‘Successful Time’ HBO: Spencer Haywood, NBA drug battle defined

What does it indicate to say the NBA had a drug draw back throughout the Seventies and Nineteen Eighties?

In Episode 8 of “Binge Sesh,” hosts Matt Brennan and Kareem Maddox have a look at leisure drug use in expert basketball throughout the Showtime interval. Zooming in on the depiction of Spencer Haywood in HBO’s “Successful Time” and zooming out to the U.S. authorities’s wrestle on remedy, we deconstruct the rhetoric — from politicians, the press, even players — that fashioned perceptions of the NBA and make clear how systemic racism turned a properly being catastrophe into an moral panic.

Atone for Episode 7: How a $6.6-million baseball card paved the best way for Magic Johnson’s enterprise empire

Matt Brennan: So, Kareem, what are you aware of Len Bias?

Kareem Maddox: Len Bias was alleged to be the following NBA good. He was drafted by the Celtics, alleged to take over for Larry Chook. I imagine it was in ’86. And the Celtics regular supervisor on the time in distinction him to Michael Jordan, nonetheless taller and with a higher shot. Pretty shortly after Len Bias obtained drafted, he attended a celebration and I imagine overdosed on cocaine and handed away.

Len Bias wears a Boston Celtics hat after being chosen as a result of the No. 2 select throughout the NBA draft in June 1986.

(Associated Press)

Brennan: Yeah. So in 1986, two days after being drafted second normal by the Boston Celtics, college basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine-induced coronary coronary heart assault. Nonetheless that’s not really your entire story. Abdul Malik, who wrote a bit regarding the historic previous of the NBA’s leisure drug use insurance coverage insurance policies for Jacobin journal remaining yr, instructed me regarding the giant ripple influence of Bias’ dying.

Abdul Malik: Len Bias’ dying was leveraged into an escalation of the wrestle on remedy that was frankly disastrous for lots of already at-risk communities. He turned a poster child for the dangers of drug abuse. That was truly the top results of the whole thing you see initially of “Profitable Time,” which is the introduction of remedy, and players partaking in substance abuse, initially of the ‘80s. And it type of all bought right here to a fore with Len Bias after which the whole thing that occurred after it was, you perceive, truly similar to the, the wrestle part of the wrestle on remedy.

Brennan: Its official title was the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, and it was signed into laws 4 months after Bias died. Certainly one of many points that the laws establishes is one factor that we’ve flip into, I imagine, type of acquainted with, which is this idea that there’s a threshold quantity of remedy that ought to you possess higher than that amount, you menace incarceration. It moreover establishes compulsory minimal sentences for drug offenses. And the vital factor issue to remember proper right here is that in every cases, there was a double commonplace throughout the laws utilized to crack cocaine versus powder cocaine.

Malik: The Len Bias laws significantly ended up concentrating on, by its specific insurance coverage insurance policies, similar to the excellence between crack and powder cocaine, points like that. It was centered to influence an assault the within cities, which is nuts on account of he wasn’t even marketing consultant of those communities. He was part of a extremely emergent Black heart class of that interval. So loads of the insurance coverage insurance policies throughout the Len Bias laws had been disingenuous even by the use of how they framed Len Bias’ background.

Brennan: And the other issue that truly freaking will get my goat is that this bill was rushed by. There was no committee set as a lot as analyze it. There have been no hearings. It was truly merely, like, constructed on a bunch of rumors and racist assumptions.

Maddox: So whoever wrote this bill found it advantageous to slap Len Bias’ title on it throughout the midst of this tragedy that most definitely, you perceive, shook the nation.

Brennan: One of the simplest ways Abdul outlined it to me, the rhetoric about drug use throughout the NBA throughout the Seventies and Nineteen Eighties shows the dialog that’s being had throughout the wider custom. And in every cases, that dialog was rooted in systemic racism and conscious and unconscious bias. So the passage of the Len Bias laws in 1986 is type of similar to the crystallization of that intersection.

Malik: The connection between drug use and athletics, and moral panic over black of us and medicines, has to place into this. And that’s the place loads of the ideas behind it bought right here from on account of there was a substantial quantity of drug use throughout the ’80s, notably cocaine utilization, throughout the NBA. Nonetheless, it was in no way pretty framed as a problem of properly being. It was framed as a problem of morality, correct, which is actually essentially the most troubling issue. And a problem that I’d argue that largely white players escaped the 5 major bans and suspensions that had been handed proper right down to players for drug use had been all Black players. It wasn’t until 2004 {{that a}} white participant was suspended attributable to make use of of a banned substance.

Brennan: We’re going to utilize this episode to interrupt apart that argument that the drug draw back was basically essentially the most main downside that the NBA confronted in that interval. Which suggests we’re going to deconstruct that assumption.

Maddox: OK.

Brennan: It doesn’t indicate that we’re going to totally debunk it. It does indicate that we’re going to complicate it and put it in context and try to deal with why it’s considerably bit additional thorny than merely saying the NBA had a drug draw back.

Maddox: Optimistic. OK. I wish to do that.


Brennan: Welcome to “Binge Sesh,” the place this season we’re diving into the tales behind HBO’s “Profitable Time,” the saga of the Showtime-era L.A. Lakers. I’m Matt Brennan, television editor of the Los Angeles Events.

Maddox: And I’m Kareem Maddox, expert basketball participant and podcaster.

Brennan: OK. So what has been the message about remedy throughout the NBA that we’ve gotten from the basketball specialists we’ve spoken to this season?

Maddox: Optimistic. So the specialists say that the league on the time was affected by the notion {{that a}} ton of the players had been using remedy recreationally, nonetheless moreover they talked about that that was merely type of the ’80s and it wasn’t even that particular to the NBA basically. Proper right here’s what Jeff Pearlman, who wrote the information on which “Profitable Time” depends, wanted to say about that.

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Jeff Pearlman: It was a cocaine interval, to start with. I indicate, coke was the social gathering drug once more then. And the NBA was a celebration league nonetheless, significantly heading into this type of interval.

Maddox: I imagine earlier throughout the season we talked about, we use the quote from, a former NBA participant who talked about like 75% of players recreationally used cocaine throughout the early ’80s, I imagine it was. Most people merely assume that it’s true that loads of players had been using remedy throughout the NBA.

Brennan: Like even that amount you cited — the 75% amount — I don’t know that it’s basically truthful to extrapolate from one anonymous participant’s memory or guesstimate.

As we’ve present in our evaluation for this season, there’s a proliferation of tales throughout the press about drug use throughout the NBA throughout the Seventies and Nineteen Eighties. Nonetheless one among many first points that begins to show into apparent when you dig beneath the ground of those tales is that there isn’t really loads of like secure quantitative peer-reviewed scientific data. It’s all pretty anecdotal. And the ranges that you just see provided are wherever between 40% and 75%. That’s an infinite distinction.

Maddox: A really very long time prior to now, I’ve to’ve been like 9 or 10, and my aunt talked about one factor to the influence of, like, anyone requested if I needed to play basketball after I grew up. And he or she was, like, “No, he doesn’t want to do that,” on account of that’s not one factor you aspire to. Like, you don’t want to be an NBA participant. ‘Set off that’s synonymous with remedy and the life that aren’t licensed of. Like now, wanting once more on it, that was merely the prevailing sentiment. Yeah, I imagine it’s now merely flip right into a type of accepted points that everyone’s, like, “Yeah. The remedy throughout the ’80s throughout the NBA.”

Brennan: Correct? The notion that remedy had been a quote unquote draw back for the NBA hinges on numerous assumptions are mounted ideas. When a practice tells itself a story adequate cases over a protracted adequate interval, it could see being as accepted fact. And one story that’s central to our understanding of what’s occurring throughout the NBA on this era is the U.S. authorities’s wrestle on remedy.

So the very very first thing to know is that this isn’t going to be an entire historic previous of the wrestle on remedy. Anti-drug authorized tips within the USA date once more to the nineteenth century with anti-opium authorized tips concentrating on Chinese language language immigrants. The vital factor date to know for our capabilities is 1971. That’s when President Richard Nixon gave a speech declaring drug abuse America’s public enemy No. 1. That’s the place we get the phrase. Richard Nixon truly declared an official wrestle on remedy.

President Nixon stands at a podium, flanked by two other men

President Nixon speaks on June 17, 1971, calling drug abuse “a nationwide emergency.” At left is Egil Krogh, deputy director of the Dwelling Council. At correct is Dr. Jerome Jaffe, who was recruited by Nixon to information a model new drug approach.

(Harvey Georges / Associated Press)

[Clip of Nixon’s speech: America’s public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.]

Maddox: I had on a regular basis associated the wrestle on remedy additional with Reagan than with Nixon, which I suppose is smart supplied that Reagan was the president who signed the Len Bias laws.

Brennan: I imagine you’re correct in that affiliation. The enforcement gear that grew out of Nixon’s declaration of wrestle expanded via the Reagan years and continued by the Clinton years and previous. We’re nonetheless experiencing the reverberations of its disproportionate influence on Black and brown communities.

President Reagan speaks at a podium, flanked by two other men

President Reagan addresses the Nationwide Conference on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention in August 1986. He’s flanked by Dr. Ian McDonald, left, director of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Psychological Nicely being Administration, and Donald Newman, Nicely being and Human Suppliers undersecretary.

(Scott Stewart / Associated Press)

Merely to cite one statistic that made my jaw drop: A Vox story from 2016 in distinction drug use costs and drug arrest costs between white and Black Folks using data from 2013. Whereas white and Black of us had been about equally as liable to have used remedy beforehand month, Black of us had been arrested two and a half cases as often and served longer sentences.

Abdul Malik talked to us about how one can see these kinds of patterns throughout the NBA too.

Malik: The NBA is sort of like a microcosm of higher American custom, and clearly it’s like a fairly extreme degree in American racial stress. And you then definately’ve obtained this explosion of recognition of basketball coming out of — an infinite part of it does come out of the Showtime Lakers. It was the first precise image catastrophe. The league had all through its shift from a majority-white to majority-Black league — that demographic shift by the use of the make-up of the players occurred absurdly fast.

Brennan: Rachel Authorized tips Myers, the creator of “Race and Sports activities actions,” underscores the connection between racist stereotypes that had been prevalent throughout the custom at big and perceptions of the NBA proper now.

Rachel Authorized tips Myers: What I’ll say by the use of sports activities actions, I imagine all that whole interval, correct, offers to a stereotype, a notion that, you perceive, the place do remedy come from and who’s doing remedy and what did they seem like? And really that bought right here proper right down to, oh, people who do remedy, promote remedy, buy remedy are Black individuals.

Brennan: OK. So we’ve organize the large picture. Now I want to zoom in on what we really see in “Profitable Time” and on the real-life Showtime Lakers.

Maddox: Can we do that after the break?

Brennan: Positive. I positively need a break, and I’m constructive our listeners do too. We’ll be correct once more.


Brennan: Welcome once more to “Binge Sesh.” So, Kareem, in Episode 8 of “Profitable Time” now we have now our first encounter with drug abuse. Who’s the participant on the Showtime Lakers that we see in Episode 8 using remedy?

Maddox: Yeah, that could be Spencer Haywood.

Brennan: What can you inform me regarding the real-life Spencer Haywood?

Spencer Haywood of the Lakers restrains Steve Mix of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1980

Spencer Haywood, left, restrains an opposing participant as his Lakers teammate Michael Cooper grabs a rebound all through an NBA Finals sport in Would possibly 1980.

(Lennox McLendon / Associated Press)

Maddox: Spencer Haywood was a extraordinarily gifted giant man, meaning he was a, you perceive, a center or power forward. He’s about 6-foot-8 and I imagine was having a fairly secure career up until that point. And he’d gotten in hassle proper right here and there, nonetheless would have been a championship piece on any NBA workers on the time.

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Brennan: My data of what Haywood was contributing on courtroom is approach decrease than my data of what his have an effect on was off the courtroom. Do you keep in mind throughout the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar episode, we get considerably little little bit of a snippet of Haywood’s best broader have an effect on on the NBA?

Maddox: Yeah, Spencer Haywood’s battle off the courtroom was with the NBA, and it was throughout the ’70s, and, it wanted to do collectively together with his correct to have the flexibility to play throughout the NBA out of highschool.

Brennan: Correct. The NBA on the time that Haywood was starting out in his career had a rule that stated {{that a}} participant wanted to be 4 years far from highschool to affix the NBA. And it ends up creating the possibility for players to be drafted straight out of highschool. Who’re some giant players who’ve benefited from Spencer Haywood’s activism throughout the time since?

Maddox: Kobe Bryant, bought right here correct out of highschool. Kevin Garnett … a ton of males have come correct out of highschool and carried out throughout the NBA.

Brennan: One key piece of context proper right here is that Haywood grew up poor in rural Mississippi. So his argument was that this was an monetary concern with a objective to earn an income for himself and his family, he needed to maneuver previous college-level play.

Maddox: So that’s anyone who desperately desires and has the facility to earn a dwelling by having fun with basketball. And he challenged the rule that was not allowing him to do that. Nonetheless the place did the remedy come into the picture?

Brennan: So Haywood discovered cocaine throughout the late Seventies whereas he was having fun with with the New York Knicks. And when he was traded to the Lakers, he hoped to point out spherical that cocaine use — until an excellent buddy launched him to freebasing. Jeff Pearlman cited Haywood as a major occasion of a participant whose drug abuse ended up swamping his expertise.

Pearlman: Spencer Haywood is the ultimate phrase cautionary story the place the person was a terrific experience who merely couldn’t stop using coke. They often had money; that that they had disposable incomes that they may afford it. Coke was the drug of occasions once more on the time. These guys all most popular to social gathering. Of us knew; they took good thing about athletes. If you’re a vendor you’ll try to get athletes into it because you knew that that they had the money to pay for it. And sooner than prolonged it merely turned — it was an infinite draw back throughout the NBA.

Brennan: Abdul Malik argues that it’s a byproduct to convey some large money and scrutiny to these youthful athletes with out a assist system to match.

Malik: The huge money throughout the league meant additional of us had more money to burn. And loads of these are like exploited youthful males, Black or white, a number of them merely don’t have the type of background that gives you financial or emotional literacy and how one can deal with that type of sudden fame.

Brennan: Via the course of the season, Haywood started to wrestle with dependancy, and his play suffered consequently. So the coach, Paul Westhead, started chopping Haywood’s minutes on courtroom. What we haven’t gotten to throughout the current however is how he would ultimately lose his spot on the workers. Are you conscious the story?

Maddox: Considerably bit, nonetheless it’s not up to date.

Brennan: On essentially the most important second throughout the season, as victory hangs throughout the steadiness, he stays up all night time time smoking crack the night time time sooner than apply on the eve of the NBA Finals and ends up passing out all through that apply from, you perceive, a mixture of fatigue and the comedown. He’s suspended halfway by the gathering after which subsequently kicked off the workers.

Maddox: You’re feeling horrible for him. You merely take into consideration him waking up from that nap and being, like, “That was the worst issue I’ve ever achieved.”

Brennan: I imagine Spencer Haywood’s story may also be a extraordinarily potent illustration of the flexibility of dependancy. Haywood ultimately needed a restore so badly, attributable to this sickness that he suffered from, that he sabotaged what would have been one of many essential triumphant moments of his career. I don’t assume we’re in a position to finish his story, though, with out talking regarding the type of extreme spiral he went on after being far from the workers.

What are you conscious regarding the plan he hatched to kill Paul Westhead?

Maddox: Yeah. So I imagine Haywood known as up a couple of of his boys from once more residence and outlined to them that he was upset with Coach Westhead, they often had been going to find out a plan to deal with that.

Brennan: I indicate, the plan was to run Paul Westhead’s automotive off a cliff.

Maddox: Uh, yeah, yeah. That, yeah, it looks like a plan.

Brennan: It obtained as far as being scheduled, like, that that they had a timeline for this. And the best way by which it was interrupted was Haywood’s mother acknowledged one factor in his voice and talked about to him, “You’re as a lot as one factor no good.” She even threatened to point out him in herself.

Maddox: Big save from Mom.

Brennan: I indicate, you perceive, how moms are. She was like, “Oh gosh, my son is about to do one factor truly f—ing foolish.” Nonetheless I do want to say, that’s a extraordinarily darkish phrase and Spencer Haywood’s story is troubling in loads of strategies, nonetheless I do assume it’s helpful in some important strategies too. Haywood has now been sober for higher than 30 years. He’s a public speaker who talks about dependancy and sobriety. And he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015. So his legacy, I imagine, is as anyone who went into restoration after being at a extraordinarily extreme all-time low and ended up discovering a second act, not as a basketball participant nonetheless as anyone who had appeared dependancy throughout the face and managed to survive it.

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Maddox: What we’re discovering is that loads of these Showtime-era Lakers, their have an effect on is certainly in a single factor exterior of basketball. And virtually about — which we’re going to talk about later — Magic Johnson and what he did for HIV/AIDS consciousness, Abdul-Jabbar and his civil rights activism, Spencer Haywood, and, you perceive, the second act as inspiring to of us affected by dependancy.


Brennan: Welcome once more to “Binge Sesh.” So after I spoke to “Profitable Time” creator and authorities producer Rodney Barnes, he instructed me that the current’s depiction of Spencer Haywood is an try to applicable a harmful stereotype.

Rodney Barnes: I’m sadly old enough to remember loads of television reveals and movies regarding the sport of basketball and sports activities actions mainly, the place you had loads of Black athletes who merely seem to get extreme for pleasing. And I’m of the idea that any dependancy is mainly about pushing down some sort of trauma. There’s one factor occurring throughout the coronary coronary heart and ideas of the particular person.

Brennan: So my question was: How do you cope with a persona like Spencer Haywood, who truly was an addict and really did damage his career attributable to it, with out having fun with into that stereotype? Let “Profitable Time” director Salli Richardson-Whitfield make clear.

Salli Richardson-Whitfield: It’s like, how will we do this? We confirmed the very fact of what it’s. Nonetheless then it’s our obligation in order so as to add: What are these nuances? What are the layers? What are the reasons that he turned addicted? What are these demons that people have significantly throughout the Black group that sucks you down that hole?

Brennan: Can you, ought to you possibly can keep in mind it, Kareem, can you describe how “Profitable Time” Episode 8 really handles Haywood’s drug use?

Maddox: No. I’m blanking.

Brennan: So I’m going to set the scene for you. It’s set via the All-Star break. So Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson are on the All-Star sport in a particular metropolis. The Lakers who’re once more residence in L.A. get collectively at Spencer’s dwelling to watch the game — players and coaches.

A man in a yellow patterned shirt leans back in a chair

Wood Harris as Spencer Haywood in “Profitable Time.”

(Warrick Internet web page / HBO)

And that’s the episode the place we see Haywood’s character use for the first time. We’ve already realized in an earlier episode about his battle in direction of the NBA on the Supreme Courtroom docket. Now we research considerably bit about his background rising up in deep poverty and coming from a family the place dependancy had been prevalent. And we now know that there’s a genetic half to dependancy. Then we see the Jack McKinney character, who’s attempting to get once more into the educating mix after his accident, type of stir some s— by telling Spencer he’s liable to being traded.

[Clip from “Winning Time”: Spencer Haywood character: Now, I ain’t complaining, coach. You — you’re looking at a humble man. I just — I’ll do anything to win. I want my little girl inheriting a ring.

Jack McKinney character: In that case, I’m going to need more out of you. Talking scoring, minutes; come playoffs, I want you to be prepared to carry more of the offensive load.

Haywood character: I’m surprised to hear that because the professor and Riley has got me thinking defense first.

McKinney character: I’m coming back now and they know the new deal. We’re going to get you ramped up. And I don’t want you worried about these rumors, either.

Haywood character: Rumors?]

Brennan: We moreover get a key scene, which I imagine is so important given the dialog that we’ve had regarding the wrestle on remedy throughout the custom and throughout the NBA, the place Haywood lashes out on the Pat Riley character by mentioning bigger racial dynamics which may be at play.

[Clip from “Winning Time”: Pat Riley character: What are you talking about?

Haywood character: And here I am thinking you’ve been awful worried about me healing up. Now I know you don’t give a f— about me. Just checking my teeth for the auction block.

Riley character: Hold on a second. That’s not what happened. What — where’d you hear this?

Haywood character: What the f—’s it matter if it’s true. Huh? What f—ing, how does it f—ing matter?]

Brennan: Now that I’ve taken you through how the episode handles this and what the thought course of was among the many many creatives, what are your concepts on this technique? What do you assume they’re attempting to carry out? And do they succeed?

Maddox: I favored the current’s remedy of this. And I imagine I’ve talked about sooner than: I was confused by Wood Harris as Spencer Haywood at first, correct? Like, what, Harris? I merely don’t see him as a basketball participant although I like him as an actor. So I puzzled why he was having fun with Spencer Haywood of all of us; Spencer Haywood won’t be one among many people you take into account in relation to the Showtime Lakers. You take into account Abdul-Jabbar, Magic, Buss, Riley, irrespective of, all that completely different stuff that we’ve been talking about for all season.

You perceive, discovering, No. 1, an actor and casting this in a strategy that’s going to do it justice, and spend an excellent chunk of time with anyone who doesn’t even win that first ring with the Lakers after which doesn’t go on to proceed with the workers after, you perceive, the 1979-80 season — I imagine it’s good and I’m glad they did that. And I imagine that’s why the current has some endurance and is mainly tackling the ’80s in a additional holistic strategy, truly by the lens of these basketball players.

Brennan: I agree. I do assume that what we see on show reveals the success that individuals like Rodney Barnes and Salli Richardson-Whitfield had in rooting Haywood’s story inside his specific particular person humanity barely than treating him as a illustration of a quote unquote broader draw back, which as we’ve established on this episode is a suspect assumption at best.

As you recognized, I imagine this is just one occasion of the best way by which that “Profitable Time” is using the Showtime Lakers as a prism by which to take a look at the entire interval that we’re talking about. Subsequent week is one different story of how, must you look fastidiously on the Showtime Lakers, on this case Magic’s HIV prognosis, you possibly can start to see additional clearly one among many major sociopolitical happenings of the Nineteen Eighties and Nineteen Nineties: the AIDS catastrophe.


Brennan: … continued to ramp up via the Reagan administration, after a brief switch in direction of decriminalization under Jimmy Carter.

Maddox: OK, Jimmy Carter?

Brennan: So yeah, Jimmy Carter, once more to Jimmy. See, now you, now you understand why I’ve a cushty spot for Jimmy? Like, he’s like a diamond throughout the robust proper right here.

Maddox: Most underrated president ever. Jimmy Carter.

Brennan: Please be part of me for my subsequent podcast: an appreciation of Jimmy Carter in 10 components.

Additional sources

David Farber, ed., “The Warfare on Medication: A Historical past” (2021)

Abdul Malik, “The NBA’s Drug Testing Should Finish,” Jacobin (Aug. 25, 2021)

Marc J. Spears and Gary Washburn, “The Spencer Haywood Rule: Battles, Basketball, and the Making of an American Iconoclast” (2020)

Jeff Pearlman, “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the Eighties” (2013)