The world of professional sports is a wild and diverse one, with saints and sinners existing side by side. Drug use and experimentation has been a constant since pro sports began, both on and off the field. In this feature we’ll tell ten amazing stories of pro athletes on drugs, from LSD-tripping baseball pitchers to cocaine-murdered basketball stars.
Dock Ellis, 1970
Dock Ellis was a fascinating figure, an outspoken and experimental pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates with a powerful arm. He also did something that no other baseball player has done – thrown a no-hitter while peaking on LSD.
Ellis dropped the hallucinogen before a 1970 game against the San Diego Padres, believing that the team had the day off. When his girlfriend picked up a newspaper and discovered that not only were the Padres playing but Ellis was scheduled to start, he rushed off to the stadium still feeling the effects of the drug.
Ellis’s pitching was wild as hell that day – he walked eight batters and beaned one – but no batter managed to contact the ball and his no-hitter record stands.
Michael Phelps, 2009
After the 2008 Summer Olympics, Michael Phelps was one of the most famous athletes in the world. The gangly Maryland-born swimmer took home a staggering eight gold medals and was quickly paired with hot ladies and endorsement deals.
Unfortunately, Phelps also got close with wacky weed. In 2009, a photograph of him taking a power bonghit at a University of South Carolina party hit the British tabloids, and the world reacted in horror. Kellogg dropped him from sponsorship and he was fined by the USA Swimming organization.
Considering that weed is legal for personal use in several states now, it’s kind of a shame that this is a big deal – it’s not like he had reefer in his snorkel or anything.
Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, 1979
Cocaine is a hell of a drug. It can make you feel like you’re virtually indestructible, which makes it a great pick for football players. One of the most visible abusers of Colombian marching powder in the late 70s was Dallas Cowboys strongside linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, who already had a reputation for flamboyant antics.
Henderson would keep a liquid inhaler in his pants filled with a mixture of cocaine and water, which he would spray into his mouth throughout the game. Naturally, this made his behavior even more unpredictable, and during a game against the Redskins in 1979 Henderson actually stopped playing for a little while to wave handkerchiefs with the Cowboys logo at the cameras. He was fired from the team the next day.
Bernie Carbo, 1978
One of baseball’s biggest stoners was Bernie Carbo, a designated hitter from Detroit who played on the totally drugged-out Red Sox team of the mid-1970s. Carbo was a real character, traveling with a stuffed gorilla named Mighty Joe Young and once holding up a game against the Yankees for ten minutes so he could find a plug of chewing tobacco that fell out of his mouth.
Naturally, Bernie was bonged out of his gourd for most of his career, including when he hit the three-run homer that helped the Sox tie up the 1975 World Series at 3-3. But the best drug event in Bernie Carbo’s career was in 1978 when new Red Sox ownership hired a detective to find proof of his drug use and after just a day on the job caught him throwing baseballs into the stands for fans in exchange for baggies of marijuana.
Len Bias, 1986
Most of the stories on this list are of the light-hearted variety, because we like to keep things positive. But drugs have a dark side, too, and there’s no sports story that illustrates that quite as well as the story of Len Bias.
The University of Maryland All-American forward was one of the most promising college players of the mid-80s, and his skills won him a spot on the Boston Celtics as the second overall pick in the 1986 draft.
Unfortunately, Bias chose to celebrate his professional career by scoring some cocaine on Washington D.C.’s notorious Montana Avenue. Returning to his dorm room, Bias snorted the coke and immediately began seizing, dying of a cardiac arrhythmia as paramedics arrived.
Bill “Spaceman” Lee, 1970s
When you talk about legendary drugged-out baseball players, you need to talk about Bill “Spaceman” Lee. The left-handed relief pitcher debuted in 1969 for the Red Sox at the height of American drug culture and everything about him was a little off, from his trademark slow-moving “space ball” to threatening to bite an umpire’s ear off at the 1975 World Series.
All of this behavior can be blamed on Lee’s prodigious intake of marijuana. Right after being traded to the Montreal Expos, Lee was fined for admitting to a reporter that he “used” marijuana regularly – he sprinkled it on his buckwheat pancakes, claiming that it made him immune to bus fumes on his 5-mile jog to the stadium! Fans took to Lee’s counterculture personality, showering him with little tinfoil packets of hashish from the bleachers when he took the field. Now that’s gangsta.
Bob Probert, 1989
Yes, even hockey players get messed up with drugs every once in a while. Bob Probert was half of the Detroit Red Wings’ legendary “Bruise Brothers,” a duo of enforcers that terrorized the ice in the 80s and 90s.
Probert racked up penalty minutes like they were going out of style, and one of the things that fueled his aggressiveness was cocaine. In 1989, customs agents at the border between Michigan and Ontario pulled Probert over and discovered 14 grams of cocaine hidden in his underwear.
He was arrested and indefinitely suspended from the NHL. Even after his career ended, Probert couldn’t keep away from the drugs, at one point being busted and Tased by cops while fighting with people about drugs.
Nate Newton, 2001
After you finish a professional sports career, there aren’t that many choices left to you. If you saved your money, you’ll probably be okay, but guess what? Nobody saves their money. We could write a whole ‘nother article about athletes who fell hard after they retired, but a perfect example for this one is NFL right tackle Nate Newton.
Newton, who played for the Dallas Cowboys for over a decade, got out of the football game in 1999 and transitioned into… marijuana smuggler. In 2001, Newton’s van was pulled over in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana and police found a whopping 213 pounds of pot in the back. Five weeks later, another traffic stop in Texas saw cops busting him with another 175 pounds! Needless to say, he went to prison for a long, long time.
Andre Agassi, 1997
Tennis players are notable for being a particularly driven lot. The directness of competition on the court demands constant attention and steely reserve. So nobody was terribly surprised when Andre Agassi copped to doing crystal meth for about a year. Agassi, the eight-time Grand Slam champion nicknamed “The Punisher,” was at a career low in 1997.
A nagging wrist injury caused him to play only 24 games that year, and a friend got him hooked on crystal meth. When he failed a drug test that year, he blamed his assistant, claiming that “Slim” would regularly spike his Coca-Cola with meth and Agassi accidentally drank one. Needless to say, this was total BS, but as an excuse it was enough to fool the Association of Tennis Professionals.
Next: When Sports Go Horribly Wrong
Scot Pollard, 2007
Let’s close this list with a funny story from an athlete everybody thought was on drugs when he actually wasn’t. In March of 2007, the Cleveland Cavaliers were playing the Indiana Pacers in a close contest. Center Scot Pollard, who had just been traded from the Pacers, was sitting the game out on the bench when a TV camera approached him.
Pollard looked straight into the camera’s lens and deadpanned “Hey kids, do drugs.” The camera’s active light wasn’t on, so Pollard thought he wasn’t being filmed and was just doing it to crack up the cameraman. Unfortunately, the light was broken and the broadcast went out to TVs all over the world. The ironic thing? Pollard, a devout Mormon, had never done drugs in his life.