Performance Enchancers Not in Pill Form

One of the panels at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference yesterday dealt with performance enhancement. Obviously, steroids in baseball and — to a less hullabullo-ed degree — football are the first things that come to mind when the topic is broached. And indeed, supplements and pills led the discussion.

Kevin Arnovitz of TrueHoop broke down a story Steve Kerr told about the potential dangers of supplements.

Kerr talks about Tom Gugliotta, who went to GNC years ago and began taking a lot of legal substances. One night after a game, he got on the bus in Portland and collapsed. Portland trainers helped him. They called the Suns’ staff to find out what he was taking. The fact that the Suns knew, Kerr says, might have saved Gugliotta’s life. The lesson is that training staffs need to know exactly what their players are taking.

According to Kerr, the scare after Googs collapsed prompted all the trainers throughout the league to mandate that their players told them about any substances going into their bodies. “It came from that incident,” said Kerr. “It was an eye-opener for the entire league.”

And as the field of supplements and over-the-counter pills has increased, this has only become more critical. “Think of the explosion in that industry — in GNC,” said Kerr. “If it’s legal, somebody’s going to sell it.”

But like most people, Kerr doesn’t think MLB-type doping is a problem in basketball, and he only ever saw one example of a player trying to get an edge with an illegal substance — and it came about 20 years ago when he was still at the University of Arizona. It was also unsuccessful, as the player in question was trying to bulk up for pre-draft workouts that never led to an NBA career.

Kerr was similarly candid about himself and pills, saying that he took Vioxx late in his career to help with his knee problems. “I think Vioxx was a performance-enhancing drug,” he said. Obviously, Vioxx was a completely legal anti-arthritis pill/pain reliever, and whether it is really even performance enhancing or not is debatable. But Kerr felt it was. “Maybe some of it was psychological … I felt better, more confident.”

This led me to wonder what perfectly legal things might potentially be giving NBA players an edge other than pills and supplements. I don’t care to discuss that. My interest in that debate has been entirely exhausted by MLB coverage in recent years.

No, I’m curious about equipment.

The panelists talked about possible advantages gained by the utlra-buoyant suits worn by swimmers in the Beijing Olympics. Well, NBA players have begun donning a lot of new attire over the past decade, too. It doesn’t make them float, but it does dull some of the pain they might feel.

Guys like Dwyane Wade wear padded shorts under their uniforms to protect their hips and lessen the chance of an errant knee giving them a dreaded deep thigh bruise that can linger for weeks and hamper mobility. In short, this lets him drive to the hoop with less concern for his own health or fear of pain, which has always been a natural deterrent to penetrating just as it has been with taking a charge from a guy like Shawn Kemp on the other end of the floor.

Dwyane is quoted as saying as much on the webpage for McDavid’s “HexPad,” which are the padded shorts he wears.

“I never have any second thought about taking it to the hoop wearing HexPad” – Dwyane Wade

It’s hard to gauge exactly what type of advantage this gives Flash. Lots of other NBA players wear similar protective gear, so it is not like he is the only one who thinks they help. We do know, however, that George Gervin and Isiah Thomas didn’t wear HexPads in the NBA “glory days.” Then again, guys like Patrick Ewing and Kevin McHale did rock bulky knee-pads that must have helped them along the same lines.

So is this any big deal? Probably not.

But what about Kenyon Martin and others who now wear shin guards? It seems to me that if I was a guy whose main role was to challenge guys going hard to the rim and battling for rebounds in the post, it would be easier to do so if I didn’t have to worry about getting kicked in the shins. That hurts. Throw on the compression arm sleeve with a elbow pad that Kenyon likes to wear, a padded compression tank top under your jersey and some HexPads underneath your shorts, and you’re pretty well-armored from head to toe. May as well add some knee pads and a Rip Hamilton face mask to complete the package. Take the court in riot gear, essentially.

Now, I’m not sure of all the rules surrounding what you can and cannot wear for medical reasons. We know that full-leg compression tights are no longer allowed without a note from your doctor. And Dwyane knows that he can wear a bandage over a cut, but not a “Band-Wade” with his name on it.

We like to joke about the foolishness of all this stuff (see A Stern Warning’s “Over Accessorizers“), but given all the new, light-weight protective and support equipment out there (including the new shoulder sleeves that we have seen from Vince Carter, Michael Beasley, Antawn Jamison and Mike Miller this year), when does it all become too much?

Where is the line?

Hypothetically, I have to imagine that if any player tried to wear all the gear used by Kenyon, Wade, Ewing and Rip at the same time, the league would step in and tell him to take some of it off. But all this leads back to some of the other topics broached at the Sloan conference.

Eventually, bio-medicine is going to offer innovations that are true advantages more so than colorful fashion statements with protective qualities. The panelists speculated that artificial limbs might some day be stronger than natural ones. Cancer survivor Kyle Garlett completed an Iron Man Triathalon last year after receiving a heart transplant and getting an artificial hip. He is a hero who overcame long odds to accomplish such an athletic feat, but what if science develops artificial hips that improve performance?

Arnovitz brings up LASIK surgery as another performance enhancer that no one has an issue with now. And Tommy John surgery for baseball pitchers is now widely seen as a mostly innocuous way to make your arm stronger. But what about trying to surgically attach a fully inorganic arm? Maybe it helps your shooting form. Or maybe it just lets you go harder for rebounds. I dunno. I’m not a doctor. And, yeah, it certainly seems like something that would not be allowed in a league of non-cyborg basketball players.

Well, OK. No full metal limbs allowed. Seems like a good rule.

But what about a titanium finger?

Tougher call.

Seth Carstens