Webster ‘frightened for what future holds’

Corey Webster still runs on the beach, lifts weights at the gym, plays pick-up basketball. Does everything a professional sportsman does – except earn a wage and pull on a uniform. For the next 12 months, Webster – who couples the professional basketballer’s awkward, lean height with an unexpected reticence and mildness that jars with his multiple tattoos – is unemployed. One of New Zealand’s most promising players has become the most unlikely victim of that five-minute moral panic, Kronic. And despite that near-painful shyness, he’s giving his only extended print interview to plead that whatever people may have said – and plenty have – he’s not a drugs cheat; more, as the mother of The Life of Brian’s protagonist declared, “a very naughty boy”. His tale is also one which raises intriguing questions about our sports drug laws. HIS DAD was a professional ballplayer, he was always the best on his junior teams and studied at the sport’s most prolific nursery, Auckland’s Westlake High, so Webster was perhaps destined to be a basketballer. In an affidavit filed to Australia’s Court of Arbitration for Sport before they suspended him for breaching anti-doping regulations, the 22-year-old admitted: “I am frightened for what the future holds … I have no formal academic or trade qualifications and basketball has been my life.” When we talk at his mother’s beachside house in Auckland’s northern suburbs, he adds: “I think ever since I knew what basketball was, I wanted to be a professional basketballer.” Now, unable to play, he talks about hoping to find work painting a mate’s house, doing some carpet-laying with another, and working for a landscaping company while he serves out a 12-month ban imposed last month for failing a drugs test. His only alternative is playing in Japan or the Philippines, in leagues that flout drugs laws.

As a teenager, Webster had a year at Lambuth University in Jackson, Tennessee, on an athletic scholarship scheduled to be worth $100,000 over four years, but in his affidavit, admits he became “extremely homesick”. He returned in 2008 to a development contract with New Zealand’s only professional basketball franchise, the Breakers. Within a year he was in their first team and the national side. The Breakers last month sacked him from his $50,000 a year contract; it’s obvious his biggest desire is to get another chance. Webster was first suspended last year for two months – missing the world championships in Turkey – for smoking cannabis. At the time, he was troubled by significant issues affecting his relationship with his long-term girlfriend. “I knew I was taking it,” he says. “I was at a pretty low point.” Had he smoked much before? He looks sheepish, but doesn’t dodge the question. “In this country … you know, everyone has tried it once or twice, during high school. I had a little bit, just at parties with friends, not excessive, not every day or every weekend. I was growing up and you try different things.” After that suspension, the Breakers imposed a range of internal penalties, including community service and a public apology to a junior development squad which included Webster’s 16-year-old brother Tai, and warned Webster a second drugs offence would mean immediate termination of his contract. He was also given a mentor, senior player Dillon Boucher – a former team-mate and friend of his father, Tony. All seemed well until Webster attended a party in Wellington last April, where one friend was smoking a roll-your-own. Webster asked for a bit, but also asked if there was any cannabis in it and was told there wasn’t. “I smoked a little bit,” he relates, “and 10 minutes later, felt funny, like it had something in it.” On a second inquiry, the friend said it contained Kronic, the soon to be notorious but then little-known “herbal high” on sale at most dairies. “I didn’t know anything about it; didn’t think anything of it,” Webster says. “It wasn’t illegal, so I thought it would be fine.” His lawyer, Andrew McCormick, says: “Some media have said, baloney, how can anyone believe a story like that. But it’s quite clear that he was careless rather than reckless or intentional.”

The party was three nights before Webster flew to Perth with the Breakers to play a vital semifinal. The club seem as angry that he would be partying – he says he drank about six beers – just before an important match as they were about the drugs offence. Two months later, a letter came from Australian authorities saying he had failed a drugs test given after that game. “I was quite shocked,” he murmurs. “I really didn’t know what to think.” He emailed back explaining what he’d taken wasn’t cannabis but Kronic. That test was in April, and Webster played on, winning the Australian title with the Breakers, then a domestic championship with Wellington, until, on August 29, he found he faced charges. He toured Europe with the national team and then on to Australia without, foolishly, telling them or the Breakers – partly, it appears, on the bad advice of a team-mate. “I was quite afraid, shocked, I didn’t want to [tell them],” he says. ON SEPTEMBER 6, he was sent home from Australia when Basketball Australia told Basketball New Zealand on the eve of an Olympics-qualifying match between the two nations, that Webster was awaiting a hearing. At home, the Breakers suspended Webster and found McCormick, who had just successfully run a “no-fault” defence for another basketballer, Sylvester Seay, who claimed he unwittingly ate a cannabis lolly before a drugs test. Again, McCormick tried a “no-fault” – that Webster hadn’t known what he was taking. His Wellington friend – whom the Star-Times agreed not to name – supplied a supporting affidavit. That might have succeeded, but the judicial panel found Webster should have consulted someone after finding out he’d ingested Kronic. In fairness, had he tried to investigate Kronic himself, he would have struggled: sports doping regulations refer only to its crucial ingredient, a compound called JWH018. There is also the argument around whether cannabis (let alone synthetic cannabis), given its wide use and lack of performing-enhancing powers, should be on the anti-doping register. The issue is that sanctioned sports must abide by a list published by the World Anti-Doping Agency – which ties the hands of Drug Free Sport New Zealand, whose chief executive Graeme Steel has talked before about his agency’s unease at cannabis suspensions. Many of the drugs cases New Zealand’s Sports Disputes Tribunal face are cannabis-related: registrar Brent Ellis says of 10 hearings this year, four were for cannabis.

Webster, of course, has lessons to learn. The judge lectured him on his choice of friends. He may seem a tough, street-savvy kid, but McCormick says he’s from a stable home, is shy, polite, lacks self-confidence, is perhaps insecure and his only major failing is a poor choice in friends. “I have to be more aware of my surroundings and the people I am hanging around with. They are good people and good friends but they don’t understand the professional side of things,” agrees Webster, adding that his friends felt guilty about his ban. But he argues he was already mending his ways. “I got used to it, that I couldn’t do all the things they were doing any more … I guess I have got to be even more aware … I can’t really do anything.” The Breakers let Webster use their gym and he describes himself “still a part of their family”; he has submitted a plan for their approval of how he will spend the ban. “It was only fair for them to do what they did. I don’t blame them.” Will this change him? “I hope so,” says McCormick, who spoke to the Star-Times because Webster’s mother, Cherry, a school sports administrator, politely declined. “I wasn’t trying to break the rules or test the system, whatever anyone might think,” Webster says. “It was just a mistake, and everyone makes a mistake. Nobody is perfect.”

via : stuff.co.nz

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