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Learning History From Chris Washburn

Before mandatory sideline dress codes and rules for talking back to referees, the NBA tackled other player conduct issues. As rappers such as Jay-Z and Young Jeezy have proclaimed in songs, the Ronald Reagan presidential era defined a generation of peoples and communities born out of the politics and reality of the crack cocaine nineteen eighties. The National Basketball Association, too, was engulfed by this epidemic of drug usage.  

With the 2011 NBA Draft upon us and scouts and analysts wondering about the "motor" and "basketball IQ" of such draft prospects, the unfortunate legacy of the 1986 NBA Draft, such as Warriors former first round pick Chris Washburn, exists as a window into understanding the NBA present through its past history.'s Chris Tomasson sat down with former NBA player and drug abuser Chris Washburn to talk about the seemingly doomed 1986 NBA Draft class. Currently, Washburn works for a mortgage collection agency, but spends his time working with the NBA Players Association speaking to high schoolers with aspirations to play in the NBA. What's interesting about Washburn's story is how it helps us understand the NBA present, such as the strict rules around Michael Beasley's alleged marijuana usage at the NBA Rookie Transition Program. 

My point isn't to suggest that drug usage was/is a problem unique to the 1986 NBA Draft class. Drug enforcement continues to be a major part of American politics and culture (if HBO's The Wire is any indication). But Washburn's story does show how rampant drug usage was not just among troubled youth, which media often pegs as those with drug problems, but in the white-collar business world of sports. And these experiences show a turning point in the NBA's approach to drugs and protecting it players:

The 6-foot-11 Washburn, who left North Carolina State after his sophomore season, said he didn't start doing cocaine until he arrived in New York in May 1986 to work out in preparation for the draft. He said other players had a role in hooking him up to where he could get the drugs.

"There were professionals there, guys in their 30s,'' Washburn said. "Business guys who could afford (drugs). Us players, we didn't have to pay for anything. Those professional guys were functioning addicts. They would get up and go to work (after a night of doing drugs) and go about their business.''

In Washburn's recollection of his experiences with drug usage, we see a larger world of drug usage that extends beyond the court. Washburn isn't totally clear about who these "business guys" were, but we can assume that there is an on-going relationship between these "business guys" (not players) and NBA players. 

In some ways, Washburn's story of the relationships that players have to the outside professional world suggests that there is a larger national issues of drug usage that shapes how players make decisions. While it is easy to blame young athletes for a range of their problems (some of these problems can be easily avoided of course), Washburn offers a historical lens for understanding the deeper national drug problem even among those NOT seen as the ideal drug abusing type and why the NBA works hard to prepare its players to be professionals.

Although the feature on Washburn doesn't go too far in depth with larger historical factors of the eighties, it's a worthwhile read to see (briefly) how drugs permeated the NBA and how the NBA began to come to terms with it.