Former Detroit Piston John Salley Advocates For Marijuana Usage In Sports

Jun 13, 2017

Former NBA players Rick Fox, left, and John Salley, right.
Credit Norene / Flickr Creative Commons

John Salley was an original Detroit Pistons "Bad Boy." He helped the team to two championships in 1989 and 1990, and on the court, he embodied the team's blue-collar nickname--playing the role of enforcer and laying his body on the line for rebounds, loose balls and defensive plays.

Following his time in Detroit, he played for four other NBA teams, reeling in another two championship rings on the way. He played a season overseas, as well, and featured in several movies. 

But behind the sprawling six-foot-11-inch frame and gregarious grin that made Salley a fan-favorite, there was a lot of pain. 

Salley, throughout his 14-year playing career, dealt with the stress and physical toll of basketball by using pain pills prescribed by doctors.

Since retirement, Salley has advocated vocally for marijuana as an alternative to help players cope emotionally and physically with the unique rigor of high-intensity sports.

"This is a thing that literally brings peace, calm and healing," Salley said.

While playing, Salley was told to take pill after pill and, at one point, took nine a day for knee pain. Afterwards, he'd apply heat to make sure his knee didn't stiffen up. Just getting in a car was difficult.

He was told to "take it for granted." But now, he has doubts.

"That's the wrong way of treating this wonderful avatar and what we call 'a premier athlete,'" Salley said. "I think teams need to invest more into the thought of [marijuana.] They need to invest more into what's going on and into keeping their players healthy--not just for while you have them, but for the life that comes after."

After his well traveled NBA career, the former "Bad Boy" hit Hollywood, with cameos in Bad Boys and Bad Boys II en route to a highly successful TV career. Salley eventually starred as host of VH1's Basketball Wives.

While he's been successful in his life after basketball, however, Salley has seen alcohol wreck the lives of athletes and former competitors struggling with anxiety. He believes that tolerance of marijuana would reduce alcoholism rates and the ugly side effects.

"You know that liquid courage makes a lot of the problems that have been happening happen," Salley said. "I've never heard of anybody 'D-U-High.' And I've never ever heard of anybody get into a domestic fight--or fights--while they were under the state of cannabis." 

NBA drug policy currently imposes cash penalties and suspensions for players caught with illicit substances on multiple occasions. Testing is administered both randomly and with probable cause.

Now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, J.R. Smith was suspended five games in 2013 as a member of the New York Knicks for his third positive test for marijuana. Center Al Jefferson faced a similar punishment while on the Charlotte Hornets in 2015.

Salley is not the only athlete to come out in favor of relaxed marijuana policies. He's not even the only Piston.

Chauncey Billups, a champion point guard with the 2004 Pistons team, told ESPN that players can get caught up in opioids when they're prohibited from using marijuana, specifically citing former no. 2 draft pick Jay Williams.

"For medicinal use, I think we absolutely need to have that conversation," Billups said in 2016. "The Players Association, they need to talk about that with the NBA, because there's a lot of science behind it... We've been through a ton of injuries."

Billups went on to say that teammates before games would often smoke, and they played better afterwards. He, like Salley, also thought marijuana was less dangerous than alcohol.

"I would rather them [smoke] sometimes than drink," Billups said.

Eight states have currently legalized marijuana for recreational usage, four which house NBA teams.  Players for those squads are subject to the same regulations under league rules.

However, the NBA could potentially shift its stance. In 2014, Commissioner Adam Silver stated the league was more concerned with performance-enhancing supplements than marijuana, and that the league would "adjust with the times."