Numb to the moment, we see Kobe Bryant walk off the floor, his head down in shame. Eerily similar to what had happened the year before, Bryant again walks off the court with streamers falling over his head, his opponents triumphant at his expense. We can see the rage burning in his eyes, the frustration, the pain from having come so far and failing yet again when he was so close. They had climbed the summit, just as they had done the year before, only to fall at the last possible step, when the goal seemed so attainable. It is June 14, 2009, and the Orlando Magic have just won the 2009 NBA Title.
Following the blow-out loss in Game 1, the Magic came back with intense passion, Rashard Lewis leading the way with 34 strong points and shooting 6-12 from the three point line, squeaking out a Game 2 win on Courtney Lee’s last second lay-up, shifting the entire dynamic of the series and stealing the precious home court advantage that the Lakers played 82 long, hard games to earn. After a Game 3 barrage which saw the Magic victorious, shooting 75% from the field in the first half, the Magic snuck out of Game 4 with a win after a near-collapse, culminating in Derek Fisher missing a last second desperation three, going 0-6 from the three point line for the night. With the Lakers down 3-1 on the ropes, the Magic closed out in Game 5 with a strong performance from Dwight Howard, garnering a record 9 blocks, and Rashard Lewis, who scored 33 points including 7-12 from the three point line.
As we see the streamers falling down around our players, we can’t help but wonder, “Will this team ever get it done? How many times will we come this far only to fail?” With off-season issues looming, especially the re-signing of Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom, how long will it be till we get another chance like this?
We all know this isn’t what happened. The Lakers got the bounces, made the big shots when they mattered, and came out with some hard-fought wins over a damn good Magic team. But imagine if that had happened.
Now, we hear a report that Rashard Lewis was found to have an elevated testosterone level sometime last season. I’ve yet to read any reliable sources as to when the actual sample was taken, so we don’t really know what time frame we’re working with. But, Lewis was hurt at the end of the regular season and actually missed a couple of games against the Sixers in the first round, and he made a surprisingly quick recovery. The supplement Lewis claims to have taken, DHEA, has disputed effects on testosterone levels and seems to have no intended use in athletics (the Mayo Clinic tells me that DHEA is mostly used for patients with low natural DHEA levels, depression, induction of labor, and the treatment of lupus).
So what if? What if the Lakers had lost the championship, our entire 2008-2009 campaign going down in flames? We hear that a possible steroid user was (highly) involved in the games that decided our championship fate as well as the fates of several other teams. The league has suspended Lewis 10 measly games, but he stole our championship! Probably most, if not all of us, would be decrying the use of steroids as the work of the devil and all things evil. But is that really the case, and how heinous is the use of steroids in sports?
Steroid use is no where near as big a deal in the NBA as it is in the NFL and not even close to the level of the MLB. Many experts argue that the effects of steroids, such as muscle growth, aren’t as desirable in basketball as they are in other, more brutish sports, like rugby or American football. The list of NBA steroid offenders is relatively small, the list including Matt Geiger, Don McLean, Soumaila Samake, Lindsey Hunter, and possibly the most famous, Darius Miles. But, none of these players are bona fide stars of Rashard Lewis’ level: an All-Star caliber player, playing a big role on a high-profile team, and easily one of the top 50 players in the league. And none of the other player’s affected the league as much as Rashard Lewis did last season, where it was his shooting and his match-up problems that eliminated were huge reasons as to why Orlando eliminated both the Boston Celtics and the heavily-favored Cleveland Cavaliers.
Perhaps those with more knowledge of biology and chemistry can fill us in as to what exactly steroids like DHEA do, and how do they affect a sport like basketball, where brute strength is not the most desirable quality (unless you’re Shaquille O’Neal). Now I am against the use of steroids to make yourself stronger or faster or whatever, but where do we draw the line? I am all for the use of steroids and other medications to help an athlete recover from injury, but where does recovering stop and juicing start? If an athlete (say, Andrew Bynum) was hurt and could halve his recovery time by using steroids, I would not be against it. Would you? But if someone were juicing in order to get bigger and stronger, which we know aids in things like absorbing contact while driving to the basket, getting position for rebounds, and banging in the low-post, that constitutes an unfair advantage and violates my sense of fair-play. And what about drugs that improve your hand-eye coordination, reaction time, mental clarity, and performance under stress? They certainly give basketball players advantages over those who don’t use them, so are they meant to be outlawed as well? Perhaps if they are not detrimental to a player’s long-term heatlh, they are ok, but again the question is, where do you draw the line? Your ideas are as good as mine, as most of us (hopefully someone is) are not experts in this field.
I for one am inclined to believe Lewis when he says he took a supplement that he believed to be sanctioned by the league. By all accounts, he seems to be a good guy, doesn’t play dirty and can’t honestly be considered enough of a bruiser to seriously consider that the steroids really gave him a huge advantage. But I also believe that Lewis was tip-toeing the line of what is allowed and what is forbidden by the league. For Lewis, a stretch-4 playing virtually out of position, being strong enough to rebound and defend the post is something he faces every day. If I were him, I’d want to get stronger, so long as it didn’t compromise the other strengths of my game. But at what cost do these advantages come? How far are we willing to push the limits of our anatomy until it becomes too much? At what cost are we willing to win, and when does that cost outweigh victory?