By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
CHICAGO – Larry Sanders, the Milwaukee Bucks center whose season has been as miserable due to injuries and off-court incidents as his team’s has been from losing, was suspended Friday for five games without pay for violating the NBA/NBPA anti-drug program.
But if it was up to Sanders, neither he nor any other player in the league would be penalized for smoking marijuana. While he said he would abide by the terms of the penalty, Sanders offered an enthusiastic defense of the drug for its medical benefits.
“It’s something I feel strongly about, just to let you know something personal about me,” the 6-foot-11 player told NBA.com and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel prior to the Bucks’ game against Chicago at United Center Friday. “I will deal with the consequences from it. It’s a banned substance in my league. But I believe in marijuana and the medical side of it.
“I know what it is if I’m going to use it. I study it and I know the benefits it has. In a lot of ways we’ve been deprived. You can’t really label it with so many other drugs that people can be addicted to and have so many negative effects on your body and your family and your relationships and impairment. This is not the same thing.”
Per terms of the league’s illegal substance policy and random testing procedures, Sanders’ suspension means he has failed three tests in his career. It is unclear when his five-game hiatus actually will begin; he has been sidelined since undergoing surgery for a right orbital fracture sustained Feb. 8 against Houston. Recently, Sanders said he was out for the rest of this season and the Bucks had listed him that way in media reports – that would push his suspension into the start of 2014-15.
The team released a statement expressing its disappointment in Sanders, and Bucks coach Larry Drew echoed it Friday evening. He said that losing Sanders at the start of next season, when the player and the team might have hoped for a clean slate, would be difficult.
“Sure it would be tough. He’s a guy we count on,” Drew said. “If it does happen to start next year, we’ll just have to deal with it.”
Expectations were high for Saunders as Milwaukee’s defensive anchor. He had been rewarded for his breakout 2012-13 performance (9.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.8 bpg) with a four-year, $44 million extension that kicks in next year. But he has played only 23 games, averaging 7.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.74 blocks and 25.4 minutes. He gained YouTube.com infamy for his involvement in a Milwaukee nightclub melee hours after playing poorly in the team’s home opener.
He returned in late December but struggled along with the Bucks, who were staking out the NBA’s basement in the standings. Sanders had only five games with 10 or more rebounds and only six with more than two blocked shots before suffering his facial injury in February.
Saunders also issued a statement Friday apologizing to fans and taking responsibility for his actions. He said he didn’t think the suspension, if it comes at the beginning of next season, would mar what he, too, hopes is a fresh start.
“Yeah I could [overcome that],” he said. “The recipe doesn’t change. It’s just more motivation to work harder. It’s something negative to deal with. But the recipe doesn’t change for me. I’m just as excited for the summer.”
Marijuana use, still illegal in the U.S. with the exception of Colorado and Washington, has gained supporters in recent months. Sanders said he understands that it is prohibited by the NBA and the players union, which have talked of strengthening their combined anti-drug program rather than easing it. He apologized for this latest incident’s impact on his teammates but said he does not believe marijuana use is wrong.
“The stigma is that it’s illegal. I hate that,” Sanders said. “Once this becomes legal, this all will go away.”
Sanders said that, in terms of social use, he sees smoking marijuana as similar to drinking alcoholic beverages. But his primary defense of the drug was for medical use.
“The great thing about that idea is that, then you could get prescribed for it and see a doctor and they could tell you,” he said. “You don’t have to self-medicate, you don’t have to over-medicate ourselves. Y’know, because we don’t know now. We can’t diagnose ourselves.
“Once it becomes legal … you sit down with a doctor and [he says], ‘You may need this three times a day. This dosage here.’ And you don’t over-medicate. It [addresses] those needs medically that you need. It’s natural.”
The Bucks said they would have no comment beyond their issued statement (“Larry Sanders has a responsibility to every person in our organization and our fans. We are all disappointed by the news of his suspension.”).
An NBA spokesperson, contacted for reaction to Sanders’ defense of marijuana use, declined to comment Friday night.