An uncompromising product of 1970s New York street basketball, John Salley rose to become one of the NBA’s most decorated stars, before transitioning into successful careers in media and, more recently, cannabusiness. From Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boy” to budding businessman, Salley explores life from a deeply philosophical perspective not commonly associated with professional athletes.
Brooklyn-born Salley’s career stats require a paragraph unto themselves. The former Georgia Tech standout was the first NBA player to feature in three different championship-winning franchises (the Pistons, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers) and the first to win championships in three different decades as well. Dominating as both a power forward and center, the six-foot 11-inch shot-blocker also played for the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors and in Greece.
“I would like [cannabis] to be legal, and I would like it to not be a Schedule I drug. I would like it to be removed as a drug, period, and be put on as a supplement or just a plant.”
Yet the long-limbed Salley, nicknamed “The Spider,” will forever be synonymous with the back-to-back championship-winning “Bad Boys” Pistons of the late 1980s and early ‘90s—a famously physical, defense-oriented team, which also featured the likes of Dennis Rodman, Adrian Dantley and Isiah Thomas. With a dogged willingness to win at all costs, the Bad Boys “practically led the revolution in unsportsmanlike play in the NBA,” according to FiveThirtyEight.
At the turn of the new millennium, the now Los Angeles-based Salley seamlessly segued into media, including nine years hosting Fox Sport Net’s The Best Damn Sports Show Period and acting roles in both TV and film (appropriately including Bad Boys and Bad Boys II).
An outspoken vegan and animal rights advocate, Salley was also among the first former pro-athletes to openly embrace the medicinal benefits of cannabis. Having first tried cannabis with an NBA teammate after a game in Sacramento, shortly before retiring (“all I remember is stretches in front of the Governor’s Mansion and doing yoga”), he later used the plant as an alternative to opioid painkillers and now makes it the cornerstone of a wellness-centered lifestyle.
Salley has since been involved in various cannabusiness enterprises, including a planned private cannabis club in downtown L.A., and his own company, Deuces, in partnership with his daughter. CULTURE chatted with the affably impassioned Salley as he enjoyed a cannabis-balm massage.
How important are records and statistics to you compared with the pride you take in the style and spirit in which you played the game?
I really don’t worry about personal accolades. Being a professional athlete was what I wanted to be. And the crazy part about even sayin’ that is it’s a team sport, so when somebody breaks down individuals’ stats, it’s amazing that they can do that, because obviously four other guys had to sacrifice for that to happen.
Tell me about the role of your Detroit Pistons teammate Adrian Dantley in your early career. Does any of what you learned from him still impact your life today?
A.D. was, literally, my teacher . . . I called him Teacher and we still call him Teacher. The way I eat—I became a vegan after the thought process that Adrian taught me . . . I’m completely into yoga; I completely moved into that thought process. [It] all started with Teacher.
The Pistons had an amazing run at the turn of the ’90s, when the team boasted some truly larger-than-life players like Dennis Rodman. What are your abiding memories of that era?
I remember how people treated us. I remember how people adored us. How the city [of Detroit], was . . . y’know, crack was huge in the city around that time, in 1996 on up. No jobs; there was despair. But us winning changed the whole attitude of everybody in the city.
“If I understood cannabis when I was playing, I’d probably have played into my late 40s.”
So it wasn’t just a sporting thing? This was also a cultural and societal impact that you brought to that city.
Yes. The whole city changed. We changed it. Even when we lost in 1988, we had a parade!
If that same “Bad Boys” team was playing today, how different might game officials’ reaction be to your very physical, defense-oriented style of play?
Part of the reason most of the rules are intact is because of us. So the breakaway foul—when a guy’s going to the basket, you can’t foul him from behind. You used to be able to foul him from behind. Hand-checking—they got rid of that. Because you remember our defense was so big, [opponents] weren’t scoring a lot . . . so our style of hard-grit-playing body-basketball is no longer allowed.
What’s more—you didn’t just win championships; you changed the game forever.
We changed the way everything was looked at. And not only did we do it once, we did it back-to-back—and they still didn’t have our jerseys [for sale] all around the country.
You’ve played alongside three of basketball’s all-time greats: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Who was the greatest?
Isaiah Thomas! Because he was six-one and did all the things like guys of six-six and above. But I think Michael Jordan is by far the best player of his era; of our era.
You briefly played professional basketball overseas, with Greek club Panathinaikos. How different was the game over there?
I loved it . . . Some of the places in Greece that we would go into were—the gyms were, y’know, not on par of a lot of places, but I loved the grit. I’ve played on the streets of New York, so seeing that in Greece wasn’t so bad.
You were a longtime host of The Best Damn Sports Show Period. How did that experience change the opinion you held of TV sports pundits while you were on the other end of that equation, as a player?
It changed my thought process when, for nine years, I saw the same problems over and over and over with different names on ‘em. The negative and how they enhanced it—and the positive was done in a package that we might show on Sunday. But the negative was being played night-in and night-out . . . And I realized that they were doing just what the news did—perpetuating the negative and making news out of it.
What’s more nerve-wracking: Appearing on TV as a host or on court as a pro-basketball player?
Going on court as a pro player. I control the microphone, and I know what the camera is doing. I’ve rehearsed it, and it’s going to be very close to rehearsal. And, you know, everything [in TV] is timed—in a NBA game it feels like time never ends!
You’re an outspoken vegan and opposed to factory farming. Why are these causes so important to you?
They’re important to me personally because the body does not work well on animal fat, [and] because I think it really makes no sense that something has to die in order for me to live. And, y’know, what’s the difference: People say they love animals, but they eat ‘em. That’s not the way of being.
When you’re talking about factory farming, you’re talking about plantations . . . In this case, the way they treat their beast is very similar, in a negative way, as the way they were treating their slave. And at one time they used to consider us farm animals. Can you imagine? People used to literally say we were subhuman?
If you believe in God, the most important thing is life. He said “thou shalt not kill.” And I can prove to you that we don’t need to live on animal products . . . If an ox only eats grass but everybody wants to be as strong as an ox, eat what the ox eats!
What do you feel veganism has done for your health and fitness?
I am 252 pounds. When I played, I was 253 pounds. I’m now 53 years old. I can still fit clothes that I wore in the ‘80s.
I think eating is a sign of self-respect. What you put in your body shows respect for yourself.
You were one of the first athletes to extol the virtues of cannabis, and you’ve spoken about the medical benefits of cannabis since your retirement. Tell me about that.
If I understood cannabis when I was playing, I’d probably have played into my late 40s. Right now, no arthritis . . . My liver and kidney are doing well. The pains that I do have—I’ve got two torn meniscus, and my shoulder ligaments are torn—but I’m letting ‘em heal by using certain herbs that I take along with making sure enough oxygen and CBDs get to that area to help me heal.
“Look at most of the problems that happen in the NFL, with DUIs . . . When you smoke weed, it doesn’t give you the courage to jump up and say ‘I wanna go drivin’ fast!’ You smoke weed and chill-out.”
When did you start using cannabis medicinally, and why?
I had my feet operated on in 2002, and they put me on opioid [painkillers]. And I’m trying to do The Best Damn Sports Show, [in] 2003, and I can’t do it. I can’t do it because I literally am, like, two minutes late on answering. And this doctor said “I can give you medical marijuana” . . . and I never looked back.
At present, how do you prefer to medicate? It seems like you’ve tried cannabis in many forms.
I smoke out of a water bong, personally. I have a product coming out called Deuces. I started it with my daughter, Tyla, and was like, “this is the business of our family now, so you might as well learn it as I’m learning it.”
What is Deuces going to make? What is the nature of the business?
We’re a brand . . . There’s a lot of CBD products, and there’s a lot of THC products. The CBD products are, like, spray-relief—spray it on your knee, [it] helps with your arthritis; helps with your pain, moving lactic acid out of your body.
Are there any other cannabis-related business ventures that you’re involved in?
Besides developing on my own, I go to different growers that grow different strains for me and make my own product . . . In Michigan, I have growers that I’m associated with and manufacturers of my product in Colorado, Oregon, Nevada and here in California.
As well as an advocate for medical cannabis use, you’ve also encouraged reform to cannabis legislation. How would you like to see cannabis laws changed in this country?
One, I would like [cannabis] to be legal, and I would like it to not be a Schedule I drug. I would like it to be removed as a drug, period, and be put on as a supplement or just a plant.
A large amount of black men that are in jail are [there] because of some relation with some drug—or considered drug, marijuana . . . One of my friends is in jail for allegedly, not proven, allegedly transferring marijuana. But when he gets out, he won’t be allowed to be in this business. So a lot of these black people who pioneered the business won’t be allowed to benefit from it.
Do you feel that this administration will be good or bad for cannabusiness?
The lobbyists are strong in the business of pharmaceuticals. But if we can get to Donald Trump and you start talking about [cannabis] business and how much comes back in taxes and how much people are making—once he hears that story, he can change the larger perception and help this business grow.
Is the risk of addiction to prescription painkillers a major issue in your cannabis advocacy?
Yeah. I mean, I was popping six to nine Advil a day: When I woke up, just so I can get to practice; before practice; and then after my nap. So, yeah, that was an addiction.
What is your stance on cannabis use in professional sports?
The crazy thing is, I love [National Football League] Commissioner Goodell, but he stated complete falsehoods and old data. He has said, “it’s addictive”—it’s not addictive” . . . Look at most of the problems that happen in the NFL, with DUIs, driving under the influence. When you smoke weed, it doesn’t give you the courage to jump up and say “I wanna go drivin’ fast!” You smoke weed and chill-out.