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Looking back: The time a Hawks’ All-Star’s public addiction led to a trade for Dominique Wilkins

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A story re-told from a 1983 New York Times feature on an active NBA player opening up about his cocaine addiction.

Atlanta Hawks v Washington Bullets Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

If you’re a basketball fan under the age of 25 and have been keeping up with “The Last Dance” miniseries on the 1998 Chicago Bulls, then you might have discovered the NBA was a different league in the early-to-mid-80s. In the first half of the series, Michael Jordan’s story of walking into a teammate’s hotel room filled with drugs and women as a shocked rookie and Phil Jackson’s use of acid while being a professional athlete were the talks of the timeline when the stories debuted on air. This was before the clip of Jordan and Pippen enjoying a beer after a game aired, a clip where Jordan downplayed how bad the duo looked because players smoked cigarettes in the locker room at halftime when he first entered the league.

And of course, the many stories that come with Dennis Rodman, headlined by his midseason vacation to Las Vegas with his then-girlfriend Carmen Electra.

One of the Atlanta Hawks’ most notable bouts with drug use came in the late 1970s with John Drew. Drew made two trips to the NBA All-Star Game while playing for the Hawks, including one while he was battling cocaine addiction.

According to a New York Times feature published in February 1983, Drew snorted cocaine for the first time in Portland during the 1977-78 season. It was his fourth year in the league, and he averaged of 23.2 points, while shooting 48% from the field, 7.9 rebounds, two assists and 1.7 steals in 70 contests. He began cooking cocaine to its purest form two years later, around the time he made his second All-Star appearance in the 1979-80.

“I tried something, and liked it,’’ Drew said in the feature. ‘’And by liking it, it almost destroyed me.’’

The Hawks sent Drew to a 28-day detoxification program in South Carolina three times, according to the feature. He said he began not enjoying anything in his life, including basketball and getting high. He denied having an addiction, and he thought the problem came from being in Atlanta, so he asked for a trade.

In September 1982, the Hawks honored that request and traded him, along with Freeman Williams and cash considerations, to the Utah Jazz for the No. 3 pick that year, Dominique Wilkins.

At the beginning of his first season in Utah, former Jazz coach Frank Layden had a meeting with Drew to confront the veteran about his addiction. Less than two hours later, Drew was on a flight heading to Baltimore for an “intensive, eight-week detoxification treatment.” He played 44 games that season, and averaged 21.2 points, while shooting 47% from the field, 5.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists. He often attended alcoholic anonymous meetings after practices that season in team apparel.

In the feature, Drew said many other players dealt with the same struggles.

“‘I think there’s a problem,’’ Drew said in the story. ‘’Now, I’m not talking about the league, or anybody, because I think they’re doing the best they can. But if something’s not done, someone’s gonna get into a lot of trouble, possibly get hurt. A lot of players won’t be as lucky as I was.’’

Drew’s quote morbidly foreshadowed perhaps the league’s most notable tragedy involving the addiction. In 1986, Boston Celtics’ second-overall draft pick Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose two days after the draft.

Drew played in 19 games during the 1984-85 season and averaged a career-low 16.2 points, while shooting 41% from the field, in what was his last season with the Jazz. In January 1986, the NBA banned Drew after he entered a hospital in Salt Lake City. The league ruled the trip his third stop to a drug-treatment center, which allowed the league to ban him. In December 1986, the then-32-year-old bought less than $100 worth of cocaine from an undercover cop in Fulton County. The year prior, officials arrested Drew at his Atlanta home for selling about $750 worth of cocaine to an undercover agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Drew has shied away from media requests in recent years, as former AL.com reporter Josh Bean noted in 2010. At the time of Bean’s story, Drew lived in Houston and drove a cab. He is now 65 years old.

Drew’s name has been brought up within recent years regarding Hawks history. This past season, Trae Young became the first Hawk to score 25-or-more points three times in a season in the month of October since Drew did it in 1979. Young was the first Hawks rookie to score more than 35 points in a game since Drew did it in 1975. Young also passed Drew for second all-time on the rookie scoring list. When the Hawks sent four players to New York for the 2015 All-Star Game, the NBA noted when the franchise sent three players to the exhibition in 1980. Drew, Eddie Johnson and Dan Roundfield represented Atlanta in the game.