A form of insanityis spreading through the NBA like a virus, threatening to infect every team inthe league. Alarmingly, its carriers, pouting prima donnas who commit the mostoutrageous acts of rebellion, include some of the league's younger stars. Thereis a new outbreak nearly every week, with yet another player skipping practice,refusing his coach's orders to go into a game, demanding a trade or findingsome new and creative way to act unprofessionally. Fines are levied,suspensions imposed, but such measures are nothing in the face of the epidemic.The lunacy is contagious. Madness reigns.
How absurd has itbecome? Consider New Jersey Net guard Rex Walters's thumbnail sketch of histeam. "Let's see," says Walters. "We've got one millionaire whowon't tie a 10-cent pair of shoelaces when the coach tells him to, an evenricher millionaire who complains because he doesn't want to wear a tie on aplane, a couple of players who say they want to be traded every other day and acouple more who only seem to come to practice when they feel like it. If you'rewriting about us, I hope your name is Sigmund Freud, because this is thecraziest group of guys you're going to find."
Then Walterspauses for a moment before adding a telling afterthought. "But hey, it'snot just us," he says. "Look around the league."
Better yet, don'tlook around the league, because you won't like what you see. The NBA has morewhiny youngsters than a day-care center at nap time. Here-with, a virtualAll-Star sampling:
January 30, 1995
Unhappy with his treatment by Golden State Warrior coach Don Nelson,21-year-old Webber, last season's Rookie of the Year, held out and left theWarriors little choice but to trade him, which they did, to the WashingtonBullets in November. Assign blame for the Webber-Nelson divorce however youchoose; the fact remains that Webber's actions have set the tone for theseason. Discipline is now a two-way street.
The Nets' 27-year-old, $7.5-million-a-year All-Star forward failed to show fora shootaround in December, citing car trouble, the NBA version of "the dogate my homework." He also balked at the team's new dress code requiring aplayer to wear a jacket and tie when traveling, and when the Nets threatened tofine him each time he violated the rule, Coleman smugly presented coach ButchBeard with a blank check.
Apparently sulking over the trades of his friends Webber and Billy Owens (whosenumbers he has written on his sneakers), Sprewell, 24, the Warriors'$800,000-per-year All-Star, twice skipped practices and was late for a third(once blaming car trouble); he was suspended for a game without pay. During aJanuary radio show Nelson was reduced to issuing a plea to his wayward guard:"Spree, if you're out there, please give us a call."
Remember the days when the only way a young player would talk back to his coachwas under his breath? Rider, 23, the Minnesota Timberwolves' second-year guard,called a press conference to respond to coach Bill Blair's suggestion that hegrow up. "What does growing up have to do with basketball?" Rider said.Rider, who earns $3.6 million a year, also received a one-game suspension whenhe missed a shootaround; his excuse was, uh, let's see...car trouble.
Upset over being benched for the entire fourth quarter in a blowout loss to theNew York Knicks the night before, Anderson, 24, didn't show up for the Netpractice on Dec. 28. The next day the $3.5-million-per-year All-Star guardblithely dismissed the incident as "water under the bridge."
So you thoughtyou'd seen it all when Chicago Bull forward Scottie Pippen staged his sit-downstrike in the final 1.8 seconds of a playoff game against the Knicks last year?It turns out that that was just a warmup for this season. "I don't thinkthere's a team in the league that doesn't have attitude problems rightnow," says Seattle SuperSonic veteran center Sam Perkins.
The biggest issuecurrently facing the NBA is not rough play or the lack of a collectivebargaining agreement; rather, it is the growing perception that its players,particularly its youngest stars, are spoiled, arrogant brats who demand respectfrom their coaches and team management while showing none in return. "Thenature of the NBA is a sort of self-centered, greed-oriented, defiantattitude," says Knick coach Pat Riley. "It's running rampant, and it'sgoing to bring down the league one day. It's gotten to where it's all about'me,' all about recognition, all about contracts, all about playing time, allabout lack of rules and discipline."
At leastoutwardly, league officials are less troubled by the misbehavior than is Riley."It would be foolish to say we don't have any concern about it," saysRuss Granik, deputy commissioner of the NBA. "But it hasn't risen to anysort of crisis level. It hasn't diminished the fans' appreciation of ourgame."
"The vastmajority of the players in the league are very mature and disciplined,"says Seattle coach George Karl. "Unfortunately, the focus is on theminority of players who are antiestablishment and making the mostnoise."
But the behaviorof that minority of players has been so outrageous that it's impossible toignore. The San Antonio Spurs' 33-year-old forward Dennis Rodman hascontinually coupled his superb play with antisocial acts as changeable as hishair color. This season, after absences and insubordination, Rodman wassuspended, then placed on paid leave; last Friday, the Spurs benched Rodman fortheir game against the Miami Heat after he missed a shootaround. "I think Iscare the NBA," declares Rodman, a sometime date of another rebel, Madonna."They don't know what I'm going to do next, and that scares them."
Other players haveexhibited an egregious sense of entitlement. Pippen, frustrated by the Bulls'sagging fortunes and his relatively paltry $2.1 million salary, is loudly andpetulantly demanding a trade while taking public potshots at management. So isthe Portland Trail Blazers' star guard Clyde Drexler. (Both Pippen, 29, andDrexler, 32, continue to play brilliantly.) During the preseason Seattle guardKendall Gill, 26, had the nerve to ask for an unprecedented clause in hisseven-year, $26.6-million contract guaranteeing him a certain amount of playingtime. The Sonics, not surprisingly, refused.
Unhappy with hisown playing time, Gill's teammate, guard Vincent Askew, 28, refused Karl'sorder to reenter a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 28 and receiveda one-game suspension. One would think that Askew, who spent three-plus seasonsin the Continental Basketball Association, would be grateful for any NBAminutes, as well as his $1.6 million salary. To his credit, Askew lateracknowledged his mistake.
Another returneeto the league, Dallas Maverick forward Roy Tarpley, 30, is so grateful to beback after a three-year ban because of league drug-policy violations that hegot into an argument with coach Dick Motta at halftime of a game last month andearned a one-game suspension. He later drew a $250 fine for refusing to do apostgame stationary-bike workout required of players who log less than 20minutes in a game. And last Friday, Tarpley, who had missed the previous threegames with tendinitis in his right knee, had an argument with Maverick directorof player personnel Keith Grant and was escorted from Dallas's Reunion Arenajust before halftime of the Mavs' game against the Knicks. (There were alsoconcerns after Tarpley slurred words and acted boisterously around histeammates; at week's end he had scheduled an appointment with his aftercarecounselor.)
Perhaps the singlemost ridiculous act of defiance this season was perpetrated by Chris Morris.The seventh-year Net forward took the floor for a practice shoot-around onemorning in December with his shoelaces undone. Then he refused Beard's order totie them. Morris's explanation: "I wasn't planning on doing muchrunning." Beard fined him, not so much because he cared about the state ofMorris's shoelaces, but because it wasn't the first time Morris had shown upwith them untied, and Beard felt he had to remind his team that he was incharge. Morris, too, has asked to be traded, saying that Beard's offense is toohalf-court-oriented. Perhaps Beard would have the Nets run more if he could besure all his players had their shoelaces tied.
Many of the NBA'sclass acts, like the Detroit Pistons' Joe Dumars, the New York Knicks' PatrickEwing, the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon, the Cleveland Cavaliers' MarkPrice and the Utah Jazz's John Stockton, are in the latter stages of theircareers, and the league can't expect the Pistons' almost-too-good-to-be-true22-year-old rookie Grant Hill to carry its banner all alone. Hill is that rareyoung player who is both talented and humble, who (even though the Pistons arestruggling) hasn't complained about his team's style of offense or his coach'ssubstitution pattern. "And he's the young player who is getting most of theattention," says Granik. "That's not a coincidence." Hill has beenvoted to start for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game, and surely partof the reason is that the fans were starved for a young NBA star who handleshimself with maturity and grace.
Compare Hill'sbehavior with that of Coleman, a five-year veteran who has established himselfas the poster child for prima donnas. "We named a Dream Team with guyswhose commitment I would question," says Chicago coach Phil Jackson,speaking of the squad that represented the U.S. at the World Championships inToronto last August. "I'm not pointing fingers at all those guys, butDerrick Coleman, for example, has exhibited things as a player that indicate hethinks he's bigger than the system."
Coleman hasn'tminded being considered an attitude problem; in fact, he has seemed to revel init, as when he defended teammate Anderson to a group of reporters afterAnderson's missed practice in December. A reporter suggested that as one of theNets' supposed leaders, Anderson had set a poor example, and Coleman replied,"Well, whoop-de-damn-do. I miss practice. Dwayne [Schintzius] missespractice. Chris [Morris] misses practice. It's no big deal." We're guessingthat this is not the attitude the Nets had in mind when they named Colemanco-captain in November 1993. "My missing shootarounds and practices doesn'tmake us lose games," he has said. "Some players are just practiceplayers. They step on the court and don't do ——. I come out and bust my buttevery night." (On Sunday, though, Coleman did pledge a new commitment tohis leadership role, "both on and off the court.")
Statistically,Coleman usually delivers the goods. Through Sunday he was averaging 20.3 pointsand 10.9 rebounds. That is exactly what is so tantalizing about many of theleague's bad actors: They can irritate a coach in the morning, then give him aspectacular performance at night. That's why they are so often coddled. In lateDecember, Minnesota's Rider, who was averaging 21.0 points at week's end, wasfacing jail time if he didn't complete 28 hours of community service as part ofhis probation after having been convicted on fifth-degree assault charges. Hehad mostly neglected the community service for nearly three months, leavinghimself with less than a week to fulfill his sentence. The reaction of Wolfmanagement? "If we have to provide a staff car to drive him there, wewill," said team president Rob Moor. (Rider completed the service in earlyJanuary.)
In truth, theWolves need Rider more than he needs them. It's no coincidence thatunderachieving teams like the Nets and Timberwolves are usually the onesstocked with attitude problems, leading to a chicken-and-the-egg question: Arethe teams bad because they have problem players, or are players' spirits souredby constant losing? Says Phoenix Sun guard Danny Ainge, "A ChristianLaettner and [Isaiah] Rider, for example, come to Minnesota and they'reexpected to turn that franchise around. When they lose, [the perception isthat] it's their fault. If there had not been expansion, those players would begoing to teams that were already established, and you could give them a chanceto mature."
But thebreak-them-in-slowly approach may not work either—and one reason is money.Today, the lucrative guaranteed contracts many rookies receive before they'veever stepped onto an NBA court can profoundly warp their view of life in theleague. For instance, most teams no longer make rookies do the time-honoredgrunt work, because multimillionaires don't look kindly on running errands.Says Los Angeles Laker center Sam Bowie, who has been in the league for 11years: "It used to be that when you told rookies to bring you a cup ofwater or get the balls out on the floor, they'd twist an ankle doing it foryou. Now you better save your breath to blow your coffee, because they're nothearing it."
Likewise, coacheswhose salaries are dwarfed by those of rookies and second-year players have ahard time asserting much authority. Last season the Wolves' Laettner hadseveral run-ins with coach Sidney Lowe and assistant coach Bob Weinhauer. Thisseason Laettner—who signed a six-year, $21.6 million contract as a rookie in1992—is still with Minnesota. Lowe and Weinhauer are not. "When you give aplayer a contract that sets him up for life, it makes him bulletproof,"says Milwaukee Buck coach and G.M. Mike Dunleavy, who himself has an eight-yearcontract. "It's the feeling that 'I've got guaranteed money for a number ofyears, so you [the coach] can't hurt me.' " Coaches are so wary ofalienating players that some didn't want to speak to SI for this story. "Ican't talk about how I really feel about some of these guys," said oneEastern Conference coach. "Suppose one of them ends up playing for mesomeday?"
Many believe thatthe league's discipline problems mirror those of society, that their root isnothing less than the breakdown of the American family (although obviously notevery player with a bad attitude is the product of a broken home, nor doesevery player from a broken home have a bad attitude). "Young people areless tolerant of authority than they were 10, 20 years ago, and some of thatcan be traced back to the breakdown of the traditional family unit," saysMagic general manager Pat Williams.
Others blame theleague's marketing strategy for encouraging selfishness. The NBA is not aleague of the Magic and the Spurs and the Suns and the Charlotte Hornets asmuch as it is a league of Shaq and the Admiral and Sir Charles and Grandmama."The bottom line is that this is the greatest team game going, and we'redoing everything in our power—from the rules to the publicity to the imagewe're creating—to make it an individual sport," says Indiana Pacer coachLarry Brown. "There's very little talk about team. We don't sell that. Wetry to establish stars, and this [prima donna syndrome] is what youget."
Says Bull guardSteve Kerr, "It used to be, 'Wow, did you see that Lakers-Celtics game?'Now it's more like, 'Did you see the latest video game or commercial?' They'vecreated a different image than what started the whole boom."
But when players,especially young ones, try to justify their rebellious tendencies, they talkfar less about money or endorsements or playing time than they do about theirconcept of manhood. "You have to speak out if something bothers you,"Rider says. "If you don't stand up and show that you are a man, you are notgoing to survive in this league."
Seattle's All-Starpoint guard Gary Payton, 26, has had more than his share of disagreements withcoach Karl, which he believes isn't necessarily bad. "The players all haveto stand up for themselves," Payton says. "Maybe it's more that waythan it used to be, but it should be that way. A coach shouldn't just talk toyou as if you're something less than who you are. People all think this isabout contracts and who's making how much money. It has nothing to do withthat. This is about manhood. The respect of one man to another. If the coachdoesn't respect you as a man, or treat you like a man, then you have to standup for it whether you make the $150,000 minimum or $5 million."
But the thingabout manhood is that it can't be guaranteed in a contract, it can't bebestowed by Nike or Reebok, and it's not a function of playing time. If theNBA's defiant ones want their manhood acknowledged, they would dispense withthe childish displays of pique. They would make their complaints known tocoaches and management, but they would not let those gripes keep them fromconducting themselves as professionals, from showing up for practices andgames, on time, every day, without fail. The best way to earn respect as a man,they would surely discover, is to act like one.
"I think I scare the NBA. They don't know what I'mgoing to do next."
"I miss practice. Chris misses practice. It's nobig deal."
"They can irritate a coach in the morning, then bespectacular at night."
"Many believe that the league's discipline problemsmirror those of society."