When I think of cigarette smoking in the NBA, without a doubt, the first person who comes to mind is the gregarious, beloved Serb: Vlade Divac. Even your casual NBA fan most likely recalls hearing the tales: When he came into the league — not in the ’50s, when the harrowing health concerns were not yet known in full, but in the D.A.R.E.-era ’90s — Divac used to rip butts. At halftime. In the locker room.
Why do we care if this is true? Simply put, there’s a certain romantic insanity to the idea. Here’s a man tasked with consistent Herculean physical battles, surrounded by peak athletic forms, and yet he is louche enough to willingly ingest a product he knows can only debilitate his body and talented enough for that to not even matter.
Weighed against today’s climate — in which rapid and complex nutritional and physiological advances have combined to extend careers years and years past their once-natural end points — the contrast is even starker. We have Ray Allen treating his body as not only a temple but, like, the First Temple. We have Divac — purportedly — smoking cigs at halftime in the locker room. Wonderfully, the same league gives us both.
These days, Divac is a globe-trotting humanitarian who occasionally does his fund-raising by the manner of half-court shots.
I reached out: Does Vlade want to talk about cigarettes? And I was politely rebuffed. “Vlade rarely smoked while playing,” a rep for the Ana and Vlade Divac Foundation explained via email. “It has been more of a rumor than true.”
Fair or not, Eastern European players have long been automatically hit with the smoker tag. In 2003, when Sports Illustrated profiled a pre-bust Darko Milicic, then living in “the remote Serbian industrial town of Vrsac,” it found his conditions dire and used that stereotype to make its point: “Until last month, when his club rewarded him with a new two-bedroom apartment, Milicic had been sleeping on a pullout couch in a small studio with a space heater at his feet. While LeBron James received a $50,000 Hummer for his 18th birthday … [Milicic] is making $20,000 this season for playing against grown men with two-day stubble and cigarette breath.”1 There’s just an assumption there, mildly xenophobic in nature: Those crafty Euros, from those far-flung, unpronounceable towns? Oh, they sure do like cigs with their morning vodka.
From the same story: “‘He has the makings of the most dominant center in Europe since Arvydas Sabonis,’ says an NBA scout who isn’t sure that James should be picked ahead of Milicic.” Presumably, said scout is still fist-pumping to himself every morning that he chose to stay anonymous.
Does that mean Divac didn’t smoke? No, of course Divac smoked! Here he is, in 2001, downplaying the habit to Dan Patrick in ESPN The Magazine.
DP: Are you still a smoker?
DP: You were a smoker.
DP: How many packs a day would you go through?
VD: Not even one. Just 10 cigarettes a day.
DP: And when did you realize that maybe I shouldn’t be smoking?
VD: When I came to the NBA, I tried to improve.
DP: Your health.
VD: No, my game … health, too, but the game was on my mind.
DP: Well, the NBA’s got to be happy that you would be smoking cigarettes as opposed to something else, like everybody else does in the league.
VD: Well, it’s all the same thing — it’s all bad things, you know. Nobody’s perfect …
Still, when it comes to smoking at halftime, Divac is not talking. Now, if any of his old teammates or coaches want to get in touch — anonymously, if need be — I’ll be here. What say you, Nick Van Exel? Care to chime in, Anthony Mason? Cedric? Cedric Ceballos? Always good to hear from you, Ced!
Anyway, who else used to light a few squares up?2 I asked Boston Globe legend Bob Ryan the question; he told me: “I don’t recall anyone smoking when I covered the Celtics for the last time from 1986-88.” Grantland’s Charlie Pierce gave me a few names: “A lot of the old guys were real chimneys. Dave DeBusschere of the Knicks is one I remember. [Bob] Cousy, too. [John] Havlicek used to sneak them, as I recall.” (Also: “DeBusschere used to down a six-pack of beer after every game without ever taking the rings off the cans.”) Ryan disagrees: “Havlicek? Absolutely not. Don Nelson, Jo Jo White were the big smokers when I covered. And Tommy Heinsohn was a huuuuuge smoker.”
Michael Jordan always gets pointed to, but he doesn’t apply. Jordan smoked cigars, celebratory cigars, when he was celebrating, which was often.
It’s not too hard to verify. Here’s Heinsohn celebrating some title or another, with Hondo pouring champagne on his head, and Heinsohn smiling, making sure his cig stays dry.
Cousy’s habit appears to be on the record as well. “MORE SCIENTISTS AND EDUCATORS SMOKE KENT with the Micronite Filter than any other cigarette,” declares a bit of classic advertising. “‘Kent is my favorite, too,’ says BOB COUSY, famous ALL-STAR guard of the Boston Celtics.”
“All of us were looking to scrounge every dollar we could those days,” Cousy tells me, in that inimitable accent, from his home in Florida. “Nowadays, the high-profile jock, for a national ad, will get a million bucks probably. I was getting a thousand dollars. Kent cigarettes came around. We didn’t have agents. A guy called me. I said ‘fine,’ and I did the ad. Then I came to my senses. The ad came out and I said to myself, ‘This is not an image I wanna be associated with.’ So I contacted the guy and told him my feelings. I said, ‘I would just as soon return the money — let’s shake hands and forget the whole thing.’ We had, I guess, a good relationship, and they took the ad back.
“We were all ghetto kids, scrounging for everything we could. When someone offered you a thousand dollars to pose, you jumped at it without giving it a lot of thought. I simply made a mistake in judgment. I didn’t wanna be telling kids to smoke. Even in those days, early ’50s, we were aware that smoking ciggies wasn’t the best thing for you. Anyway, that’s the only time in my career I ever gave money back.”
So was Kent your brand?
“I didn’t smoke,” he almost shouts. “I was a nonsmoker. I eventually smoked cigars for 20 years. One of the many bad habits I picked up from Arnold [“Red”] Auerbach. He and I used to go to Europe together, so I had to protect myself and start smoking those damn things myself. Otherwise I’d inhale his smoke. But I never smoked cigarettes. When we were kids we didn’t have money to buy anything. Damn cigarettes were too expensive. Other than drinking a lot of beer, which we picked up in college — that was the extent of our vices. We did like girls, I think. Although it being so long, I can’t rely on my memory for that either.”
What about Tommy?
“Oh dear. Tommy. I used to say to Tommy, ‘If you only moved as fast on the court as you do at halftime, you’d be all-world.’ From the time we get off the floor — from the moment that horn blew — he was zip. He’d be a flash. He’d run back to the locker room so he could light up. And Auerbach would already be polluting it with his cigar as well. We’d look at each other and listen to Arnold’s words through this cloud of smoke that Tommy and Arnold had created.”
We talk a bit longer, about how much things have changed in the interest of maintaining good health: the armies of trainers that travel with each team, the breadth of fitness knowledge now available. “In the ’50s and ’60s, they were concerned with keeping our heads above water and hopefully not losing too much money,” he says. “You were supposed to come in shape and stay in shape, and they ran your ass for 10 days and then the season would start and that would be it. We didn’t have a trainer that went on the road with us. Poor Auerbach had to tape ankles a lot of the time.”
He can’t help but laugh. The blistering pace, the freakish athleticism, and the transformation of the game that goes along with all of that has also meant one no-so-great thing: the kind of injuries you’d never suffer back when cigarette smoke hung so thick you could barely see your own coach. “I never heard of an ACL — literally, the 13 years I played, I never heard of an ACL,” Cousy says. “The only thing we dealt with were sprained ankles and charley horses.”
Returning to the modern-day NBA, there’s little to go on. A tossed-off mention in a hoops forum that Charles Barkley used to smoke certainly sounds feasible enough, but it leads to nothing other than the discovery of this photo:
To be sure, you may need a cigarette after looking at that, but there’s nothing to suggest Barkley was a cigarette dude.
In 2013, a Chicago Tribune article described Brad Miller as “a Midwestern country boy who has his own hunting show and is fluent in chewing tobacco.” In 2012, Arvydas Sabonis survived a heart attack and supposedly had this incredible thing to say: “The doctors told me, ‘You can’t smoke, you can’t drink, you can’t play basketball.’ So of the things I like, only sex is left.”
And in 2008, a report surfaced from an NBA fan in China who spotted shamed league obscurity Keith Closs in a “crappy Nanjing nightclub” wearing a Mavs jersey with his name on the back. (Closs never played for the Mavs.) The fan recalls:
He said the squad he was with was touring around China playing teams in various cities. I didn’t really get a chance to talk to him for more than a minute. He seemed pretty detached and uninterested and just ended up sitting down puffing on cigs the whole night like Al Pacino in Godfather II.
(There’s also a certain photo, from the true depths of the Internet, that clearly depicts former Golden State Warrior Andris Biedrins enjoying a cigarette. We will not be linking to it here, nor ever speaking of it again.)
But none of these anecdotes have any actual ballplayers smoking anywhere near actual basketball activity. For that, we must turn to a certain once-mustachioed man of some ill repute. From a 2007-era post on the Seattle Times’s Sonics Blog:
[Dwayne] Casey traveled to China with Blazers guard/forward Martell Webster and former Gonzaga star Adam Morrison (Charlotte) for an Adidas camp and both Webster and Casey had some funny stories about Morrison. My favorite was that Morrison is still into the chew (tobacco), but would also take smoke breaks with the Chinese outside the facility. They formed a semi-circle around the 6-foot-9 NBA player puffing away. How Morrison does it and still plays, nobody knows — including Casey and Webster.
It’s hard to imagine a puffing NBA player in the league today. But despite how far we’ve come, surely, somewhere, in the deep recesses of an arena, on some cold winter night, there’s a guy untucking his jersey and surreptitiously lighting up a smoke. The rest of the league might be better off listening to the wise words of the Couz, though. Cigarettes? Damn things are too expensive. Better stick to beer.