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gary washburn | sunday basketball notes

Al Harrington isn’t just blowing smoke about cannabis business venture

Al Harrington's long NBA career offered him a different take on how society sees marijuana and cannabis.
Al Harrington's long NBA career offered him a different take on how society sees marijuana and cannabis.STEVE C. MITCHELL/AFP via Getty Images

Al Harrington dabbled in cannabis during his 16-year NBA career; he said it was more of a recreational thing. He didn’t realize the impact or the influence of medicinal use until 2011, when he had a conversation with his ailing grandmother.

She was suffering from glaucoma, and she complained to Harrington about the intense pain. Harrington said he had been reading about how cannabis served as a successful salve. His grandmother asked what cannabis was.

“I told her it was marijuana, weed,” he said. “And she said, ‘Reefer? There’s no way reefer is going to help me with my glaucoma.’ ”

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Harrington tried to persuade her it wasn’t the reefer that Cheech and Chong were smoking in the 1970s. It was medically prescribed.

The next day, she complained again about her pain, and Harrington implored her to try prescribed cannabis. Harrington was able to acquire a strain, vaporize it, and then had his grandmother try it in the garage.

Harrington, whose Nuggets were playing a game that night, took a nap, and then decided to check on his grandmother.

“Grandma, how you feeling?” he asked. His grandmother was in tears.

“I’m healed,” she said. “You know I haven’t been able to read the words in my Bible for three years.”

“Obviously, it was at that point where I changed the way I thought about cannabis,” Harrington said. “I’m from Orange, N.J. I grew up in the whole war on drugs and I was taught the fiend on the corner got there because he smoked weed. I grew up through stop-and-frisk, so I seen some of the older kids in the neighborhood get locked up for having nickel [$5] bags of weed on them. So it was something I was completely afraid of.

“But after seeing it help [my grandmother], it put me in mode to educate myself, and then I realized that cannabis can help so many people.”

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So in the five years following his NBA career, Harrington has developed Viola Brands, a cannabis-based business designed to not only sell legal, medically prescribed products, but funnel their profits into low-income communities, as well as create jobs for those from underrepresented communities.

“I realized all the benefits of cannabis that can help other people, kids who suffer from epilepsy and seizures, HIV and cancer patients with quality-of-life issues,” he said. “That’s what inspired me to get into the industry. I started in Colorado [where marijuana is legal] and eventually figured out what I was doing, figuring out the business.”

Harrington essentially went back to school, studying the effects of cannabis on the body, understanding what works for particular ailments, and the scientific impact of the use. It wasn’t just trying to take advantage of a flourishing market that is becoming more widely accepted. Harrington wanted to become an expert.

“People think the only way you could use cannabis is through smoking it,” he said. “That’s not true anymore. We have sprays, we have roll-ons, we have topicals, we have edibles. We have all these different ways, especially athletes, to be able to recover and to be able to deal with inflammation. You don’t have to actually smoke the plant anymore to get those benefits, and that’s part of the education process.

“Just because the league says we’re not going to test for marijuana anymore doesn’t mean your favorite player is going to be sitting on the couch with a bong. That just means he has an alternative way to medicate himself over the opioids and different things they’ve been giving us for years.”

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Harrington even disputes that marijuana or cannabis is a drug.

“A drug is something that you could actually die from,” he said. “We could smoke a room full of pot and we will wake up the next morning, and we could take pills from one of these prescription drugs that one of these trainers give you and we may never see you again.

“Think about all the other things we have access legally to that are dangerous. Alcohol. Prescription drugs. You talk about addiction, people abuse food. Food is not illegal. People have different issues. But for us to have cannabis in the same category as crack cocaine, heroin, all these different things that if you take too much of it, you’re dead. But cannabis, there’s been no reported death.”

So the ultimate question for Harrington, and other former players, such as Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, who admitted they used cannabis during their careers to alleviate pain, is whether the NBA is considering changing its stance on marijuana as a banned substance.

Barnes and Jackson said commissioner Adam Silver has been more open to more lenient marijuana restrictions. Harrington said it’s a process.

“I think he’s definitely coming around to it,” Harrington said. “There’s still some education and information that he’s still looking for, which I think is out there. They’re just not respecting where it’s coming from. Like if it’s coming from a cannabis company, that means it’s null and void. And then you’re asking for it to come from a federal testing institution, which is illegal, the feds can’t test it. So it’s like one of those things, where it’s like playing games.”

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Harrington also added he doesn’t think the NBA putting off random drug testing during this coronavirus hiatus is spurred by a more open marijuana stance. He believes the NBA just doesn’t want to send drug testers to the homes of players, or the team practice facility, and risk more social interaction.

One of Harrington’s biggest obstacles has been legitimizing that his stance on marijuana and cannabis is based on education, not just the desire to use it. Building a business that has raised $16 million in funding is proof that Harrington is serious, but he understands there will be doubters until they are educated.

Meanwhile, before his death, former commissioner David Stern told Harrington during a podcast that marijuana probably should be taken off the banned-substance list.

“I’ve been doing this for nine years and I’ve only had two people come at me like that, thinking I just wanted to smoke weed,” he said. “One was a cab driver and, by the time I got out the cab, he was saying, ‘OK, I gotta look at this differently because everything you’re telling me is not factual.’ Hopefully I encouraged him to go read up on it and see what I was telling him was the truth.”

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GETTING IN TUNE

Conley was finding a groove

The Jazz are currently 41-23 in are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
The Jazz are currently 41-23 in are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.Duane Burleson/Associated Press

It’s been a more-difficult-than-expected transition for Mike Conley to Utah. He was acquired in an offseason trade after 12 years with the Memphis Grizzlies to become a stabilizer at point guard, the veteran floor leader the Jazz were seeking.

Beset by injuries and poor shooting, Conley struggled through January, but finally returned to form just before the suspension of the season. In his last 13 games, Conley averaged 16.5 points, 4.9 assists, and 44.4 percent shooting from the 3-point line.

Utah coach Quin Snyder was quite protective of Conley and the perception he’s been a bust.

“Is there something that makes someone think it’s not sustainable?” Snyder said. “This is who he is and I say that trying to make the point more than anything that Mike, the early part of the season, everything from moving the family to a new city to a new uniform. He had a tribute video played for him when he was in Memphis. There were so many things that were new to him, and then as he’s beginning to kind of get comfortable, he gets hurt.

“Then he comes back from that and starts to find a groove again and goes out again. The work that he put in physically to get himself in a good place is starting to show, and even then when you come back, the first minutes restriction he had was 12 minutes. It’s hard to do a lot in 12 minutes, especially for a guy that’s good at letting the game come to him.”

Snyder said he told Conley, 32, to just relax and not worry about the critics who believe he is the reason why the Jazz are fourth in the Western Conference playoff race, one game ahead of the Thunder and Rockets.

“He’s just not going to force himself on a game, and he’s begun to see opportunities in how we play and really, more importantly, who he’s playing with,” Snyder said. “He’s not in a position where he has to show anybody anything.”

During a recent huddle after practice, Conley told his teammates to chant, “Have fun!” Snyder thought that was a turning point in his season.

“I know he’s gonna compete. If that means you’re in a good place, if you’re out there having fun and being instinctive, then that’s what I want and that’s what we’re seeing,” Snyder said. “It’s something that he knows, but part of it, it’s fun when you play well, too. When you’re thinking about overcoming certain things, that’s when you really start to settle in. I think that’s just really happened right before th break.”

The Jazz will have their share of issues to address once the season resumes because of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell’s contraction of the coronavirus. But if the season resumes, Conley could become key to their playoff success.

“I don’t know why we’ve had a narrative,” Snyder said. “The guy’s been banged up. He’s on a new team. He’s got two kids and he just moved to Salt Lake and he’s got a new number, got a new jersey, got a new time zone and a new altitude. Just let him play.

"I don’t think I need to defend Mike. He’s shown what he can do in the league and the less he thinks about what anyone expects of him, don’t have expectations, just play.”

ETC.

Cavaliers excited by Sexton’s emergence

Collin Sexton is one of the lone bright spots for the Cavalier's this season. He's averaging 20.8 points per game.
Collin Sexton is one of the lone bright spots for the Cavalier's this season. He's averaging 20.8 points per game.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Before the season was suspended, second-year Cleveland guard Collin Sexton was on a tear. In his 11 games after the All-Star break, he averaged 25.5 points (including a career-high 41 against the Celtics) with 4.2 assists and 43.1 percent shooting from the 3-point line.

He has emerged as the face of the post-LeBron James Cavaliers, and newly signed coach J.B. Bickerstaff believes he can become a superstar.

“He’s got his own like mind when it comes to [stardom] and it’s at a place that’s different than what I’ve seen other young players have,” Bickerstaff said. “His approach, his routine, the way he takes care of his body, the way he takes care of his game. That’s where he puts all of his focus into and it’s almost a singular-minded type thing.

"I don’t know what people are saying, but we’re lucky to be able to watch him every day and have a guy you do not have to worry about him being ready, you just know that every single day he’s going to be prepared for whatever you need him to do.”

Sexton, a speedy guard from Alabama, averaged nearly 17 points per game as a rookie. But he went through some early-season struggles in 2019-20, especially from the 3-point line, before turning it on in January. He has since turned himself into a multidimensional scoring threat.

“Just the idea of what he’s able to do every night, that’s hard,” Bickerstaff said. “People can say what they want to, but how many guys can go out and get 20 every night in this league? There’s not many of them. There’s guys who show flashes of it. And in those same games, how many of them are available for all 82? It’s different, what he’s doing isn’t common in the NBA by any means, and that should be respected.

“So I don’t know what all the negative reactions are. I don’t see the purpose of them, and truthfully, who cares? He’s doing something special and we should all be proud of him.”

The Cavaliers are 19-46, but the positive was that Bickerstaff, who replaced John Beilein, has provided stability. In the early stages of a major rebuild, they hope Sexton is the centerpiece.

“Being able to have that underdog mentality all the time when you feel like your back’s against the wall and you have to scrap and you have to outwork your competitors,” Bickerstaff said. “That’s the kind of attitude that we want to embrace.

"When we become the team that we feel we’re going to become, you still have to have that mentality. You don’t even want to get to a place where you’re comfortable. This gives us an opportunity to even stretch that, but to build that foundation of who we are.”

Layups

NBA players aren’t allowed to practice or enter the team’s practice facilities during the quarantine, and have been advised not to leave their NBA cities, meaning there will likely be some very rusty players when, or if, the season resumes. The NBA is going to have to give teams at least a week of practice before playing again. And it’s pretty apparent the NBA will have to wipe out the rest of the regular season unless the league wants to push the season back to August … So the question is what happens to the season in relation to the Tokyo Olympics that are scheduled to begin July 24? To get current NBA players to play for Team USA was already going to be tight. Let’s say, for example, the NBA Finals ended June 15 with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Khris Middleton involved. All of the candidates would have to head to Las Vegas for training camp, and then team selection. What happens if the NBA decides to continue the season into the summer? Would Team USA field from non-playoff teams or from the G-League? If Team USA fields a team that lacks NBA superstars, there is a major risk of losing the gold medal for the first time since 2004 . . . Meanwhile, the WNBA and Big3 are planning to go through with their summer seasons, with the Big3 looking to play a weekend tournament with quarantined players to provide some type of entertainment . . . Speaking of the Big3, stalwarts Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington are retiring from the league, while the Big3 added former Grizzlies standout Zach Randolph. As for former Celtic Brian Scalabrine, he will return for a fourth season with the BallHogs, who have perennially been one of the league’s worst teams. Rumor has it that if the BallHogs again fail to reach the playoffs, they could be eliminated from the league, with a new team created. The Big3 opened its league to players who are 22, meaning the talent will be exponentially higher than in years past.

Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.