Dateline: Boston, July 13, 1999
Beckley and Ethan sit comfortably in seats overlooking Fenway’s Green Monster. It’s Boston’s 99’ Home Run Derby and baseballs are flying higher than Icarus–on the wings of PEDs. Mark McGwire hits some far enough to puncture America’s enormous dotcom bubble, as “ooohs” and “ahhhs” speak to a credulous kind of incredulity. When Mason and Strauss took a whirl on the official HoopSpeak Time Machine, they chose the steroid era’s apogee over Dallas, November 22, 1963. Apologies to history teachers everywhere.
(A towering McGwire homer sails over Beckley’s head)
Ethan: Sorry I nixed the JFK assassination experience. It’s my fear of blood and also…I just didn’t want to lose any more respect for Oliver Stone’s movie. The Home Run Derby is pretty funny though, huh? Look at these fools, they have no clue how phony the contest is!
(Ethan cackles in the direction of an adorable, cheering grandmother)
Beckley: McGwire needs to button up another button on that jersey, Ethan, his bra strap is showing. Dude looks like he’s been injecting himself with saline… but the homers are probably just due to these newfangled baseballs.
(A sarcastic sneer rests comfortably on Beckley’s face)
Ethan: Dude, he needs another bra for his massive bacne! Honestly, how did people BUY this? It’s so obvious!
(Ethan cackles in the direction of a small, beaming child)
Beckley: Well keep in mind, the steroid scandal is still just a glimmer in Rick Reilly’s eye. These people are enjoying the historic ability and the entertainment, can you blame them?
(Ethan delivers a glare of immense blame)
Ethan: Well, at least I know basketball couldn’t be dirty like this.
Beckley: Why’s that? Big Baby has some manbreasts to rival McGwire.
Ethan: Well ya, but he’s like, um, er, not an important player…
Beckley: What would that have to do with it? We know now that it wasn’t just Clemons on the juice, but Ryan Franklin. Everyone wants to get paid more and play longer, after all.
Ethan: Sure, sure, but we’re watching baseball, here. The advantages of increased muscle mass are so manifest in this, the boring sport God made to help men stem arousal. Why would anyone need PEDs in the NBA? It’s all about coordination and creativity, right?
Beckley: Coordination–like using a cylindrical bat to hit a round ball traveling 90 miles per hour while moving vertically 6 inches? Or do you mean flexibility and agility?
(Ethan steals a worried glance at a buff, enormous meathead, who’s wearing a Larry Bird jersey)
Ethan: Um, well…it’s just…McGwire looks so hulk-like. NBA players seem leaner. Some would look almost normal, save for being freakishly tall.
Beckley: I’m not trying to cast unfair aspersions, but look at every cyclist ever. Anabolic steroids may occasionally make you want to tear your opponents face off and wear it like a mask, but there are plenty of athletes using PEDs that don’t make you freakishly bulky.
Ethan: Okay, I’ll buy that. But how would these fanciful PEDs of yours help basketball players?
Beckley: Well, they could make a player stronger and more resilient in the face of 82 games, constant flights and the pressure of performing in front of 20,000 people. I mean, consider the player coming off a leg injury in the second half of his career. Maybe he’s got a contract year coming up and he needs to recover quickly from off-season surgery. So he takes HGH or some such supplement to help re-grow tissue more quickly. Maybe he’s not a tangibly better player than he was before injury, but he gets back to the team earlier, wins a larger contract, and is able to get paid to ball for a few more years. That’s one thing PEDs could do for a player, I suppose.
Ethan: Come on, that sounds as implausible as a veteran quarterback putting up career-best numbers at age 40. We’re from 2011. It’s a different era. It’s not like the old days, man. Players take care of their bodies, Steve Nash has convinced everyone to ditch sugar…or something like that.
Beckley: Totally, man. Using electric stimulation therapy, hyperbaric chambers, eating better, working out more intelligently could add a few years. But what if, hypothetically, you could extend your career or your prime with PEDs with low risk of side effects? Would you?
Ethan: Hell yes I would! I mean, but…they wouldn’t? Would they?
(Sammy Sosa smacks a baseball off what’s left of Ethan’s innocence. The crowd cheers deliriously)
Beckley: Who knows, man. I certainly don’t. It just seems there’s a motive, and these prolonged careers are nearly incredible. Even younger players like OJ Mayo and Rashard Lewis have been caught using banned substances. And again, pros are given supplements by trainers all the time, who knows if they intended to gain an illegal advantage or not.
(Ethan attempts to ignore Beckley by putting his iPod headphones on. Beckley smacks the anachronistic device away, sending it bouncing towards a man who looks suspiciously a lot like Steve Jobs)
Beckley: Why don’t you want to hear this? Is it that you’re just like these cheering seamheads?
Ethan: Look, I’m not sure I want to think about this, okay? I like basketball a lot, and the last thing I need is for us to further malign it. I don’t want to open up Pandora’s box, and get hit in the eye by a needle. Because, well, that metaphor sounds rather unpleasant.
Beckley: I mean, do you really care that testing isn’t all that stringent? Does it really bother you that after the first few weeks of each season, relatively infrequent testing is the NBA’s policy?
Ethan: Yes…I mean…no. I don’t think it does. I kind of like watching my favorite stars play on, well into their gray years. If banned drugs are helping them, then what separates a legal one from an illegal one? That’s just another question I’d rather ignore. Jesus, I feel like such a hypocrite. Do you care about testing, Beckley? Do you care about cheating?
Beckley: Well, I’d say the NBA is different than the NFL or MLB. In pro football, random testing of six players on each team each week keeps players from gaining the kind of (more) inhuman strength that turned Bill Romanowski into Bane from Batman. And basketball is such a team game, individual statistics will never carry the cache that they do in baseball, so I can’t imagine feeling like my entire existence as a fan has been a PED fueled sham.
Ethan: You evaded my question.
Beckley: Uhm… I’m going to get an order of triple bypass stadium nachos. You want anything?
Ethan: Maybe some Google stock? And your introspection here.
Beckley: OK, look, the sanctity of competition is something I don’t take lightly. Part of why we all love the League and the game itself is because of the transcendent beauty of coordinated movement and the pure meritocracy of competition. I suppose rampant PED use would sully both. Ugh, this is making me feel more naive than you. I cynically recognize the motive and opportunity to use PEDs, but can pull off the cognitive feat of not actively caring. I’m smugly poking holes in the mythology, but I’m a willing participant as well.
Ethan: I don’t care…most of the time. But part of me is irked if PEDs are indeed stretching careers into a Groundhog Day time freeze. It’s not fair to the past, or future, it doesn’t feel right. But then, the other part of me understands that cheating is subjective, scientific advancement is unstoppable, and that, right now I love basketball more than ever before. What I won’t do is blame anyone for “cheating,” as if sports impurity is decisive like wins and losses. It isn’t. And we shouldn’t scapegoat certain players who dare to stray from areas that we’re keeping gray. Fans tacitly bend the rules when they don’t demand that rules be stringent, and in the case of athletic performance, I’m not sure it’s possible to enforce the spirit of the rules–much less the letter. So I’m tabling my concern, just like you are, just like all us fans are.
(Ethan musters a dramatic, somber gaze)
Beckley: That was awfully eloquent for this stadium setting, Ethan. But I think you’re right, the system could be broke, but no one worries about fixing it. After all, the quality of ball and popularity of the game has never been higher. I just hope we don’t collectively act completely blindsided if a PED ring in Germany is traced back to pro ballers here in the States. I hope there’s no moralistic witch hunt after no one bothered to ask questions during a time of unprecedented excellence amongst the older NBA crowd.
Uh oh, this Polaroid of our relationship with the NBA is fading… we better get back before we do more damage to our love of the game.
(Beckley sits back in his chair with a worried and despondent look)
Ethan: It’s okay, man. The lockout’s probably coming first.