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LeBron James’ celebration makes it official: Marijuana is mainstream in the NBA

It seems like there’s no limit to how high pro sports can go

When LeBron James passed an imaginary blunt to his teammate, did that count as an assist? Was James referring to smoking on that Dillon Brooks pack? And why didn’t the NBA call him for a fragrant foul?

No matter what, the NBA entered a new era at Sunday’s game: Weed is all good.

Marijuana, of course, has been burning in pro sports for decades. For many years, players kept it on the low because they could get suspended, arrested, or blackballed. Then America began to legalize medical and even recreational cannabis use. Pro sports followed, mostly quietly. Leagues know that their athletes influence millions of young people.

Last April, the NBA reached an agreement with the players’ union to officially allow marijuana use. Players are no longer tested for it or penalized for using it. Similar agreements were already in place in pro baseball and hockey. In the NFL, weed has basically been allowed since 2021, when teams began testing players only once per season, at the start of training camp.

So in one sense, what James did in Sunday’s game was just smoke in the wind. During a vintage 37-point performance against the Houston Rockets and his antagonist, Dillon Brooks, James was fouled at the rim on a fast break and missed a lefty layup. After shooting his offending hand with an imaginary pistol, James put two fingers to his lips, puffed out his cheeks, then extended the phantom weed to Christian Wood. For good measure, James then dropped LeBlunt on the hardwood and stomped it out with his sneaker.

At another point, James pantomimed rolling up a fat one, then passed it to teammate Anthony Davis. AD took a puff off the “James Joint” and got back to the business of being an elite athlete. Afterwards, there was no discipline from a league that polices stare-downs, throat slashes, video vixens and what some might call demonstrations of overt masculinity. Maybe NBA commissioner Adam Silver was just in a mellow mood.

(All of this happened as Snoop Dogg trolled the world with an “I’m quitting smoke” social media post that turned out to be an advertising fake-out. “Cali Dro” remains undefeated.)

I doubt an eyebrow was raised among the millions who buy weed as easily as “Broccoli.” But many of us remember when NBA superstar Allen Iverson caught a real case because of chronic. NFL running back Ricky Williams was suspended for a whole season because he didn’t stop “Crumblin’ Erb.” Even current NFL star Travis Kelce took an L, and not the feel-good kind, when he was suspended for a year in college.

So what does it mean when LeBron James, the face of the NBA in Lakers’ purple and gold, shows off some “Purple Swag” and nothing happens? It doesn’t matter that the weed was imaginary. It was a cultural moment that signals a passing of the … torch in America.

You may have noticed that I have more than a passing familiarity with weed language, and might assume that I’m an advocate for the herb. Actually, after a period of heavy indulgence in my twenties, I quit two decades ago. For me, every aspect of life is better without weed, including my hoop game. I think weed is bad for young people. It can cause serious harm to all ages, doctors say. Yes, it helps many pro athletes with pain and recovery, and marijuana is not as bad for them as the prescription drugs or alcohol that have historically been more widely accepted. Well, a missed jumper is not as bad as a turnover – but too much of either will lead to a loss.

But that’s just me. Like it or not, marijuana has been normalized in sports and society, to the point where James’ home state of Ohio just voted to become the 24th state to legalize recreational marijuana. To the point where Kevin Durant smelled like weed during a meeting with Silver, Kelce says 80 percent of the NFL indulges, and Major League Baseball has an official cannabis sponsor.

So when James’ fingers began that familiar twist on Sunday, the message for professional sports was clear: Let the “Good Times” roll.

You also might have detected my not-so-subtle rap references. It’s not a coincidence how weed and hip-hop both took over the mainstream in the past decade or two. They work together like Wiz and Snoop on “Young, Wild and Free.” Hip-hop is far from the only music culture that likes it loud, but I challenge rock, country, or narcocorridos to match rap’s massive marijuana playlist. Today’s NBA arenas are filled with rap beats – and you don’t need to be lit to feel the “I Got 5 On It” bass drop at Golden State Warriors games.

James is not an herb ambassador or a representative of a new drug culture. He’s 38 years old, takes meticulous care of his body, and has a well-known fondness for wine. He has yet to appear on the hit podcast “All the Smoke.” I have no idea if James uses marijuana in any form.

I do know that James is a savvy showman, and a strategic leader. A defining theme of his career has been elaborate handshakes with teammates. Perfecting each greeting requires spending quality time with his guys, and remembering all the details is a demonstration of his particular brand of genius. What James did Sunday was more about having fun, going viral, inside jokes and bonding with his squad than planning to blaze up back at the crib.

And what if he did? These days, it seems like there’s no limit to “How High” pro sports can go.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.