problems are treated a little differently in the modern NBA. The coach doesn't even hear about a player who tests positive and gets his first strike. Management or the league handles it. We've got a more thorough drug-testing program than the NFL or MLB, which we always brag about. But we've still got a drug issue, though a different one than thirty years ago. And this one bothers me more than the dumbasses who got in trouble with recreational drugs."
Performance-enhancing drugs are becoming a problem
Karl believes that performance-enhancing drugs are becoming a real problem in the NBA, and players are abusing it because of their accessibility and all the benefits they bring for athletes who want to stay on top of their game as long as possible. We see guys playing in the NBA longer than ever before, and it's also true that players are more athletic than ever before, and some of that might be connected to various enhancement drugs they are using.
"I'm talking about performance-enhancing drugs—like steroids, human growth hormone, and so on. It's obvious some of our players are doping. How are some guys getting older—yet thinner and fitter? How are they recovering from injuries so fast? Why the hell are they going to Germany in the off-season? I doubt it's for the sauerkraut."
Interestingly enough, Karl mentioned trips to Germany in the off-season for some players, and it was well-reported that it was for the state-of-the-art knee surgeries. Apparently, those were done by the late great Kobe Bryant himself when he was still playing. According to Bleacher Report in an article from a few years ago, the procedure is called Regenokine. That is a treatment in which blood is removed from a patient up to three weeks beforehand, mixed with other substances, and then re-injected. It is believed that many US patients have their blood drawn, frozen, and shipped to Germany ahead of their treatment by an American affiliate. The entire procedure is not still approved by the FDA, which is why athletes go to Europe to do the surgery.
Even though the NBA is testing players regularly for different illegal substances, Karl believes the players are always one step ahead while hiding it. For Karl, players that go down that route are nothing more than cheaters that use their wealth to manipulate the system and take an easier way to potential success.
"More likely it's for the newest, hardest-to-detect blood boosters and PEDs they have in Europe. Unfortunately, drug testing always seems to be a couple of steps behind drug hiding. Lance Armstrong never failed a drug test. I think we want the best athletes to succeed, not the biggest, richest cheaters employing the best scientists. But I don't know what to do about it."
What is the solution to the problem?
There is no question some NBA players exploit the system as much as possible by using performance-enhancing substances that help them in multiple ways. For example, if Karl, who coached in the NBA for decades, knows about this, there is definitely something there. It's hard to fully understand because nobody outside those close NBA circles really knows or is willing to speak about it, and it's hard to assess what percentage of players is actually involved.
The reality is that modern-day players have all the tools at their disposal to have a long and successful career. All the best players have a team of experts behind closed doors that take care of their diet, training methods, recovery, etc., which was unimaginable a few decades ago in the NBA and the world of sports in general. Even if some players are using various types of performance-enhancement drugs, we wouldn't even know, and if it's so common as Karl suggests, it's obviously an open secret among the players, coaches, and the staff that works closely with the players. To what extent NBA is aware of this situation or not is a big mystery, but this is definitely an issue that will need a different type of solution from the league if it's that extent, as Karl suggests in his book.