Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Top Ten Athletes Who Battled Substance Abuse

I was catching up the other day a buddy of mine who had read my blog.  We were throwing around a couple ideas for top ten lists to work out the kinks of blogging during the slow time in the sports season.  While we agreed to have a more formal pow-wow over the topic soon, one of his ideas did take hold.  Who were the best athletes out there who at some point in their careers were suffered from controlled substances?

So this post will examine the ten best careers of athletes who were addicted to drugs or alcohol while they were professional athletes.  It's a delicate topic and I make this post with a detachment from the emotions involved, as addiction is not a laughing matter, even if Rick James unintentionally provided fodder for the funniest scetch comedy episode of all time.

10. Josh Hamilton

We start off our list with the only athlete currently active.  Hamilton was the first overall pick by Tampa in the 1999 MLB draft, so the team thought highly of his talent.  After a few seasons in the minor leagues, in 2004 he was suspended from baseball by the MLB for multiple failed drug tests; he has subsequently admitted that he was using cocaine. 

Eventually he got his life back together and made his debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 2007.  The following winter he was dealt to the Texas Rangers, with whom he led the AL in RBI's in 2008 and guided the team to its first World Series appearance in 2010 in an MVP season.  Through four and a half injury-riddled seasons, the lefty has batted .310 with 105 home runs in 524 games at the time of this post.  Should the 30-year-old lefty remain healthy and on the drug-fee path, he should wind up with some decent batting figures.

9. Steve Howe

Mr. Howe showed great promise early in his career as a pitcher for the Dodgers.  Having won the 1980 NL Rookie of the Year award, he recorded a save in the final game of the 1981 World Series for LA.  Off the field problems derailed his career soon afterwards, as he was suspended for the entire 1984 season for testing positive for cocaine.  He was suspended a total of seven times for substance abuse throughout his career

"This is your last chance.  And I'm not talking about one of those Major League Baseball Steve Howe kind of last chances." - Frank Drebin, Naked Gun 33 1/3.  It was still funny before Howe's untimely death in 2006

I put Howe ahead of Hamilton because of the early promise of the career (ROY, World Series champ, top ten in saves three seasons).  Over time Hamilton will pass Howe, but his career hasn't been sufficient to this point.  Unfortunately Howe's life ended in 2006 in an automobile accident.  Drugs were found in his system during the autopsy. 

8. John Lucas
Over 928 games in the NBA, Lucas averaged 10.7 points and 7.0 assists per game.  Those aren't the numbers you'd expect from the number overall pick in the 1976 NBA draft, but they're better than the average player.  He finished top six in assists four times in career, top ten a total of seven times.  Unfortunately he got caught up in cocaine in 1981 and once again during 1985 (same story) and 1986

Lucas' individual story does have a much brighter continuation than Howe's did.  He eventually got his life together and was an (unsuccessful) NBA coach for six seasons.  He decided to quit coaching basketball professionally to become a life coach for others who suffer from addiction.  To date he's been sober 23 years himself.  When you consider that he's turned his life into something positive, not having lived up to his true basketball potential is of no consequence.

7 (tie) Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry
There's no way to assess one without the other.  Both had extremely productuve early careers with the Mets- Gooden was the NL Rookie of the year in 1984 and won the Cy Young Award in 1985; Strawberry won the ROY in 1983 and led the NL in homers in 1988.  Both suffered cocaine addition after those points - Gooden was suspended in 1987, Strawberry in 1995.  Both won the 1986 World Series with the Mets and ended up winning multiple World Series with the Yankees. 

Lastly, both ended with fantastic career stats.  Gooden ended up with 194 career wins, a 3.51 ERA and 2,300 K's.  Strawberry batted .259, had 335 HR and 1,000 RBI's with an OPS of .862.  But those stats also remind us of what could have been.  Gooden finished fifth in wins or higher from 1984 - 1990 but never had more than 13 after 1991.  With Strawberry the argument can be made that it was more time that slowed his career down, but had he taken better care of himself, he would have had better results as well.

5. David Thompson
The number one overall pick of the 1975 NBA draft, and the second #1 NBA pick on this list, Thompson was by all accounts Michael Jordan before there was Michael Jordan.  He was an electric player was who more explosive and acrobatic in the NBA than Dr. J.  For his career he averaged 22.7 points per game while averaging between 25.9 and 27.0 his first three seasons.  (Note: his first season was in the ABA, a step down in competition overall from the NBA.)

Guess what?  He suffered from cocaine addiction in the 1970's.  I couldn't find exact details that I believed, but apparently he was pushed down stairs in New York's Studio 54 in 1984, effectively ending his career.  Since I didn't see him play personally, I will rely on Bill Simmons' assessment to summarize his career: "David Thompson was (1) the most underrated superstar of the past thirty-five years and (2) the single biggest NBA tragedy other than Lenny Bias." ("The Book of Basketball," Bill Simmons, page 322)

Over his 592 games Thompsen averaged 22.7/4.1/3.3 and was spectacularly athletic.  If you read Bill Simmons, he doesn't throw around MJ comparisons tirelessly, or at all.  With a Final Four Most Outstanding Player, a Naismith POY Award, and two first team All-NBA honors under his belt with those career averages, and his drug-riddled career is STILL considered to be a tragedy, you know cocaine took a lot off the table from him.

Similarly to Lucas, but not nearly as publicized, Thompsen has gotten his life back together and helps youths learn the game of basketball and life. 

(NOTE: I excluded Len Bias from this list because he reportedly did cocaine only once - the time it killed him.  Whether that is accurate, I will operate under the assumption that it's true.  I don't think singular use qualifies as "addiction."  Our next athlete also claims to not have been addicted to drugs, but he did suffer from multiple uses and therefore is allowed on the list.)

4. Andre Agassi
Confession - I hated Andre Agassi growing up.  I was not a fan of his "image is everything" campaing for one of those camera companies.  At the time (and still to this day, but less adamently) I preferred substance over style, and Pete Sampras was substance-over-style incarnate.  So I had a clear idea in my head of good versus evil in 1990's tennis.

Image is nothing.  Thirst is everything.  Drink Sprite.  Wait, wrong slogan...
 In his 2009 autobiography Agassi admitted to using crystal meth.  We can get into symmantics about whether he was addicted to the drug, and we may never know the truth, but for our purposes I'm actually giving him credit for (1) admitting his use of the drug and (2) his overall career.  We'll call it "substance abuse" rather than "addiction" and move from there.  He ended up with eight grand slam titles and won the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics.  He's currently married to former women's tennis star Steffi Graf and they have two children.  Thankfully for him, his meddling with meth didn't turn into full-blown addiction.

3. Lawrence Taylor
Nine first-team All-Pro seasons.  Three Defensive POY awards.  The 1986 NFL MVP.  In fear of furthering a sports cliche, Lawrence Taylor revolutionized the OLB position in football.  He admitted to using cocaine as early as his second professional season, and he STILL put up unbelievable numbers (132.5 sacks in 13 seasons with the NY Giants).  He was caught using cocaine in 1987 and again in 1988, the culmination of which resulted in a suspension from the NFL.

After retiring from the game, he went into rehab twice in 1995.  There have been some other issues involving prostitution in recent years, but I will refrain from getting into those details.  It should suffice to say that addiction has given LT more than his fair share of difficulies.  I prefer to remember him in happier times.

2. Mickey Mantle
Mickey Mantle was one of the greatest baseball players of all time.  The lefty slugger was hitting 500 career home runs before it was cool (or suddenly easy) to do so.  He won three AL MVP awards (1956-57 and 1962) and captured the triple crown in 1953.  He hit a home run in 1953 in Washington that is officially the longest home run ever recorded.  The Yankees retired his #7.  When Roger Maris was on his way to breaking the single-season home run record, it was The Mick who got all the love from the fans.

But he was also an alcoholic.  Apparently the men in his family died at early ages, and he figured he would get the most out of life.  Well, he lived until he was 63, much longer than he ever expected.  In 1993 he was admitted to the Betty Ford Clinic and received a liver transplant in June 1995.  During that operation the doctors discovered inoperable cancer, and he passed away that August.

Not having grown up ever watching him play in person, I rely on what I hear and read from others.  He was too universally loved to be a fraud, so I take others at their word that he was a genuinely good person.  But even good people have their addictions.  It's up to us to imagine what he could have done on the field had alcoholism not slowed him down.

1. Brett Favre
I remember loving to watch Brett Favre play in the 1990's.  He had fun and it was obvious.  But then evey single sportscaster told us we had to root for him because of how much fun he was having.  And then came all the flip-flopping about whether he was going to retire or not.  Then came the allegations that he took a picture of his penis and sent it to a 25-year-old version of his wife.  And then came JMU graduate and current Buffalo Bill, the pride of Portsmouth, VA...Arthur Moats!

Don't cross the Moats!
Through it all, though, it seems that people have forgotten that Favre almost died in 1996.  As with all football players, he was prescribed pain medication to help him with the bumps and bruises that come from years of football.  Eventually he was taking them from his teammates.  I remember him in an ESPN interview admitting that he asked team doctors for specific drugs by name, and they were flabbergasted that a non-physicians was able to cite them by their full names.  (Not "Vicodin" but "hextajtioandklj-iureajjad-in."  Or something.) 

What Favre has done is special.  When you objectively look past all the drama he generates, he's put up the best numbers of any NFL quarterback.  He has 508 TD's, 6,300 completions on 10,169 attempts, and 71,838 passing yards - all of these being all-time bests.  He was the NFL MVP three consecutive years, which no one had accomplished before or since.  He's so good, his first NFL compeletion was to himself.  Thankfully, though, he survived to play these games.

So there you have it.  Thankfully most of these stories have turned out for the best, to date.  We lost Steve Howe too soon and The Mick has passed away, but the others are still alive and kickin'.  The ability to play sports is one thing, but the ability to live with and survive addictions is another.

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