Sports Cannabis Interviews

Al Harrington, The Viola Takeover

“It starts with all of us sharing our stories. An athlete's tale is only one side of the coin of what’s really going on. The more that people normalize it through their experiences the more the cannabis industry will grow.”

The cannabis industry much like the game of basketball is constantly evolving and growing at a rapid pace.  Retired and active NBA athletes have dominated headlines advocating for plant-based modalities and creating unique brand offerings.  NBA legend, entrepreneur and Founder of Viola Brands Al Harrington is leading the Sports Cannabis movement across North America, changing the game for athlete entrepreneurs and providing an opportunity for individuals of color.

Harrington was selected 25th overall in the ’98 NBA draft, playing 16 seasons for the Indiana Pacers, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Denver Nuggets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards.

Today, former NBA athlete, Al Harrington is making an impact off the court and has created Viola Brands, a cannabis company named after his grandmother and inspired by the profound impact the plant had on her life.  Since its inception, Viola Brands has dominated the cannabis industry and has earned MVP honors from cannabis enthusiasts and connoisseurs across North America.  Harrington and Viola Brands are focused on empowering Black and Brown-owned companies as well as legacy operators by putting a premium on social equity initiatives, education and providing greater employment opportunities.

Shifting the narrative retired NBA Power Forward, Al Harrington joined Jay Morzaria of Sports Cannabis to chat about the Viola takeover and his movement;

Jay Morzaria

At the age of 18, you were drafted into the NBA and played 16 seasons.  What was it about basketball that ultimately hooked you and made you make a career out of it?

Al Harrington

“As they always say, growing up and coming where I come from you only have two options, you have to be good at sports or you have to be able to rap. I was a good dancer but dancing was never going to take me to the next level and sports was always something that I loved to do. I grew up in a complex and in the middle of it, there was just grass. We would play everything from kickball to baseball, football and basketball and I would be dribbling the ball all the time and anywhere I went. My mom was a huge basketball fan and growing up we watched a lot of Knick games. Initially, I wanted to play football but when I had a growth spurt and grew to 6’6, basketball just became something that I loved to do…  I’ve had incredible mentors and guys like Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing that really made me love the game… Once I started playing at a high level and having success at it, I fell in love with it and realized that it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, or at least as long as my body would allow me to do it, which turned out to be a 16 year NBA career.”

J M

When you played in the NBA, the era was different, there was a lot more contact.  What were the prescribed modalities for recovery and relief, and how prevalent was cannabis in the NBA?

Al Harrington

“I think cannabis was prevalent, meaning all the bad boys of the league smoked.  The players’ perceptions of cannabis wasn’t the truth, it was more like; “you’re smoking weed so you can’t be taking your career seriously”… When you think about what was prescribed or what was available to us, it was just for sleeping. It’s not like today with all the new technology, the different machines and all the different things you can use, it was just old school ice.  If you had an injury you learned quickly how to put ice on it…Efficiently…  I laugh about this even with my old trainer and I know I shouldn’t make fun of him, but no matter what happened to you, the first thing he did was check your hips to make sure that you were balanced. Even if you had an eye injury, he would check your hips first…  Back then there just wasn’t a lot of information or technology and we hadn’t seen the innovation that we’re seeing today.  When I was playing, anytime anything didn’t feel right or dealing with an injury the first thing that was recommended was to just throw ice on it… That was the recovery process”

J M

When did you ultimately discover Cannabis and what was your ah-ha moment for recovery and relief?

Al Harrington

“The surgeries are what ultimately ended my career.  It was a botched knee surgery that I had in Denver, Colorado.  It was the toughest injury I had to battle back from because I had Staph Infection and other issues that kept coming up.  I was forced to take pills like Vicodin and other pain meds which didn’t agree with my body, and it was very tough… I didn’t feel good, I wasn’t eating well and eventually was presented with CBD and THC products… At that point and pretty much for the rest of my life, if anything bothers me or I have an issue, I turn to cannabis first.  It’s improved my quality of life tremendously.”

J M

After retiring from the NBA, you played basketball for the BIG3, the first U.S. Pro Sports league to permit the use of cannabis/CBD.  Did you use cannabis/CBD for recovery and relief and where did you find it was the most effective?

Al Harrington

“For me and a lot of the players in the BIG3, at least 97% of the athletes smoke weed and a lot of the times I was providing it to them.  I think it all made us feel better, guys were able to take a little bit more of a risk, meaning that they might have consumed before they took their pregame naps which ultimately made their bodies feel better before a game.  The BIG3 making that announcement during that time was a huge thing for us.  However, at that time guys were retired and I’m not sure they could have used it as a banned substance because most of the guys had already identified that cannabis was helping them..not only for recovery but for dealing and coping with life on a daily basis…if Cannabis wasn’t permitted I’m not sure the league wouldn’t have existed…”

J M

You’ve played an incredible amount of basketball, decades of grinding.  You’re an entrepreneur, advocate and thought leader moving the conversation off the court.  From other athletes we’ve spoken to, just because you’ve stopped playing doesn’t mean the injuries or aches disappear.  How does cannabis help you today?

Al Harrington

“Today it helps me tremendously.  I need a knee replacement, my hips still bother me and from all the wear and tear I also deal with a degenerative back.  For me, I wake up and take CBD supplements which most of the time are in a pill form and sometimes I’ll take droppers which helps get me through the day.  I have a lot of work, interviews and different things to take care of daily and need to stay sharp so I can continue to move forward.  Because of that, I won’t consume any THC products until after 5PM.  After 5PM hits, I get to where I need to be depending on the type of day I’ve had.”

J M

Let’s talk about Viola Brands, you’ve created an incredible company and there’s a special meaning behind the name. Talk to us about your movement, and the reason you named your company Viola?

Al Harrington

“It started many years ago, in Colorado where cannabis was medically available and legal.  I was reading a newspaper article on Cannabis and found it pretty fascinating, learning about people’s stories, and how cannabis has affected them and changed their lives for the better.  After doing a lot of research, there was a moment when my grandmother, who at the time was 79 years old, was visiting and started telling me about everything she was dealing with.  One of the items she highlighted was her Glaucoma.  Initially, I tried to tell her about cannabis and what I’d read, but when she realized what cannabis was, she thought it was funny that I was offering her reefer to make her feel better… The first day it was no, the second day we talked more and then there was a moment where she was in so much pain that she was willing to try anything.  So we tried it.  After an hour and a half, my grandmother was crying because it was the first time she was able to see the words in the bible in over three years.  It was a monumental moment for me and a moment that changed the trajectory of my life… I don’t think if that happened, that I’d be living a bad life, just that I’d probably be coaching in the league right now instead of being an entrepreneur, a trailblazer and breaking the stigma around this magnificent plant.

Her story is what put the air behind my wings, it got us to where we are today and that’s why we named the company after her.  Viola’s her name, it’s our inspiration and we want to continue to honor her.  What I always tell people who are looking at our products is if it’s not good enough to give to my grandmother, I’m not going to put it on a shelf.  Those standards are why we are considered a premium, high-quality cannabis company.  As we build, we want to continue to use our platform to give other people of color an opportunity to make it in this space and be able to benefit from the multi-billion dollar business in front of us.”

J M

I joined you earlier this year in Canada and had an opportunity to learn about some of the new and exciting products your companies bring to the forefront.  How was the experience and what are some of your key takeaways?

Al Harrington

“The great country of Canada. It’s amazing, every time I go there I realize how normal it is to smoke weed.  That’s the type of federal legalization that we need to have to happen here.  People that are mostly affected by it need to have an opportunity to benefit from it and create generational wealth.”



J M

Viola made waves in 2021, splashing into Canada through a strategic partnership with Avicanna Inc.  You’ve entered the market with two products, a disposable pen available in “Bucketz and Grandma’s Pie” as well as a Pre Filled Cartridge available in “Grandma’s Pie” which can be purchased in Canada,  through Shoppers Drug Mart, and the OCS.  Why was it important to be in Canada?

Al Harrington

“At the end of the day we are a brand. We want to be the Nike of cannabis one day. The only way we can do that is by making our brand accessible to consumers across the world. When you think of Canada and its legal market it makes perfect sense. It’s definitely an environment we want to be in. I’ve spent a lot of time in Canada, learning about the industry, rules and regulations around products as well as understanding the production process and how to get it to the shelf.  Despite there being a lot of nuances in that country, it’s given us an invaluable experience that has prepared our team for when the rest of the world legalizes cannabis. And personally for me, being in Canada is important. It’s diverse, it’s multicultural and I feel like the MSO’s and the LP’s represent the culture. We want the Viola brand to inspire people around the world and continue to create opportunities within this industry.”

J M

When can Canadians expect to see the Viola flower in Canada?

Al Harrington

“We’re working on flower but there’s a lot of rules and regulations in Canada. For us, the reason why it was easier to roll out with concentrates is because we have SOPs around our concentrates and vapes.

Flower is different, it’s very nuanced and can make or break reputations. I didn’t want to put out any flower until we could physically taste the product.  Coming to Canada in the last few weeks gave us an opportunity to taste and sample a lot of products as well as strategically pick our partner.  Now that we’ve found our partner, I’m really excited for what’s to come.”

J M

In recent Sports Cannabis News, the NBPA, the National Basketball Players Association announced RE+PLAY as an official Partner. Congratulations, that’s a huge move..

Al Harrington

“Thank you. We’ve been working together on it for years and really appreciate the players association and all the support they’ve given me.  It started with Michele A Roberts, and then was passed on to the new director, Tamika L Tremaglio and her team.  They have been incredibly supportive, open-minded and really wanted to help me figure this out and they have.  Between checking all the boxes, doing due diligence and being patient with me, they’ve been incredible.  Going forward, the sky’s the limit.  It’s a good thing the NBPA is the first to allow this to happen.  It will open doors for players to now have access to CBD and eventually THC products.  This is a monumental step forward, not just for my brand but for the entire sports world.  We’re really excited about getting products into the player’s hands and seeing the results because at the end of the day I know none of their bodies are feeling worse than mine… So, if the creams and topicals work for me, I think it has a good chance to help those guys as well…”

J M

Outside of pushing the needle forward in the cannabis industry you’re also helping empower entrepreneurs and have created the Harrington Institute for Cannabis Education Powered by the Cleveland School of Cannabis.  Why is it important to provide access for young entrepreneurs and focus on pushing for an even playing field for students of color?

Al Harrington

“The reason most people miss out on opportunities is because of the lack of education, the lack of awareness and knowing an opportunity is out there.  I always use the example of when I was a rookie, the first apartment I stayed in was in Jersey City and at the time there were a ton of abandoned buildings available.  If someone had pulled at my coattail and said “Al, those waterfront properties are very valuable,” I might have bought some of those properties that today are all 60-70 foot skyscrapers and apartment buildings.  If I had somebody that could have given me the education for real estate and those types of opportunities maybe I would be owning it.  I look at cannabis the same way, there’s a tremendous opportunity in front of us and we’re still just in the beginning stages of it.  Education is a key player and a lot of people think this train has left the station because of the things they’ve read, but that’s not the case.  This is an essential product, we see the numbers that alcohol generates and I personally feel that cannabis will triple or quadruple that because of all the things the plant can do.  Hemp, which is cannabis as well, has over 2300 use cases.  For me, that means that there are 2300 opportunities for businesses to be created.  We have to remember, it’s fresh and at the heart of it all is education.  Looking ahead I believe education will provide the momentum we need to push forward and show people from our communities that despite what we’ve endured there’s a real opportunity in the Cannabis industry.

The baseline is education, which is going to be key and I’ve learned that because people come up to me from all around the world and tell me that because of my story, because of an interview I gave, it inspired them to get their first job in the cannabis industry or start seeking out licensing… Seeing it firsthand is why I know education is key.”

J M

There’s still a slow adoption of Cannabis across the United States and around the world.  What can we do to normalize the sports cannabis conversation and break the stigma?

Al Harrington

“It starts with all of us sharing our stories.  An athlete’s tale is only one side of the coin of what’s really going on.  The more that people normalize it through their experiences the more the cannabis industry will grow.”

J M

For others following in your footsteps what advice would you offer them?

Al Harrington

“Never give up, find something you’re passionate about and when you do, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.  Take risks, not everything’s going to work, but it will be worth it anyways…”

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