There is mounting anxiety in the National Basketball Association about the use of cocaine and its potent derivative, "free base."
Although there are no reliable figures on the use of cocaine by players, estimates by people in the game range from 40 percent to 75 percent, with perhaps as many as 10 percent getting high with free base.
The NBA formed a special committee, chaired by Mike Burke of the New York Knicks, after its June meetings to investigate drug use and stress and to make recommendations for education and rehabilitation.
"There is not a team in the league you can confidently say does not have a drug problem," said Frank Layden, general manager of the Utah Jazz. "Every team could benefit from a rehabilitation program. I had two (drug) cases out of 11 players last year. We need a place to send these people (for help)."
Layden referred to Jazz forward Bernard King, arrested in January on charges of sodomy and possession of cocaine, and to guard Terry Furlow, who died in a car accident in May. An autopsy revealed traces of valium and cocaine in Furlow's bloodstream.
Eddie Johnson, a guard for the Atlanta Hawks, was arrested July 13 and charged with possession of cocaine (found in a car he had rented) and driving under the influence of alcohol. He has said he is innocent.
Michael Gearon, president of the Hawks, said he believes that as many as half the players in the league may use cocaine and as many as 10 percent may use free base. Atlanta General Manager Stan Kasten put player use at 75 percent. "I believe we are on the verge of an epidemic of free base," Gearon said. "It is time we identified the problem. Free base is as dangerous as heroin, and it's a serious problem."
"Drugs are a problem in the league and cocaine is certainly the most popular one socially," Bob Ferry, Washington Bullet general manager, said. "I really wouldn't know what to look for in terms of symptoms. Unless a guy was really messed up. I wouldn't recognize it."
Ferry said he had no reason to believe any of his players used the drug. "I haven't had any feelings or indications that any of our players uses it," he said, "but it is popular and I guess it's possible someone is."
Ferry said he thought the 40 to 75 percent figure "sounds very, very high. But I may be naive."
A cocaine high lasts several hours, particularly the sense of mood elevation. For basketball players leading a pressurized, transitory life on the run, jetting to and from a series of one-night stands, the drug's ability to alleviate fatigue and elevate mood make it a favored way to unwind and party after a game.
Free base is said to produce a euphoria so intense that unsers may go on five-day binges that can cause psychological addiction and can cost from $2,000 to $12,000.
A player who asked not to be identified said of cocaine use: "It's really scary. Some of the best players in the league, players who don't even drink, are into free base, and they are spending some very big sums of money.
"I'm afraid it could get out of hand. Something crazy is going to happen in an airport or a hotel, and the whole thing could come tumbling down. A lot of people might not want to see an NBA game again (because of the stigma attached to drug use)."
Most players contacted by a reporter didn't want to comment for publication. One who did was Seattle guard Paul Westphal, who said he thinks 50 percent of the league's players may use cocaine, based on talks with players and trainers. He said he hasn't used it or seen others use it.
"Coke is rampant in the league, man," said a player who left the game a year ago. "I mean, 75 percent use it. It's like drinking water. You 'hit the blow' (sniff cocaine) to be sociable.
"Coke didn't start in the NBA, but it's now the drug of the money culture. It has taken the place of alcohol in the league."
In New York, Commissioner Larry O'Brien prepared this statement for the Los Angeles Times:
"The Nba, of course, recognizes that the use of drugs is a problem in our society today. We have no indication that the percentage of players in our league who may have tried drugs exceeds the percentage of the general population which has experimented with drugs.
"For years the NBA has been conducting a drug-education program, including having a prominent medical consultant (Dr. Torry Brown of the staff of Johns Hopkins) speak to all teams annually to review the subject in detail with players and coaches.
"This program is regularly reviewed with an eye toward upgrading and improving its effectiveness. I participated in a discussion of drug abuse with team doctors, general managers, and coaches at our annual meeting in L.A. and have under consideration the appointment of a representative committee of the league.
"The committee would not only evaluate our drug-education program but consider all areas where players could have the benefit of counsel and assistance in coping with the stress brought about us a result of being a pro athlete."
Informed of O'Brien's statement, several front-office sources said that while the commissioner seems to be concerned, he is not really aware of the seriousness of the drug problem.
For young players, many from unstable families in inner-city ghettos, it is tempting to spend some of their sudden wealth (NBA average salary is $180,000) on cocaine.
"There is so much pressure on these kids," a front-office source said. "They have buddies coming to them for a handout. Nobody they can trust. Nobody to lean on. The stress is just enormous."
Gearon, the Atlanta executive, is far more concerned about free base than cocaine.
"A lot of players who would not touch heroin think free base is okay," said Gearon, who has made an effort to become informed about drug use by players.
"The players think that because they use cocaine, and it doesn't seem to hurt them, that free base won't hurt, either," Gearon said. "In trying to address the problem, we can't exaggerate the dangers of cocaine in comparison to free base.
"We can't lump the drugs together. Too many people tend to do that with all drugs. That's too emotional, and not productive."
Other NBA executives consider cocaine a problem.
"It's a very serious problem, and wer're being naive if we put our heads in the sand," said Carl Scheer, Denver general manager.
"It's reality," said Jerry Colangelo, Phoenix, general manager and chairman of the NBA General Managers Association. "Before Terry Furlow died, I think there was a desire to see a player really get nailed on a drug charge, that might open some eyes. But since his death, I think most players feel, 'It won't happen to me. It's too bad about Terry, but it won't happen to me.'"
Zollie Volchok, Seattle general manager said he held extensive discussions with SuperSonics Coach Lenny Wilkens on drugs and they have decided to insert a clause in every player contract stipulating that a drug conviction will make the contract null and void.
The NBA Players Association will not support any player convicted of drug use (stronger than marijuana), according to Larry Fleisher, general counsel.
"There are several things to keep in mind," Fleisher said. "The image of the player and the way (a drug conviction) reflects on the league. It can bring discredit to the league and the player's teammates. Also, there is the terrible changes it can bring to a player's life and the financial ruin it can cause."
Cocaine is relatively new in the league.
Marijuana was the drug of the 1960s, according to Wayne Embry, former player who is now vice president of the Milwaukee Bucks. He said he doesn't doubt that cocaine is now widely used.
Nor does Jack Ramsay, coach of the Portland Trail Blazers and the president of the NBA Coaches Association. "No coach is naive enough to think the problem doesn't exist," Ramsay said.
Only rarely is cocaine used so close to a game that it might affect performance. For one thing, its physiological effects last only 20-30 minutes (although the mental high can last hours). Hence to feel physical effects a player would have to snort during quarter breaks or at halftime -- impractical.
"Nobody wants to take a chance on getting caught or being in a position where he would blame a game loss on coke," one player said. "Pride is involved."